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No-new-gas-station activists accelerate efforts in Napa, Sonoma counties

In Greta Thunberg style, two Napa County teenagers are leading a charge against climate change by pushing for a ban on new gas stations in their back yards.

The efforts by seniors Emily Bit of American Canyon High School and Alisa Karesh of Napa High School make up just a part of a regional trend by local activists targeting gas station development in the North Bay.

Led by Petaluma’s ordinance passed last March, another Sonoma County city, Sebastopol, is due to take up the issue during its Jan. 25 meeting.

Not everyone has totally embraced the idea of all-out bans on new stations, including gas station developers, their advocates and even an academic economist. But all agree halting the devastating effects of greenhouse gas emissions is a noble cause, including the one waged by the teens’ group, Napa Schools for Climate Action.

Driven to action when two friends who lost homes in the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, Bit, a political science major, has met with local elected officials and U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. To her and other coalition members, the implosion of greenhouse gases sparked by fossil fuels burned from combustible engines must be curtailed or humans will continue to be deal with catastrophic fires and other mind-boggling environmental issues.

“I’ve seen the detrimental effect on my community,” the teen said of the Napa Valley’s brush with wildfires over the last few years.

Bit and other coalition members such as teachers and parents took their plea for action to the Napa City Council, which is looking to its local climate committee to address the issue.

“It has been brought up, and we expect to have more conversations about it if our climate action committee takes it up,” Napa City Manager Steve Potter told the Business Journal.

Napa neighbor American Canyon had already placed a temporary moratorium on new gas stations into 2022, while Calistoga put its ban into place in December.

Climate activists and citizens concerned about greenhouse emissions, water quality and traffic impacts have taken their cause across Sonoma County as well.

As co-coordinator for the local Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations, Woody Hastings has engaged in conversations with city officials throughout the county including Windsor, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Cotati and Rohnert Park.

The coalition consists of Sebastopol Climate Action;-Sierra Club Redwood Chapter; Preserve Rural Sonoma County; Sonoma County Water Coalition; Wine Water Watch; Sonoma County Climate Activist Network; Sonoma County Transportation and Land-use Coalition; Sebastopol Water Information Group; and No Gas Here.

Hastings, who also separately represents Santa Rosa’s Climate Center as the energy program manager, calls the plucking away at cities considering the bans as “a national movement” that’s gaining ground.

After all, as the old saying goes, “Think globally, act locally” stands between change and inaction.

“Yes, this is the beginning of a movement. There’s lots of interest in this, and the North Bay is a hot bed for this,” he said. “There’s no way in this time we can approve new gas stations.”

The climate activist said there is a place for mini, two-pump gas stations in remote locations such as the tiny villages along the Pacific Coast.

Hastings pointed to flat gas sales, an increase in electric vehicle purchases and overwhelming evidence that people are starting to understand the planet is witnessing the devastating effects of a warming from the steady burn of fossil fuels over time.

The efforts span the state.

In 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to phase out gas-powered vehicles in 13 years.

About a week ago, the state released a budget earmarking $22 billion toward climate change measures.

“We’re going to need an ‘all-hands-on-deck approach to improve this and getting our economy off oil,” the governor’s Senior Climate Adviser Lauren Sanchez said during a virtual press conference upon release of the budget. With the zero-emissions goal by 2035, Sanchez signaled the cash infusion represents “doubling down on it in this budget.”

In the Legislature, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, has sent Assembly Bill 1218 requiring manufacturers to sell only new zero-emission passenger vehicles and light duty trucks in the state by 2035. The bill passed in the Appropriations Committee and has headed to the Assembly for a floor vote.

It’s unclear whether state lawmakers have entertained the thought of a statewide gas station ban, as McCarty’s press aide, Simone Braithwaite, told the Business Journal she hadn’t heard of a bill addressing that particular part of the climate change fight.

The events and circumstances of wildfires and drought have been staggering over the last half a decade, with the latter to get $5.2 billion more in the state budget over the next three years to help turn the tide on its impact.

Is the effort counterproductive to its goals?

Even though over the last half decade has brought five of the hottest years recorded, coinciding with these explosive wildfires and drought covering millions of acres in the West, is the chipping away of gas stations with the aim of controlling the fuel supply the answer to our problems?

“The problem with banning gas stations is you’re eliminating locations for new technology. This new technology is counting on gas stations to offer alternative fuels,” California Fuels & Convenience Alliance Director of Public Policy Sam Bayless said, referring to the “movement” as a “knee-jerk reaction” in the advocacy group’s eyes.

Bayless contends EV technology will gain much more ground by using gas station lots as electric charging stations — especially in the North Bay where houses in smaller communities are more prevalent than the multifamily dwellings found in metropolitan areas.

“With more single-family homes in the North Bay, they’re not going to have a way to charge electric vehicles where they live,” he said.

Getting enough charging stations to sustain interest in EV-only technology represents a common concern among those watching the energy market. Although General Motors for one announced a year ago the automaker would go all electric by 2035, those clean-energy vehicles still only represent a fraction of the market. Motorists haven’t necessarily shown up in droves to buy electric, prompting the notion that it takes much longer for a standard EV charge than to fill up tank at a station.

Severin Borenstein, a UC Berkeley economics professor, believes climate activists are “well-intentioned” in the quest to reduce the amount of fossil fuels emitted into the atmosphere, but cutting off the supply may hurt the cause over the long haul.

“I think there’s a general movement to ban gas stations, but I expect it will not be successful. I think in the long run what we need to do is give people more alternatives,” he said.

Taking away gas stations may lead to less competition that could drive up the price of fuel before EV technology dominates the landscape.

“Not every idea is a good one. It’s likely to cause more harm than good,” he said.

To the academic economist, options are necessary because public transit ridership is “way down” since workers are “resistant” to returning to the trains and buses, remaining locked into their vehicles.

According to the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, the number of gallons of gas purchased in the state has almost climbed back to pre-pandemic levels.

Down 6%, 1.18 billion gallons were sold last September. In that same month of the prior year, the number stood at 1 billion. In September 2019, 1.27 billion gallons filled tanks in the state.

‘Draw a line in the sand’

To what extent these local drives are successful may be half the battle as the motoring public is forced to confront the inevitable that change will happen.

SAFE Cities Campaign Director Matt Krogh stressed the importance of climate activism starting with the rumblings of local jurisdictions deciding to support these types of businesses that feed the dependence on gasoline.

“It will draw a line in the sand about expanding access to gasoline as cities grow,” Krogh said, while also agreeing that a gas station may be repurposed to assist EV technology. “As cities electrify and renewable energy resources become cheaper and more abundant, the Petaluma example allows gas stations to become part of the solution and repurpose as charging centers.”

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, biotech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, now a part of the Union Tribune in San Diego County, along with the Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

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