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Ban on building gas stations is emerging as new policy goal

An old gas station along Route 66 with a 1957 Corvette parked in front. (Photo: Andrey Bayda, via Shutterstock)

In March 2021, Petaluma became the first community in America to permanently ban the construction of new gas stations. For a nation that has been ruled by automobiles for the last century, banning gas stations seems a bold, if self-destructive, move on the surface. Given the severity of the world’s climate crisis, though, and California’s statewide goal to replace the sale of new combustion engine cars with electric vehicles by 2035, Petaluma’s decision makes sense.

“We really felt it was a win-win,” Mayor Teresa Barrett told The Los Angeles Times. Petaluma residents seem to agree. The city council passed the measure unanimously, and no residents spoke against the measure when the city’s Planning Commission met about it publicly. What Petaluma discovered was that it had too many gas stations for its size: 16 stations in its 14.5-square mile city. Its 60,000 residents didn’t need that many gas stations. Existing infrastructure could serve them well enough.

California has upwards of 15 million cars registered in the state. Before the pandemic changed work life, over 14 million Californians drove to work each day.

Combustion engines’ emissions pollute the air and have driven climate change. Gas stations’ underground tanks also leak, polluting local groundwater and soil and groundwater. Fossil fuel engines are in the process of being replaced by clean energy, and Petaluma decided to help accelerate that transition. The city’s existing gas stations can install electrical chargers for non-combustion vehicles and capitalize on, and help build, that emerging market, and they can even add hydrogen cell stations. Petaluma is small. It can do this. But other larger California communities have followed suit.

Cars have literally shaped America’s entire design, appearance, and behavior. Freeways divide communities. Highways thread the countryside. Pollution fills the air. Oil spills have coated beaches from Huntington Beach to Refugio State Beach. Drivers rage at each other on the road. Drivers move their cars from one street-side parking spot to another as part of their weekly routine. As Joni Mitchell sang, we’re the country who paved paradise to put up a parking lot, never mind that the modern world fights wars over fossil fuels. Americans drive everywhere, be it miles to work or a few hundred yards to the corner store.

Sure, it’s not all bad. Road trips are as much a part of the American mythos as family vacations in cars. Sometimes it’s relaxing to stop at a drive-thru restaurant and eat lunch in the front seat of your car instead of inside your office. The Beach Boys put that yellow pickup on the cover of their Surfin’ Safari album for a reason: Cars liberated us in many ways. Over time, cars have also trapped us. Depending on who you ask, the iconic image of California is of a beach, the redwoods, Yosemite, or the San Francisco skyline. For many commuters, the state’s iconic image is of long parallel lines of back-to-back traffic, with cars jammed into their freeway lanes stretching into infinity. California has upwards of 15 million cars registered in the state. Before the pandemic changed work life, over 14 million Californians drove to work each day. California ranks as the world’s tenth largest market for new passenger and light vehicles, ranking not beside other U.S. states, but entire countries like Germany, India, and Brazil. How do you ban gas stations in a car-dependent place like that?

Petaluma decided that you just do.

In 2019, Petaluma declared a climate emergency and began formalizing its goal to become carbon neutral by 2030.

“We didn’t know what we were doing, actually,” Petaluma Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer told The Los Angeles Times. “We didn’t know we were the first in the world when we banned gas stations.”

California has upwards of 15 million cars registered in the state. Before the pandemic changed work life, over 14 million Californians drove to work each day.

They knew enough. Not only would the city’s existing infrastructure provide their combustion vehicles more than enough fossil fuel for the remainder of fossil fuel’s reign, Petaluma decided that fossil fuel itself also conflicted with the city’s long-term goals to mitigate the impact of climate change on their community. In 2019, Petaluma declared a climate emergency and began formalizing its goal to become carbon neutral by 2030. So far for this small Sonoma County community north of San Francisco, carbon neutrality means: installing solar panels on Petaluma’s Police Department, Airport, Swim Center, and Community Center, which will offset these facilities’ energy demand by 83% and save Petaluma approximately $2.9 million over its 20-year agreement; switching the city to Sonoma Clean Power’s EverGreen 100% Renewable Energy Program; and generating natural gas from the processing of wastewater at the city’s Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, which the city’s waste disposal contractor, Recology, then uses to power its vehicles. And it banned the construction of new fossil fuel gas stations within the city limits.

“There’s no need for new fossil fuel infrastructure, from gas stations to pipelines to refineries.” — Matt Krogh

As part of its climate action plan, the city continues to search for new ways to mitigate climate change ahead of the state’s 2045 goal for carbon neutrality, and the city is encouraging its citizens to modify their behavior to further their goals, including commuting to work in other ways than cars, conserving water, and joining the city in switching to renewable energy.

If achieving carbon neutrality requires limiting the sales of new vehicles to zero-emission vehicles, then individual California cities need to start phasing out gas stations and encouraging the industry’s shift to clean energy.

The environmental nonprofit Stand.earth supported Petaluma’s campaign.

“There’s no need for new fossil fuel infrastructure, from gas stations to pipelines to refineries,” Matt Krogh, Stand.earth’s US Oil & Gas Campaign Director, told Gizmodo at the time. “In California in particular, where state climate targets are required by law, new gas stations will have a short shelf life, and could be abandoned before they make enough money to pay for their own shut down and clean up. This gas station ban is a common sense step to not get further bogged down by fossil fuel infrastructure.”

In August 2022, Santa Rosa became the fifth Sonoma County community to ban new gasoline stations, alongside Sebastopol, Cotati, and Rohnert Park.

The grassroots organization Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations, or CONGAS, has also been organizing Sonoma County residents to educate the public on the benefits of gas station bans and speed up the state’s transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, a transition that Woody Hastings at CONGAS told Fast Company “will come much more quickly than people think.” So far, he seems right. Petaluma’s decision has led other California communities to pass similar measures halting the construction of new gas stations. Taken together, these measures resemble a growing movement.

In August 2022, Santa Rosa became the fifth Sonoma County community to ban new gasoline stations, alongside Sebastopol, Cotati, and Rohnert Park. Santa Rosa is also the largest American city adopt this measure. The city of Windsor is considering a draft of their own ordinance.

Outside of Sonoma County, there’s San Anselmo in Marin County, and Calistoga and American Canyon in Napa County. Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz has been advocating for Los Angeles to address its own fossil fuel infrastructure, to protect its citizens from climate change and air pollution, and bring those local businesses into the modern era of supplying non-combustion vehicles with power.

It’s been a hard sell.

In 2020, Los Angeles County had approximately 2,000 gas stations to service its nine million residents and numerous visitors.

“Given Gov. Newsom’s timeline to end the sale of gas vehicles by 2035, gas stations are a dying business,” Koretz told The Los Angeles Times. “Their toxic chemicals take years and millions of dollars to clean up.” LA neighborhoods such as Los Feliz and Echo Park, as well as other policy-makers, have expressed support and continue to work on the measure.

The growing movement within Northern California, and the historical moment, offers proof that maybe Los Angeles, one of the world’s largest cities, can do it, too.

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