The West Coast Is the World’s 5th Largest Economy. Can It Unite to Stop Big Oil?

From First Nations activism to innovative city initiatives, the West Coast is leading the fight against global warming even as many countries lag behind.
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Rex Parris, the three-term Republican mayor of Lancaster, California, is no squishy liberal. “I believe when you walk out the door of your home, you should be safe. I think capitalism is the best economic system we have available, and the United States should have the strongest military in the world.”

But when it comes to climate change, Parris calls it “the greatest threat facing the human race since the beginning of time.” He’s a rarity in a party in which nearly all presidential candidates in the 2016 race denied the existence of man-made climate change or the need to halt fossil-fuel production.

Parris has broken ranks with the denialists by signing a “no new fossil fuels infrastructure” pledge. Prior to the Paris climate summit in December, a dozen mayors from Santa Barbara, California, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and more than 20 other elected officials endorsed a prohibition on exporting oil, coal, and natural gas through the region. The pledge is inspired by a resolution passed by the city of Portland, Oregon, in November that relies on local powers over public safety, health, and land zoning to obstruct the siting of fossil fuel export terminals.

A coalition of environmental, labor, faith-based, and indigenous communities backed that resolution and a second one aimed at preventing oil trains from passing through Portland. Daphne Wysham, a coordinator with the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, says that after the resolutions passed, she initiated the pledge to help spread the anti-fossil-fuel movement along the West Coast.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales championed the resolutions alongside City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. The measures are designed not to encroach on the federal power to regulate interstate commerce, which prevents states and cities from banning the transport of fossil fuels outright. Hales says once they are translated into land use code, “if a company wants to open a new terminal for exporting oil or compressed natural gas or propane or, even worse, coal, the answer is going to be, ‘No, that’s not a permitted use in industrial and commercial zones in Portland.’”

It’s one sign of how the West Coast is leading the fight against global warming even as many countries lag behind. The governors of California, Oregon, and Washington and the premier of British Columbia launched the Pacific Coast Collaborative (PCC) toward that end in 2008. Recently the PCC released its “Action Plan on Climate and Energy” to green the region’s economy by prioritizing solar and wind power, low-carbon transportation, and energy efficiency. With 54 million people and $3 trillion in gross domestic product, effectively the fifth-largest economy in the world, the Pacific Coast has the might to reshape the U.S. economy.

The anti-fossil-fuel movement comes at a crucial time. Despite the historic Paris accord on climate change signed by 196 nations, some nations are still on a hydrocarbon binge. Canada is allowing a 43 percent rise in tar sands production, India said it would double coal production, and the U.S. Congress lifted a 40-year-old ban on the export of domestic fossil fuels, which is expected to boost mining and fracking over time.

Oil and gas companies have been eyeing the West Coast as the gateway to Asia, with plans to lace the region with more than two dozen natural-gas pipelines, oil terminals, and coal depots. Cities reliant on heavy industry or desperate for jobs, like Washington’s Tacoma and Kalama, are green-lighting projects like methanol plants, and Coos Bay, Oregon, is banking on employment from a natural-gas pipeline snaking 230 miles through the Cascade Mountains.

Joseph Lowndes, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, who studies U.S. politics and social movements, says, “The fossil fuel industry has enormous resources. They have staying power.” He says energy companies promise struggling cities that “[they’ll] make money quickly. People are willing to buy it because they feel vulnerable.”

Patient organizing can thwart the energy industry at the local level. 

If all else fails, many predict, the oil industry will try to bulldoze opponents. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by oil giants like ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, is notorious for rejecting climate change science while pushing pro-oil policies at the state level. Now that Asian markets are open to U.S. energy production, Hales says he is “very concerned about ALEC throwing money around to influence cities” as well. In California, a tidal wave of oil lobbying and money—$10.7 million in three months alone—sank Governor Jerry Brown’s bill to halve oil consumption in vehicles by 2030. Around the same time, Washington state’s plan for a carbon tax was likewise shredded by a buzzsaw of oil-funded opposition.

But First Nations and environmental activists in the Pacific Northwest have spun a web of resistance by delaying oil refining equipment headed to Alberta tar sands, occupying lands slated for pipelines, locking down rail lines carrying coal trains, and skirmishing on the water with drill rigs headed for the Arctic.

Patient organizing can thwart the energy industry at the local level. Richmond, California, is home to a Chevron refinery that exploded in 2012, sending more than 15,000 people to hospitals for respiratory ailments. The current mayor, Tom Butt, and three allies swept to victory in 2014 despite being outspent 20-to-1 by Chevron. Mayor Butt, who signed the “no new fossil fuels infrastructure” pledge along with predecessor Gayle McLaughlin, says Chevron has “a long history of controlling the city council.”

Because the energy industry can successfully pit jobs against climate justice, Hales says, the West Coast must go beyond the “thou shalt not” pledge.

Cities and states are taking action, sometimes reluctantly. Under threat of lawsuits from environmentalists, San Diego passed a plan for 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. Parris claims Lancaster will be the first “net-zero city in the world.” Butt says Richmond is shifting consumers to electricity that is 56 percent renewable, and less than 20 percent of residences are opting out. Hales says cities could combine purchasing power to convince manufacturers to develop electric trucks for municipal services, transforming the overall car market.

PCC partners envision turning Interstate 5, which connects Baja California to British Columbia, into a “West Coast Green Highway” through alternative fuels and 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California’s roadways by 2025. Utilities serving PCC states and Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho are studying how to integrate their power grids so sun-powered electrons from California or wind-powered ones from Wyoming can zip to states dependent on coal-fired electricity. The PCC is also pushing for a high-speed rail network, with work underway on the $68 billion section between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Cities and states are taking action, sometimes reluctantly.

Although important, these plans are first steps. Physics does not care about our promises and pledges. Many scientists say the world must reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to avoid disaster, but elected officials say they have little power to directly affect the private sector. Plans rely on market mechanisms involving taxation or zoning to encourage low-carbon solutions. Proposals include cap and trade for carbon pollution, backed by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and a fee on carbon in Oregon that would be returned to households and businesses. California’s cap-and-trade program went into effect in 2012, but critics slam it for rewarding polluters by providing free emission allowances to utilities that they can sell. Distributing carbon taxes is a mixed bag as well because it deprives local governments of funding for new jobs, aid to hard-hit communities, and adaptation of industry needed in a post-carbon future.

Wysham advocates measures such as requiring energy companies to purchase “climate-risk bonds,” which would factor in all the social costs of greenhouse gases. Making polluters pay upfront for the damage they create would render fossil fuels uneconomical.

It’s the type of bold move the West Coast needs on the road to a low-carbon future. Governors, legislators, and mayors will have to wrest the steering wheel from energy companies to prevent heading into the worst-case climate change scenarios.

Lowndes says the crucial missing element is “a broad campaign and direct action that can draw reformists and radicals into a coalition that can win the public to its side.” One model, he says, is the anti-nuclear-power campaign of the 1970s, which “stopped 150 plants that were set to go online.” If people power can be combined with elected power, then it could finally be lights out for the fossil-fuel era.

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