Small California Towns Are Facing Off Against Oil Companies — And Winning

By Dean Kuipers. Published jointly by Grist and Capital & Mainan award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues

Last fall, as presidential candidate Donald Trump promised America more oil and coal production, a small refinery town in Northern California stood up against its biggest employer and taxpayer. Valero, the Texas-based petroleum giant, had sought routine approval for a huge crude-by-rail project. The city council of Benicia, however, decisively rejected Valero’s proposal.

The project proposed to take crude oil from what is described in an environmental impact report as “sites in North America” — a possible euphemism for Bakken crude — and roll it in rail cars to Benicia. But the project proved so unpopular among the city’s nearly 27,000 residents that three of the five city council members who had started out backing the project joined in a unanimous vote against it. An energized group of local administrators and activists had managed to derail a project that national policy makers couldn’t touch.

“We had a small, but extremely well-informed group of people who have been working on these issues for a long time,” said Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, “and I give all the credit to that group.” Patterson is a longtime environmentalist who has been mayor since 2007 and was reelected in November.

But Benicia wasn’t the only place this happened last November. Across California, new organizing efforts zeroed in on small-town elections as a strategy to thwart big fossil-fuel infrastructure projects. Oxnard officials, for example, are battling California Energy Commission plans to site a huge gas-fired power plant on a local beach, and opponents to the plan were overwhelmingly favored in the fall elections. In the Kern County town of Arvin, which 10 years ago won the dubious distinction of having the smoggiest air of any U.S. city, a 23-year-old city councilman was elected mayor on a promise to regulate the oil industry and protect the city’s water and air — a huge task in California’s biggest oil-producing county.

And on March 14, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors shut down a Phillips 66 crude-by-rail plan to bring oil into its Nipomo Mesa refinery. The 3-to-1 vote (with one recusal) against the proposal represented a huge change in a county that for years had supported refinery projects.

“[This] is a pretty new effort to work with leaders and community organizations to engage in local elections that are critical for climate and environmental justice issues,” said Whit Jones, the East Coast–based campaign director for Lead Locally, a new project of the Advocacy Fund and which provided electoral support in Benicia, Oxnard, and Arvin. “We partnered with community organizations in California last year to make sure that voters’ demands to stop oil train terminals, or to stop fracking, were heard at the ballot box.” Another new group, Leadership for a Clean Economy, also worked in these communities, in partnership with many local environmental justice organizations.

Is the hyper-local now the new way to win national battles? Fossil-fuel industries are taking note of their losses. The Western States Petroleum Association, a powerful oil industry trade group, commented in a statement to Capital & Main that such local campaigns are adding a level of regulation that is costly to the industry and that California’s climate change goals can be achieved without them. “At times, local regulations unnecessarily layer upon existing state regulations that don’t take into consideration the increasingly important role of cost containment in energy and environmental policy,” wrote WSPA president Catherine Reheis-Boyd.

Valero did not respond to repeated requests for comment but has announced it would not fight the city council decision in court. The oil train did have a smattering of supporters, including the Benicia Chamber of Commerce, but even the attorney contracted by the city to advise on the project, Brad Hogin of Woodruff, Spradlin, and Smart, was surprised that a federal law governing the rail line did not override local concerns about dangerous oil shipments. “So it was kind of a unique legal issue,” Hogin said.

The Phillips 66 project in San Luis Obispo also started out with some local support and then was shut down for reasons similar to those in Benicia.

“In all these fights, it was totally grassroots people coming together to work with people who are advocates for various aspects of the environment,” said Andres Soto of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, who worked to defeat the Benicia oil train.

National environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club helped out in Benicia, but local election pressure was more important. “There was that kind of formal organizing by environmental groups, but it was spontaneous local organizing that really made the political difference,” said Soto. “That kind of local pressure can sway even people who’ve been paid by the refineries.”

* * *

When Mayor Patterson first got wind of Valero’s crude-by-rail plan, she thought it was a fait accompli. Railways, after all, are federally regulated, and not even the state can touch them. Three city council members were pro-Valero and there wasn’t much appetite in city hall to stop this project. The company employs 480 people on its 800-acre facility on the Carquinez Strait, and supplies 25 percent of the city’s tax revenue. It donates heavily to local charities — giving, for instance, approximately $723,000 to the Bay Area United Way in 2015, plus another $345,000 to 20 other local groups in 2014. That money makes a lot of good things happen in Benicia.

