Petaluma and the fight against new gas stations

by Marvin Contreras

In a major win for environmentalists and concerned residents alike, the city of Petaluma, California has enacted a ban on new gas stations which took effect on March 1, 2021, becoming the first city in the nation to do so. This action adds to the growing new movement to hasten the shift away from the fossil fuel infrastructure. Gas Stations are becoming a relic of the past—facing increased public scrutiny, advances in electric vehicle technology, and mandates and incentives for individuals and communities to go green. What lessons can we draw from Petaluma’s experience?

Effective resistance is led by local protests. In Petaluma, a proposal to build a new Safeway grocery store gas station near an elementary school triggered neighborhood opposition. A local community group—Save Petaluma—was formed to stop the station’s development using legal action. This pressured the city council to place a moratorium on new gas stations while the council reassessed its rules on gas station construction.

As a result, nearly two years later, the city has passed a ban on all new gas stations. And the proposed station which started it all? Abandoned by Safeway.  The concerned residents achieved victory with the support of—an advocacy organization with a campaign geared towards stopping the expansion of the fossil fuel industry.

There are a variety of permits and regulations needed to build or expand a gas station. There are permits for fire inspections, tank inspections, water discharge, and more. Permitting and regulations vary from state to state. But ultimately, the decision to permit a new or expanded gas station requires approval from local government. While approval in the past may have been routine, a city council or board of supervisors today must take into account the larger environmental impacts. Otherwise, they may face mounting pressure from disgruntled residents in the form of protests and litigation.

The concern seen in Petaluma is manifesting in other cities as well. In Novato, another California city, residents have filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s approval of a 14-pump gas station at a Costco—delaying the project and directing further scrutiny towards the short sightedness of another investment in the gas economy.  A third city in the state, American Canyon, has been considering a similar restriction on new gas stations after a Circle K convenience store applied for a conditional use permit.

However, there is pushback from petroleum defenders. In response to Petaluma’s decision to ban new gas stations, the California Fuels & Convenience Alliance issued a statement denouncing the new law—calling it part of “an alarming trend.”  Recently in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis passed HB839—legislation meant to protect gas stations from being banned by any city or county.  This was a response after some cities in the state discussed options to encourage the switch to clean energy.

What is happening near you? The next time you drive past a gas station on the corner, or fill up your vehicle with gas, remember the cost. Keep track of what is on your city council’s agenda; any actions that facilitate the extraction, processing, transport, or use of fossil fuels in your community matters. Find fellow concerned residents who share your values and awareness of the climate crisis, then make your position known to your elected officials.

Marvin Contreras is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.


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