The devastation from Hurricane Laura brings important fossil fuel lessons to California
By Matt Krogh, SAFE Cities Campaign Director, Stand.earth
Earlier this month, exactly 15 years to the week after Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Laura tore through Texas, destroying homes and chemical plants and creating a toxic soup for nearby communities — places that already suffer the effects of pollution from regular operations of hundreds of petrochemical plants and refineries.
In an interview about Hurricane Laura, Retired Lt. Gen. Honore, who led the emergency response to Louisiana’s Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, observed that the power to reject these fossil fuel facilities had been taken away from people in the coastal parishes of Louisiana, leaving the companies with more rights than the people who live there.
The people in these communities often don’t choose to live next to pollution — the polluting industries come to them, aided and abetted by political leaders who cozy up in their mansions far from the places that are hardest hit.
The devastation brought to Texas by Hurricane Laura should serve as a wake up call to the residents of California, where many communities are also grappling with the question of what they can do to fight the toxic fossil fuel facilities in their neighborhoods and the powerful companies behind them.
As smoke and wildfires rage across California, as blackouts persist from centralized power grid failures, as rolling brownouts undermine access to reliable electricity, as the impacts of climate change escalate, as communities choke on toxic pollution, many Californians are left wondering: What can we do to protect ourselves here at home?
Turns out, there’s quite a lot. Where state and national policies are seriously lacking, cities and counties — led by citizen demand — can step into the void. If Californians want to avoid a fate like Texas, where the state’s ever-expanding fossil fuel infrastructure is at the whim of nature’s fury, there are three key steps local leaders can take.
No new fossil fuel infrastructure
As the old saying goes, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” There’s no dispute that fossil fuels cause climate change. In California, fossil fuel facilities are particularly vulnerable to wildfires and earthquakes. Even in optimal operating conditions, these facilities poison the communities they’re situated in. That is why the first step cities and counties must take is to pass policies to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure.
A moratorium on fossil fuel infrastructure would mean no new gas pipelines, no new gas stations, no new oil storage facilities, and no new refineries. It means a cleaner, greener future with all-electric homes, cars, and buildings.
Make no mistake: Oil and gas companies hate these policies and are fighting them every step of the way. But major West Coast municipalities like Portland and Seattle, joined by California leaders like Culver City, are already starting to show us what’s possible when local leaders fight to protect public health.
Support renewable energy and storage
Over reliance on a central energy grid — one tied to gas-powered electricity, like the power plants that failed during California’s blackouts a few weeks back — exposes local communities to risks on multiple levels. Aside from shoddy maintenance and an ever-increasing distribution demand, rising temperatures from global warming mean the state should only anticipate more impacts on the energy grid.
That’s why Californians desperately need local leaders to support a distributed model of renewable energy generation and storage.
This would solve energy demand issues by ensuring the power is where it needs to be, when it needs to be, and it would limit the damage done if something goes wrong.
Start the decommissioning conversation
Not only do Californians need local leaders to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure, they also need to demand a frank conversation about getting existing oil and gas infrastructure out of communities.
Cities and counties can, and should, take the lead on ensuring access to clean transportation and better public transit, and they can do all of this in an equitable way.
Local leaders must push for a plan to decommission active wells, and create a strategy to convert old buildings from gas to electric heating and cooling. They must encourage a shift to all-electric homes, cars and trucks.
The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the critical importance of air quality, and it also exposed the ongoing air pollution crisis suffered by communities surrounding fossil fuel infrastructure. It’s now well known that people are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates if they have long term exposure to air pollution — and that’s true for people in California’s frontline communities, just as it is in the parishes of Louisiana.
What’s less known is that air pollution is affecting people with aging gas infrastructure in their homes, too. (That’s right — the natural gas appliances in your homes aren’t just explosion risks, they’re slowly poisoning you and your loved ones, even when working “correctly.”)
State leaders need to walk their talk
Unfortunately, California’s residents can’t just assume they’ll be protected because they live in a state with leadership that says the right things on climate change.
Here’s the state’s actual track record: Gov. Newsom approved over 1,500 new oil and gas wells in 2020. An Assembly committee rejected a bill to protect people from oil and gas wells using a 2,500-foot setback. State leaders don’t have a plan to ramp down oil processing at refineries, even as Californians stop using less oil. And the looming jobs crisis is virtually being ignored. All of this is a failure of statewide leadership.
Talking about Hurricane Laura, Lt. Gen. Honore said it best: “We can’t have a normal FEMA drag-ass response.” But for California’s climate emergency, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Cities and counties can lead the way off of fossil fuels. Now it’s left to local citizens to make it happen. Join the SAFE Cities movement at https://www.stand.earth/SAFE.
Matt Krogh is the SAFE Cities Campaign Director at Stand.earth. SAFE Cities is a movement of neighbors, local groups, and elected officials working to keep their communities SAFE from fossil fuels by connecting local efforts to limit fossil fuels into a global call for action, and supporting community leaders to adopt SAFE policies that phase out fossil fuels and fast track clean, more efficient energy solutions for all.