However, the mayor’s “small but extremely well-informed group” started looking into the issues of carrying oil by train, and the more they found, the more alarmed she became about the major air-quality issues that increased rail traffic would bring. And, in the wake of the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster, in which a runaway train of 74 tanker cars carrying volatile Bakken crude derailed and exploded in the middle of that Quebec town, killing 47 people, activists started looking at potential blast zones where the Valero deliveries would pass through downtown Sacramento and Davis, cutting through the Davis campus of the University of California, winding along the scenic Feather River and crossing the Sacramento River, a major source of drinking water for Southern California. Benicia certainly didn’t have emergency response capabilities or the funds to deal with a disaster if, as Patterson put it, “anything went boom.”

By the time the plan came up for a public hearing in February 2016, at least 12 other trains carrying crude had gone boom across the U.S. and Canada. Benicia Planning Commissioner Steve Young, frustrated by a rule that prevented the commission from asking questions about the Valero plan, took over that meeting and for hours publicly grilled Valero’s consultants about their Environmental Impact Report — revealing problems that prompted the commission to do an about-face and deny Valero its needed city permits.

In June, while Valero looked to the federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) to preempt or overrule the commission, another oil train derailed and burned near Mosier, Oregon, on the Columbia River just upstream from Portland. The accident closed Interstate 84 and schools were evacuated. Public opinion in Benicia went off the charts in opposition to the project. Lead Locally and Leadership for a Clean Economy would help turn that rage into votes.

Finally, in the middle of a city council meeting on Sept. 20, the federal Surface Transportation Board sent an informal opinion suggesting that Valero’s project was not a rail project, per se, but a local oil company project. Thus, it was subject to city planning regulation, and the council voted unanimously to kill it. Steve Young was later elected to the council.

“Once that Surface Transportation Board letter came in, the three pro-Valero people had nowhere to hide,” said Soto. “They saw that, overwhelmingly, the public was against this project.”

* * *

With the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration now headed by Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, environmentalists may attempt more victories at the local level.

“They’re simpler, in a way,” Jones said of local policy campaigns. “The people in the community understand the issues because these things are proposed in their backyards. This isn’t some obscure, abstract conversation about the nation’s energy policy or climate change; this is about whether or not a polluting facility will be sited in their town.”

When the California Energy Commission decided in 2014 to site a new gas-fired power plant in Oxnard, it made a certain sense: The city already has three such plants on its beach, but two of those are going off-line in 2020, and the fast-start flexible gas plant proposed by power company NRG was smaller and more efficient.

Residents, however, saw their seaside paradise choked with power plants, landfills, and a toxic waste Superfund site. The town, which is 75 percent Latino and 85 percent people of color, also has to deal with pesticide issues from its heavily industrialized agricultural fields. The city birthed a new vision of itself with a deindustrialized beach and restored coastal wetlands, giving people something to believe in.

“[Oxnard has] often been seen as the region’s sacrifice zone for the most polluting industry that none of the surrounding communities want to deal with,” said Lucas Zucker, political director for CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy), which is fighting the power plant. “This power plant figured very heavily in local elections.”

The Oxnard City Council is now unanimously opposed to the plant, and so is the area’s county supervisor, its state assembly member, state senator, and congresswoman. There are years of momentum behind these changes: The city banded together to oppose a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal off the coast in 2006–2007, with over 3,000 people packing a State Lands Commission meeting and pressuring officials to kill the project. Now they’ve turned their ire on the power plants. Oxnard Mayor Tim Flynn led the city council to pass a temporary ban on coastal power plants last July based on concerns over a sea-level rise that could reach the plants, and was resoundingly reelected in November. Opponents of the plant have won or retained seats despite being outspent three to one in many cases by industry-backed candidates.

In January 2017, protesters mobbed an Oxnard meeting of the California Energy Commission, which is preparing to release a final decision on the plant this summer, and effectively shut the meeting down.

