Fossil Fuels, Renewables, and a Dangerous Double Standard

To me, stories of disease, health problems, and community disruption in Richmond and other East Bay communities located near oil refineries are sad, but also not surprising. Fossil fuel processes from beginning to end have dangerous side effects that pose public major health hazards. Whether it’s oil mining in South Los Angeles or coal mining in the Peruvian Andes, fossil fuel extraction damages whole communities and pollutes the environment. Transporting fossil fuels can lead to disastrous accidents, as seen in Porter Ranch (and I hope that the City of Benicia will say no to oil-transporting trains for their own safety). And of course, burning fossil fuels is extremely destructive for the environment at all scales, but has very negative impacts for communities near power plants and freeways, who are usually low-income and minority.

I experienced a small glimpse into the immense danger fossil fuels pose to communities in 2008, when the ash-retention pond used by a massive coal power plant in Tennessee burst open during a storm. The toxic grey sludge surged into Watts Bar Lake and sent huge floods of slurry across the low-lying surrounding area, destroying 42 houses, including the homes of my grandparents and my aunt and uncle. Thankfully nobody was killed, but these many families were forced to relocate and abandon their community, and the poisons released into the lake have severely decreased fish and wildlife populations. While this part of Appalachian East Tennessee is largely white, it is also very poor and uneducated, and most residents had no idea of the risks of the power plant nearby, nor were they given adequate compensation after the accident.

Keeping in mind all of these stories, I am always saddened at how little input communities have in what kinds of fossil-fuel facilities move into their areas and at how opaque these companies are about the dangers they pose. I am also reminded at the incredible promise of renewable energy, which offers a solution to our energy needs while posing essentially zero health consequences or risk to the larger world. Surely people of all classes and backgrounds would be proud to have these beacons of a brighter future in their yard, rather than burdening others with such dangerous, global-warming-inducing archaic options?

A rendering of how an offshore wind farm would appear from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo from Cape Wind Associates.

Unfortunately, it appears that some of the most privileged people in the world have such little empathy for others and such short-sightedness that they are spurning renewable energy for the most trivial of reasons. Ocean-side residents around the world, from Cape Cod to the Netherlands to Long Island to Ontario are protesting the construction of clean, dependable offshore wind farms because of perceived damage to their ocean views, and in many cases, these protests have helped to delay or cancel projects that would have greatly reduced the need for fossil fuel power plants in those areas. Perhaps greater education about the risks of fossil fuel power are needed, or perhaps the government needs to have a stronger hand when it comes to such important issues. However, it is clear that we cannot let such trivial objections stand in the way of solving the world’s greatest environmental justice issue.

Environmental Justice and Urban Development: Contradictions and Solutions

The fundamental premise of the environmental justice movement is that environmental and social issues can be solved together, and that the struggles to rectify social injustice and to protect our natural world are inherently linked. In many situations, there is no doubt that environmental problems are disproportionately hurting marginalized populations, and this is especially true in large urban areas like the Bay Area, where industrial waste, pollution, and sea level rise immediately affect the poor, minority populations in areas like Bayview-Hunter’s Point, West Oakland, and East Palo Alto.

Yet in the case of perhaps the most pressing social issue facing our metropolitan area, the relationship is much trickier. Amid a boom in tech jobs, housing prices across the region are skyrocketing, especially in San Francisco, fueling rapid gentrification and high turnover in many neighborhoods. A classic story of gentrification involves the eviction of longtime residents from a block of old but affordable low-rise housing, which is then demolished to make room for a glittering high-rise condo building. This was the fear that inspired the failed “Mission Moratorium” proposition last year, and it remains a fear for Chinatown residents who have enacted zoning laws limiting height.

The social justice issue here is clear – new condos will almost certainly cater to wealthy new residents who don’t fit the socioeconomic profile of the neighborhood, and the displaced old residents will have a harder and harder time finding a place in the city. But what about the environmental impact of new development and gentrification? Surely new construction, high-rise buildings, and more crowding can’t be good for the environment?

Actually, despite the initial thoughts of many, new construction in cities, especially dense, high-rise residential construction, is one of the best things our society can do for the environment. As detailed in the groundbreaking New Yorker article Green Manhattan: Everywhere Should Be More Like New York by David Owen, the denser the city, the lower the per capita energy usage, pollution, and carbon footprint. Denser development reduces car dependence and decreases heating and cooling costs (as there is a spillover effect in large buildings). And in the case of new buildings in San Francisco, new construction represents an even larger improvement in terms of energy and greenhouse gas reduction because many new buildings are LEED certified, incorporate renewable energy, and advertise sustainability as a way to draw in environmentally conscious new tenants. A case in point is NEMA, a 37-floor, 4 building development in the rapidly gentrifying Mid-Market area, which is LEED-silver certified, heavily uses recycled building materials, and even includes green roofs – a studio costs over $3,200 in monthly rent.

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A plot showing new construction rate and housing price, in which San Francisco is the least affordable and slowest to build in the country. Photo from Trulia.

The “Green Manhattan” argument is part of the reason that the typical San Francisco progressive approach to housing – don’t build anything and demonize anyone who moves in – is misguided and even dangerous. The second reason is that while supply and demand may not be able to explain all of San Francisco’s complicated housing market, it is impossible to escape the reality that San Francisco has artificially held back housing supply and population growth for almost fifty years, and this lack of growth has greatly affected prices (an in-depth explanation of this dynamic can be found in TechCrunch’s excellent 2014 report). This, coupled with refusal to build new housing or upgrade transit throughout the region, has led to the real environmental cost of San Francisco’s gentrification: service workers are pushed into sprawling peripheral cities like Antioch, Fairfield, Tracy, and Morgan Hill, where commutes on crowded freeways regularly take over two hours.

The view from the office

New apartment buildings stand alongside old warehouse buildings in SoMa. Photo from AppDynamics.

So is the solution, then, to raze the low-lying Richmond district and build a hundred new LEED-certified towers? Probably not, because this would not only destroy the character of the city, but also worsen the transportation nightmare in San Francisco. But by imposing stringent affordable housing requirements on new residential and commercial development, carefully upzoning neighborhoods, improving transit services in the city and throughout the region, and improving tenant protection laws (which would encourage new San Franciscans to move into new development rather than properties cleared through unethical evictions), I believe that it’s possible to reduce the impact of the housing crisis on vulnerable populations while also reducing sprawl and capitalizing on the inherent environmental benefits of dense cities – a true environmental justice solution to the Bay Area’s greatest challenge.