California’s War On Gas(oline)
It was just a matter of time. With cities around the state banning natural gas connections in new homes and commercial buildings, outlawing gas stations was bound to happen. And it has. Members of the Petaluma City Council have said there will be no new gas stations in their town.
The Safeway grocery chain has been for years trying to locate a gas station with a small convenience store at the corner of McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive, directly in front of its 63,000 square-foot supermarket. The project, tied up and choked by litigation, was approved in the summer of 2018. Minds, though, have changed, and so have votes. On March 1, the city council unanimously made Petaluma the first municipality in the country to prohibit the construction of new gas stations.
The unprecedented act was followed a little more than a week later by the Novato City Council, which voted 4-1, after debating for almost five hours, to allow Costco to build a gas station in the parking lot of its store in the Vintage Oaks Shopping Center. While it’s encouraging to see a California governing body, and one just a few miles down the road from Petaluma, permitting a private company to exercise its property rights (with concessions – Costco has to include 10 electric vehicle chargers), the future is moving in the other direction.
“Grassroots groups are popping up with the mission of spreading this type of ban and forcing pollution cleanups at existing gas stations,” says Axios, which also reported that “existing stations won’t be allowed to add new gas pumps” in Petaluma, yet will be “encouraged to build electric charging bays.”
California’s war on natural gas is a bit further along. More than 40 cities “have adopted building codes to reduce their reliance on gas,” says the Sierra Club, many of them outright forbidding natural gas connections in new building construction. This is considered to be “leadership.” Many see it as an absurdity.
Just as Petaluma is the first town in the nation to bar new gas stations, Berkeley was the first city in America to outlaw gas connections in new homes. If it seems there’s an element of “look at us” involved, well, there is. Prohibitions are quite often driven by politics and appearances, with little to no practical benefit.
The inexhaustible opposition to the Safeway station was largely centered around its environmental impact. At least publicly. But environmental “concerns” – in this case, one group at the forefront of the resistance says that “children and gas stations don’t mix” and cites data it believes backs its claims – are frequently covers for ideological crusades, as well as grand opportunities for virtue signaling.
We won’t try to make the case that gas stations have zero impact on their surroundings. They do. However, they are also subject to heavy regulation. “Laws like the Clean Air Act reduce environmental effects” of gasoline use, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Gasoline leaks can be troublesome. The Environmental Protection Agency says the fuel “can contaminate surrounding soil, groundwater, or surface waters, or affect indoor air spaces.” But since 1990, according to the EIA, “all underground storage tanks had to be replaced by tanks with double lining” to provide “an additional safeguard for preventing leaks.” It was California, where gas stations are more strictly regulated than anywhere else in the country, with its “pioneering underground storage tank law, passed in 1983,” that “provided the model for the EPA’s technical regulations,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1989.
Meanwhile, gasoline vapor emissions during refueling are captured by recovery systems, which are required in California. This is why we see pump nozzles “encased in thick sleeves,” says Scientific American. At the same time, “passenger cars manufactured since 2000 have built-in ‘on-board refueling vapor recovery’ systems.”
Not that opponents would think about such things, but proscribing the new gas stations is bound to have unintended consequences. For instance, banning their construction “does not eliminate the demand for gasoline,” says the Institute for Energy Research, and in fact might “artificially restrict the supply of gasoline, resulting in its price rising significantly compared to surrounding areas.”
The IER also points out that “higher fuel prices also disproportionately hurt poorer citizens and strain household budgets.”
More pain for the poor seems to accompany every new environmental law and regulation produced in this state.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.