“There are people who are opposed to the plant, but there is also a lot of support for it,” said NRG spokesperson David Knox, who was at this meeting, noting that proponents like the idea of a cleaner plant and energy reliability as the two old plants are retired, plus the jobs and tax revenue. NRG has estimated that replacing the plant would create 401 construction jobs and 50 demolition jobs, and generate over $16 million in increased local spending and $5.4 million in sales taxes.

Many locals, however, don’t think it’s worth it. Resistance to the Oxnard plant may have actually inspired a competing company, Calpine, to propose a gas-fired plant in nearby Santa Paula, which would supply the same area. A completely separate fight erupted there, however, slowly building local pushback, and now the Santa Paula City Council has come out against that project.

Still, Zucker notes the resistance in Oxnard and Santa Paula wasn’t well-coordinated. Even with the participation of Lead Locally and Leadership for a Clean Economy, small-town resisters are still somewhat isolated from national dialogues and from one another. When asked if his group coordinated with Benicia or other towns fighting power plants, he said, “Not as much as we should [have]. There’s not been a lot of communication.”

* * *

In the Central Valley town of Arvin, Jose Gurrola’s fight is quieter and more focused on the future. He first won city council office as a 19-year-old, inspired to do something about an oil infrastructure leak that had contaminated an Arvin neighborhood and required its evacuation for about eight months. He proposed a fracking ban in the city, but the sitting mayor voted against him. So he ran against that mayor, promising to regulate oil and gas, and, with some organizing help, won last November.

As mayor, Gurrola has pulled back from the fracking ban to do something more ambitious: revamping the city’s oil and gas code, which, he points out, hasn’t been updated “since the moon landing” in 1969. Kern County may be California’s biggest oil producing county, but today there are only four or five active wells in Arvin, and Gurrola wants to make sure they are safe, and to discourage more production and incentivize clean energy projects.

“I don’t want to necessarily call it a fracking ban at this point, because there are ways that we can write the ordinance and really make it tough for fracking to occur within the city of Arvin,” said Gurrola. “We’re looking really closely at what the city of Carson did. They have, to my knowledge, the strictest oil and gas code in the state, and one of the strictest in the entire country.”

Carson’s code does not ban fracking (the city has a separate ban for that) but places very detailed restrictions on oil production. It is a road map for Gurrola and his staff and attorneys, as there’s no one-stop shop for anti-fracking legislation. Despite support from a local environmental justice organization called the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, and Gurrola’s connections with and Food and Water Watch, he is still left with a Herculean task to draw up an appropriate new code and implement the right legislation.

Environmentalists have barely begun their work. Whit Jones says that Lead Locally is also looking to expand nationally during elections in 2017 and 2018. “There are similar local fights where communities are trying to stop proposed fossil-fuel infrastructure, and they’re pretty similar to what we saw in California — oil train terminals, proposed oil and gas pipelines, along with power plants.”

Benicia’s Elizabeth Patterson noted that finding friends is the only way to survive. “That’s really important, to know that you’re not by yourself,” the mayor said. “Because in a local community there’s a lot of criticism: that you’re taking jobs away, they are going to stop contributing to our community. There’s some pretty heavy stuff that is said, and it’s hard to look people in the eye and say, ‘This is the right thing to do.’”

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  1. Howard Beale IV

    Something to keep in mind…lots of conservatives like to use the term ‘snowflake’ in a derisive way against people upset about someting that’s impacting them. Snowflakes are indeed unique-no two are alike. But there’s a emergent quality about snowfalkes-enough of them gathered together creates a very powerful and destructive force known as an avalance……

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Ahem. That isn’t how that term is used and it has nothing to do with activism, which is what this post is about.

      “Snowflake” is for the tendency that has been taking place in colleges to encourage students to see themselves and behave as if they are damaged and that someone must never speak directly to anyone else because you might be impinging on some unknown-to-you sensitive issue. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are examples of snowflake coddling. The “snowflake” attitude makes debate and candid exchange impossible. And IMHO that’s no accident. Treating fragility as a virtue and acculturating young people to be super careful and censor their speech is a great way to stymie activism.

      See this parody:

      1. PKMKII

        Safe spaces and trigger warnings are examples of snowflake coddling.

        Neither of those are about hindering speech, at least not in their intended forms. A safe space is merely a place where a particular group can congregate without having to worry about their essential characteristics coming under fire, e.g. a place where trans people can meet without having to worry about people calling them freaks or mistakes. The whole campus isn’t supposed to be a safe space, just that particular meeting locale. It’s no different than the Young Republicans having a meeting place where they don’t have to worry about liberals showing up to call them racists.

