Fighting oil companies and the railroads is no easy thing, but in the last few weeks there was a win, then another, and another and the rout of the previously untouchable fossil fuel sector shows no sign of slowing down. From southern California to northern Washington, communities along the West Coast have dealt four massive blows to the fossil fuel industry over the past two months. Taken separately, each of these announcements represents years of work and tens of thousands of people refusing to put the health and safety of their families, communities and our climate at risk. Collectively, these decisions, which came in rapid succession, represent a shift in the acceptability of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure along our coast. Put simply, people are no longer willing to let the oil industry decide their future, to pollute their communities, to poison their bodies, and to irreparably harm our climate, by building new fossil fuel infrastructure.
How did this transformation in the acceptability of fossil fuel infrastructure come about? For one, the dramatic and rightfully terrifying specter of fiery oil train derailments - and the oil industry's blatant disregard for community health and safety - has ignited a broader revocation of the oil industry's social license along the West Coast. Communities will not be sacrifice zones for oil industry profit. And behind the revocation of the industry's social license is a big and beautiful movement that looks like America: a movement representing a tremendous diversity of identities and interests. In the past three years, we've seen firefighters, indigenous tribes, nurses, teachers, climate justice advocates, physicians, realtors, college students, developers, school boards and local elected officials across the political spectrum take a bold stance opposing oil trains. Communities recognize that extreme oil infrastructure is unnecessary, and they see the tangible transition to a clean energy economy on the horizon.
What does this mean for the future of the oil industry along the West Coast? Well, if Shell's announcement yesterday that it would be withdrawing its request to build a new oil train facility in Anacortes, Washington, is any indication, the writing is on the wall.
To fully understand the tectonic shift that has just occurred in the fight to protect communities and our climate against new fossil fuel infrastructure, it helps to have a sense of what exactly has gone down in the past two months;
- On August 9, the Whatcom County Council dealt a stunning blow to big oil by starting the process to suspend all new fossil fuel proposals for two months, an immediate moratorium that was extended for six months on September 27th. Why is this a big deal? Whatcom County has found itself at the center of a national debate around fossil fuel infrastructure since it could become a gateway for exporting everything from coal to gas to oil to the growing Asia Pacific market. The county council members' August decision is likely a prelude to a permanent moratorium. The impact of this cannot be overstated - it prevents the growth of the coal industry across the west with no new markets to send it to.
- Oil giant Kinder Morgan is working to push through a pipeline full of controversial tar sands oil to the Port of Vancouver, BC, and if that doesn't work they may to try deliver the toxic oil to a terminal in Whatcom County on the critical waters of the Salish Sea. Like the recently rejected coal export terminal, an oil export facility would bring the risks of spills and climate damage, with just a few jobs - a very bad deal for anyone but Kinder Morgan. Which is another reason the Whatcom County ordinance is such a big deal.
- On September 20, after a 3½ year fight, a city council in the small Bay Area town of Benicia denied a proposal for a new oil train terminal at the Valero refinery. This stunning decision was, according to Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, the first time the city has voted against the refinery - a business that currently provides 20-25% of the city's tax base. The city's decision was made possible by tenacious organizing by local activists who garnered powerful opposition both in Benicia and in communities along the rail route stretching to Davis, Sacramento, and beyond.
- The Benicia City Council's decision came on the heels of a ruling by the Surface Transportation Board (STB), a little-known federal agency that primarily handles disputes between railroads. The STB settled a dispute over whether or not, as Big Oil argued, federal regulation of railroads extend so far as to deny local governments land use permitting discretion over oil companies' proposed oil train projects. Ultimately, the decision affirmed Benicia's right to deny Valero's project - a ruling that has already reverberated across the country and buttressed the City of Albany, NY's challenge to an oil train facility there.
- The following week, on October 5, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission stunned oil giant Phillips 66 when it denied their permit to build a new oil train facility. The decision came after a nearly three-year review process, with tens of thousands of Californians opposing the project and more than 45 cities, counties, and school boards sending letters urging the planning commission to deny it.
After these three rejections, the recently released environmental report that identified serious adverse impacts that cannot be mitigated and massive public opposition throughout Washington State, the writing was indeed on the wall for Shell's Anacortes oil train proposal, and the company acted accordingly: it withdrew its application.
Moving forward, there are still active oil train infrastructure proposals and existing oil train traffic that must be stopped. The movement is only getting stronger, and we won't quit until every drop of extreme oil stays off the rails and is left in the ground where it belongs. We will keep doing this work, locked arm in arm with local communities, firefighters, teachers, doctors and more, a movement of people of all colors and creeds, united in a battle for our common future. It is a fight we cannot - and will not - lose