California Wine Country Towns Are Banning New Gas Stations

A series of towns say it's a statement that they are taking climate change seriously.
August 19, 2021, 1:00pm
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Image: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

D’Lynda Fischer, city council member for Petaluma, California, had only lived in the town she now helps govern for a few years when she began to notice the sprawl. Coming from New York City, Fischer valued having the option to bike and was accustomed to watching urban growth happen vertically. In 2019, she was handed a permit application for a new 14-pump gas station attached to a Safeway grocery store; it would’ve been the 17th station in a 14.5-square-mile city of 60,000, and was slated to be installed across the street from a school. Then, it hit her: Petaluma did not need another gas station. 

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“These are not mom-and-pop gas stations that are asking to come in,” Fischer said. “These are large corporations saying, ‘Please let us have a mega station that will entice people with cheap gas to come to our facility and then shop in our stores.’” 

To Fischer, the idea of building out fossil fuel infrastructure of any kind when climate change was already taking a severe toll in her state felt backwards. So, she pushed for, and eventually passed, a year-long moratorium on new gas stations in her town. One year turned into two, which turned into a permanent ban written into Petaluma’s zoning code in March.

Though Fischer says the ordinance came down to a single line change in local zoning law, its passage garnered international attention at the time for being the first of its kind in the US, a political tactic to eliminate “one big link in the fossil fuel chain that is driving climate change,” The Guardian reported Tuesday

Petaluma’s effort was quickly recognized by neighboring towns in Sonoma County, all of which have been gripped by the consequences of climate change as wildfire season and record drought ravage California. A region known best for its vineyards, Sonoma County has, in recent years, lost hundreds of thousands of acres to wildfire while grappling with a megadrought and sporadic catastrophic flooding

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For many in this part of the state, the urgency of limiting new gas infrastructure feels palpable, so other cities in Sonoma are joining forces to follow in Petaluma’s footsteps. Through the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA)—a coalition of elected officials from all nine cities and the county of Sonoma designed to craft regional climate legislation—Petaluma’s neighbors are aiming to craft language for a single gas station ban that’s replicable in each jurisdiction across the region. The ordinance’s language is still being drafted and vetted by attorneys, but has widespread support and will come to a vote in September, in service of the county’s broader goal to be carbon neutral by 2030.

“It's one of many tools we need to deploy to reduce emissions from the transportation sector by messaging in a unified way that we're good here on gas stations,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County RCPA. “The idea is: We're full up. As a community, our trajectory is heading towards more (electric vehicles).” 

For Mark Landman, vice mayor of nearby Cotati City, a town of around 7,000 located 10 miles north of Petaluma that’s joined the RCPA’s push toward a regional ban on new stations, the proposal is a “no-brainer.” 

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“I guess the big eye opener to me is, there is no real impact to it, it turns out to be not much of a noise at all,” Landman said of eliminating new gas stations. “It was like, ‘Oh, this is relatively easy. We have enough gas stations to serve everybody.’” 

Landman, for his part, plans to push to adopt the regional language in Cotati as soon as it’s finalized, and hopes to see similar jurisdictions across the country move toward doing the same. Though admittedly not as forceful a hit to the industry as, say, the fracking bans and setback restrictions that activists have championed elsewhere in California, Landman sees the gas station ban as a powerful symbol—a message that he’s hopeful will nudge consumer norms away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

The battle over the presence of gas stations in Cotati most recently came to a head in February, 2019, when 16 pumps were proposed above a septic system on a rural greenbelt just outside city limits. The application was withdrawn after a number of Cotati residents expressed concern for their health and the wellbeing of their ecosystem: Oil spills from underground storage tanks and gas stations are among the most common sources of groundwater pollution, and can leach contaminants like benzene into nearby soil patches, stormwater systems and bodies of water. The US is home to around 120,000 gas stations and nearly 600,000 underground storage tanks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which had located 562,000 leaks from them as of March, 2021 (of which nearly 500,000 had been cleaned up). 

For legislators like Chris Rogers, mayor of Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma County located 55 miles north of San Francisco, banning new gas pumps is a small step that represents something much larger: Reversing a global crisis that’s ravaged his community. Santa Rosa lost an estimated 3,000 homes, or five percent of its housing stock, to wildfires in 2017, and the community has beaten back similar damage from larger fires every summer since. As it undergoes what’s proven to be another intense wildfire season, Rogers believes the gas ban he’s garnered support for won’t come a moment too soon.

“From a 30-year standpoint, if we have not taken the steps we need to reduce our reliance on gas guzzling automobiles, then we've failed at that point to meet the needs that are going to long term address climate change,” Rogers told Motherboard over the phone from underneath an orange sun, tinted from the haze of the Dixie Wildfire currently sweeping the sunshine state. 

The city is currently under a red flag fire weather warning, the highest possible alert of the imminence of wildfires, Rogers said. It’s a condition he’s grown used to, but that still stings—each wildfire is a reminder of the last one, of the vicious cycle of disaster prep, mitigation and evacuation that now comes with life in Northern California. Reducing local and national reliance on the gas-powered car is a way to challenge this.

“We've seen it here in Santa Rosa, we've seen climate change,” Rogers said. “We're trying to do our best to make sure that other communities don't feel the same thing that we felt.”