        Trigger warnings, likewise, are just a heads up that a topic is coming up that might set off someone’s PTSD. It doesn’t stop the conversation on the topic from happening. It’s no different than those warnings at the beginning of movies and TV shows that there’s “mature” content. Content still happens.

        Treating fragility as a virtue and acculturating young people to be super careful and censor their speech is a great way to stymie activism.

        Funny, because it seems most criticisms of “snowflakes” is exactly aimed at squelching activism. Conservatives and neoliberals love to conflate leftism with the snowflake mentality and then make a mountain out of a (largely confined to small, elite liberal arts schools and not a widespread) molehill and act like any criticism of the status quo coming out of college kids constitutes the most dire threat against free speech. Obviously, we shouldn’t be paranoid about stepping on each other’s toes, but neither should people be afraid to speak up against injustice in fear of being accused of being a snowflake.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I have to disagree with your characterization.

          You present standard arguments that sound plausible to people who don’t know how these things actually play out in practice.

          If “safe spaces” just meant groups where particular people could meet and act however they wanted, like “the Young Republicans” or the young anything, no one would have a problem with them.

          Similarly, no one has, or should have, a problem with genuine efforts to make sure actual victims of PTSD aren’t triggered, although many trigger warnings in practice seem just as likely to reinforce or trigger the underlying trauma than anything else.

          The whole debate is over the fact that it goes further than this, as per the phrases “demand” a safe space, or “demand” a trigger warning. These imply efforts to take a social milieu and make it “safe” for a particular group of people with a particular perspective, using administrative power – for example, contesting speakers on the grounds that they make certain people feel “unsafe” or “triggered.”

          The effect here is often to make the milieu “safe” for one set of groups, while making it “unsafe” for groups deemed less worthy of sympathy. For this reason, depicting the effort as a politically neutral attempt to minimize psychological trauma comes across as quite disingenuous.

          Before this became a college fetish, I encountered it on a listserv which had a reputation for being a very effective true left activist/organizing group. The administrator of the listserv was tough-minded about rigor, factual accuracy, and realistic approaches, and would call out people who were taking intellectually dishonest, hack-money influenced, and airy fairy not gonna ever happen positions. This lead sometimes to pretty fierce debates.

          One guy on the listserv got in an argument with a woman which they took offline, and she then reposted back to the listserv which is already bad form. She accused him of making the space “unsafe” for women, which was utterly ridiculous. Yet a bunch of other women piled on. I kept hitting their arguments back over the net, and their position amounts to that every time a man encountered a woman, he was carrying the entire legacy of male oppression and therefore needed to treat the woman as if she might be a fragile Victorian flower. And women expect to be treated as equals while demanding what in sports terms is a huge handicap in communications?

          BTW this argument led to the end of the listserv, which is a direct proof that demands for treating people as if they need to be swaddled in emotional cotton are in fact contrary to activism.

          Similarly, a colleague who has college age kids and one that is a recent grad lives in San Francisco. He’s well enough off to have sent his children to fancy schools but is also enough of an activist to have given up a very lucrative job and spent the last several years fighting fraud in his former line of work, with a lot of success given his limited resources.

          After Trump won, his college grad daughter met with a bunch of people to discuss what to do. I’m not sure how this was organized, but she did not go to college in the Bay areas, and the group was college age through people in their late 20s, with my contact the only markedly older person there.

          He said it was striking to see how feeling oriented, as opposed to action oriented the group was. Nothing concrete came out of the meeting despite its stated aim. He asked one question, “Wouldn’t it help to understand why Trump voters cast their ballots for him?” and he was treated as if he had suggested roasting babies alive and eating them.

          1. cm

            The Northern Arizona University President got herself in the news on this topic:

            “As a university professor,” Cheng replied, “I’m not sure I have any support at all for safe space. I think that you as a student have to develop the skills to be successful in this world and that we need to provide you with the opportunity for discourse and debate and dialogue and academic inquiry, and I’m not sure that that is correlated with the notion of safe space as I’ve seen that.”

            and of course the tolerant students are demanding her head.

