Hobbes’ vision that governmental power be used for the moral good evolved into our current view that government, particularly on the local level, has a responsibility and obligation to protect and maintain the safety of its citizens. Which brings us to present-day Benicia and the return of the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project as we anticipate the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR).
Under Hobbes’ social contract, it is the obligation of local government to maintain public safety. Anything that presents a known risk of explosion or other significant health risk is not something that city government should tolerate. To willingly allow a project that presents a public danger to move forward is ridiculous. And to argue that the Crude-by-Rail Project (CBR) is safe is equally ridiculous. A quick Internet search reveals numerous examples of trains carrying Bakken crude derailing or exploding.
The fossil fuel industry has a clear record of putting profits above safety. We have ample local examples, from the Chevron fire in Richmond to the San Bruno natural gas explosion. With tens of thousands of oil cars carrying volatile crude into the Bay Area, one or more explosions is all but guaranteed to occur. We all know it’s just a role of the dice whether the explosion happens in Benicia or another town along the line.
The conversation will probably build with the release Monday of the RDEIR. No doubt, the discussion will be as heated as ever. Regardless, let’s put some broad strokes on the situation, as there are several factors to consider:
- Firstly, the CBR is an effort by Valero to increase its business and, therefore, its profits. Unfortunately, for that to happen the city must risk its residents’ health and well-being. This is not in your interest.
- Valero, an oil company, benefits from the CBR; the city doesn’t. The idea that Valero, or any for-profit fossil fuel company, is a “Good Neighbor” to Benicia is silly and naïve.
- Benicia’s future, and the city’s future tax base, can no longer be dependent on heavy-carbon industries. The current tax revenue from the refinery is not sustainable, or even desirable.
- The decline in costs for renewable energy will create an energy price deflation that will make oil non-competitive. Ali Al-Naimi, Saudis Arabia’s oil minister, told a climate conference in Paris in June that the world’s largest crude exporter will eventually sell solar power instead of crude. He also renewed the kingdom’s commitment to current levels of production, putting more pressure on U.S. oil producers and refiners.
- Besides the global switch to renewable energy, our local refineries will be under growing pressure from regional air quality regulators to clean up their emissions. And as the international effort to make large emitters pay for their carbon releases grows, carbon taxes or offsets will cut into refinery profits.
- Within a decade or so, Valero and most Bay Area refineries will be shuttered. We need to begin discussions with Valero about what happens when they shut down. How will the refinery pay for the site cleanup and residual hazardous waste?
- Even as the tax stream from Valero declines, Benicia, like most California cities, is also facing exponentially rising retiree benefit costs. The revenue decline cannot be made up with increased resident taxes (as the base gets older, it is harder to raise taxes) — so Benicia will be forced to cut services.
- Also likely: Benicia’s municipal services and government will merge with Vallejo’s or go to a regional model. The era of small, local government is ending for numerous reasons. Small city governments can’t achieve the cost efficiencies or employee productivity needed to keep pace with rising costs and retiree benefit obligations. Large organizations can make better use of technology and smart systems to improve productivity and increase efficiency.
- Small city governments don’t have the resources needed to deal with the future’s looming problems. Valero’s CBR clearly shows how ineffective small cities like Benicia are in dealing with problems that overlap. The same is true as small cities are forced to confront the future’s critical problems of mitigating climate change, wealth inequality (poverty, homelessness, gang violence and terrorism), and restraining agglomeration and urban sprawl. For example, Benicia city government’s ongoing struggles to convert to a new information technology package. Or the City Council’s inability to address even simple environmental issues like eliminating the use of plastic bags, promoting renewable energy or endorsing a pro-environmental or sustainability position. If a city government can’t agree that reducing the number of plastic bags clogging up our landfills is a good thing, how can it promote community respect for the environment — or more complicated values like decency, tolerance or a respect for others?
* * *FOR MANY REASONS, BENICIA IS AT A CROSSROADS, and its future is worrisome. As a city, we need to come to grips with the reality that the fossil fuel/carbon era is ending, and we have to turn to a pro-environmental, knowledge-based and sustainable economy.
For the past several months, I’ve been researching the world’s smart and green cities. Despite the heroic efforts of Benicia’s Community Sustainability Commission, I’m sad to say that my lovely hometown is neither.
I was reminded of this the other evening at a friend’s house that overlooked our bay. The view was beautiful, with the silvery-gray straits glowing in the declining sunlight. But when I looked closer, I saw trash along the waterline, and the water showed traces of oil and pollution in the shallows.
It was so much different than Copenhagen’s harbor. Did you know that the citizens of Copenhagen had the wherewithal a few years ago to clean centuries of pollution and trash out of their harbor? And that every summer, four major swimming areas along that city’s waterfront attract thousands of Danes and other Europeans to bask in the northern sun and swim in the harbor’s clean waters?
Can you imagine going for a swim in Benicia’s harbor?
Copenhagen’s clean harbor points to the sharp contrast in attitudes about the environment held by Europeans and Americans. After decades of neglect, Europe has come around and now takes pride in cleaning up its environment. Most European nations, reflecting the will of their citizens, are mindful of waste and diligently work to reduce carbon emissions. Hamburg, for example, is deeply worried that global warming will raise sea levels and create havoc with their harbor and lowlands. The city has carved out several green zones, added trees to absorb carbon and reduced auto traffic. In Scotland, over 40 percent of the country’s domestic energy use is supplied by renewable energy. Germany is striving for 100-percent renewable energy by mid-century.
But Benicia — a city that sits on the water — doesn’t seem to give a flip about potential flooding from warming seas, or the steady degradation of its remarkably beautiful environment. The lack of concern underscores the general sense shared by far too many Americans — particularly those involved in the carbon industries — who view our environment and atmosphere as one large garbage can.
Grant Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident and owner of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is also co-author of “The Green Industrial Revolution: Energy, Engineering and Economics.” His new book, “Smart Green Cities” will be published in 2016.