    2. mle detroit

      You’re right, but I’ve mostly heard it modified, as in “Well, aren’t you a special snowflake.”

      Your larger point, from complexity and catastrophe theory, is well taken. I hope we all survive our interesting times.

  2. John

    Great article. Thanks for sharing, Yves.

    I think the Green Party should take note and focus more on winning these small, local battles. As we all know, major corporations have a big advantage on a national level (due to their domination of congress and regulatory agencies, for one), but I think things get trickier for them on a local scale in disputes like these, not least because the Establishment devotes its time and resources to fighting the big battles (that’s also where their expertise lies). It’s also self-evident that grassroots organization is more effective on a local scale, and that in these types of conflicts, the grassroots has home field advantage against the outsiders.

    1. Elizabeth Burton

      Of course they should. They should have been doing it for the last sixteen years; if they had, they might have actually been a viable alternative for a national campaign by now. Instead, they focused entirely on running someone for president every four years.

      After nearly two decades, a political party should not have to fight in every state to be included on the ballot. Had they focused on local and state offices and built up to national, the last election might have been more of a contest. They would also have created an educated voter base capable of distribution their message and engaging more voters. As it stands, they’re just something for people who don’t like either established party to choose so they can exercise their right to vote.

      I say that as someone who happily votes for Green Party candidates when they’re available and the alternatives are unconscionable.

  3. cm

    This is still ongoing, but Vancouver WA is also fighting an oil terminal project that would sit on the Columbia River. It, too, has been a very grassroots fight. One of the three port board members was replaced by the voters with a regular joe who lives in the lower-class neighborhood that resides across the street from the proposed oil terminal.

  4. jfleni

    Fracking, transporting Baken oil thousands of miles, bomb trains, all the other Grease-monkey tricks, all add up to the same thing, and people everywhere are wising up: It just is going to go into the tank of your Slob-UV gas buggy causing climate change and misery and gas buggy hate, which is rampant now everywhere.

    The Tin-Turd dealer mafia doesn’t even have a clue, not do the idiotic yuppie-nurds with their nonsensical autonomous car fantasies. Welcome to the real world as it changes without your permission!

  5. flora

    Thanks for this post. Lots of good pointers for local push-back against large corporations.

  6. Anon

    I’ve been watching these oil train debates in California very closely, since they’re near me. The environmental activism that turned back these projects is stunning. Oxnard, CA has forever been the ag/industrial step-child to Ventura (next door) and the world famous environmentalism of Santa Barbara,CA (up coast).

    Many folks figured the oil trains were a fait accompli; hmmm, not so much. Too many folks see the proliferation of solar panels (PV) on neighborhood homes and the potential disaster of rising sea levels on their local beaches, to be concerned about a few temporary oil industry jobs and municipal tax revenue that WILL NOT cover the expenses incurred from an oil train explosion.

    1. Susan the other

      This was great news. California has always been a ground zero for this fight. And now Jerry Brown is back who, altho he consorts with the oil companies, is a reasonably good environmentalist. As for me, Je suis Benicia. I’m your friend. So is most of the planet. A good way to quell the disappointment of those in your community who might have counted on oil industry jobs is to petition Jerry Brown and your Legislature to create environmental jobs (which go begging to be done) to replace any potential oil jobs that might be lost due to environmental and societal protection. That would be another really good ball to get rolling.

  7. willem

    All well and good for the locals, who are entitled to block these projects. However, no whining when gasoline costs a dollar or two more than elsewhere in the US, or when electric rates blow up. As a Californian, I have noted that this state loves to vote this stuff down while meeting its needs from sources outside the state. NIMBY at its finest, it seems.

    1. m

      Isn’t the Enron loophole the real problem with these price fluctuations? The shale oil is going to Texas for export, where does the fracked gas go.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Wow, an explicit statement that you are willing to ruin the planet to have cheap gas.

      Carbon based fuels should be taxed heavily as it is. Current prices are way below the full cost including externalities. You should be celebrating that this is happening, even if it is a backwards and ad hoc way to move in that direction.

  8. oh

    I think it’s about time we hit these dirty oil companies where it hurts – in the pocketbook with stricter regs, bans on exploding trains, restrictions on permits and other similar ways. People don’t realize how much health and environmental damage petroleum causes.

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