The government shutdown has shown, among many things, how unequal power dynamics affect most of the population and privilege only a select few. Unequal power dynamics in cities, however, persist whether there is a government shutdown or not. Indigenous populations, communities of color, poor people, and immigrants, as well as other working-class populations are disproportionately affected.
Refineries, railyards, ports, and other sites producing pollution from the use of fossil fuels tend to be in close proximity to the aforementioned communities as a result of the United States’s legacy of spatialized racism seen in practices like zoning and redlining. For years communities on the ground have been fighting for a better environment and making headway, and now we are starting to see large entities think about our options for sustainability.
California is a state with a very specific carbon footprint, primarily created by transportation, buildings, our energy grid and agriculture. In September 2018, the state legislature passed SB 100, California’s commitment to use 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. Some cities in California have already taken up the state’s clean energy goals, demonstrating how integrated a sustainable future is with community engagement. Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Oakland are taking the lead on the transition away from fossil fuels, in large part due to community action and the increased environmental risk posed by climate change as was seen in the devastation caused by the 2017 and 2018 wildfires.
Earthjustice was a part of a coalition of organizations in the Bay Area that fought for SB 100. This bill, along with continued community pressure, has reignited cities in the Golden State to more urgently take up transitioning our energy systems. Paul Cort, a staff attorney at Earthjustice who helped create the organization’s Right To Zero campaign, believes “we need to start with the goal of zero-emissions and then work from there.” If we commit to a zero-emissions future and clean energy—the best way to mitigate the consequences of climate change—we are simultaneously committed to a more equitable society.
Ports like Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Oakland are planning transitions to clean energy and in some cases already using less gas and diesel. Southern California Edison and the Port of Long Beach partnered to upgrade the port’s infrastructure through electrification. In part thanks to a $9.7 million dollar grant from the California Energy Commission, the Port of Long Beach will electrify nine of the gantries (the bridge-like structure that supports equipment like cranes), as well as purchase 12 battery-electric yard tractors, convert four liquefied natural gas (LNG) trucks into plug-in hybrid electric trucks, and install two dozen charging stations in the port’s freight yards (Edison International website).
According to the American Journal of Transport, the electrification project at the Port of Long Beach is “the nation’s largest pilot project for zero-emissions cranes and other cargo-handling equipment for seaports” (2018). This pilot project aligns well with the Port of Long Beach’s Green Port Policy, which aims to integrate sustainable practices into the port infrastructure, organizational values, and operations in order to have little negative impact on the environment and surrounding communities.
Long Beach and Los Angeles have some of the worst air quality in the state due to freight industry emissions and pollution. Even before the passing of SB 100, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have been marching forward toward a zero-emissions future. In July of 2017 after two years of public processes including receiving extensive comments from stakeholders, both ports updated their joint Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP) to include more aggressive strategies for decreasing regional air pollution. Many of the comments by community stakeholders insisted that the ports must focus on clean energy in order to address community health needs. Both ports have begun to implement some of these strategies, leading the nation in freight-level clean energy initiatives. Ports around the world are joining in this clean energy endeavor, in part because of initiatives like the European Commission’s Clean Energy Package, which is being adopted starting this year.
Over the last decade the Port of Los Angeles has done several projects to invest in solar power and realizes that clean energy is the best way to reduce carbon emissions. As a result, in 2016 it launched a $27 million-dollar microgrid and clean energy project, which was slated to be complete by the end of 2018. The Green Omni Terminal Project was announced in May of 2016 with one of their four foci being to reduce toxic air affecting the Wilmington community and other surrounding communities through introducing clean energy trucks and infrastructure to the Wilmington side of the port. Through CAAP the port of Los Angeles is moving forward with the goal of zero-emission trucks by 2035. Electrified transportation and infrastructure at the port is critical to clean up the air for affected communities.
Transitioning to clean energy will simultaneously aid in spatial equity—something many cities in the California struggle with. The mainstream environmental movement has historically left out communities of color, and ignored the indigenous communities who have long suffered from environmental injustice enacted through land dispossession and lack of corporate regulation—among other things. The Green 2.0 Report Card released this month noted that “the racial and ethnic makeup of staff, leadership, and boards of these organizations remains overwhelmingly white.” However, communities of color have been advancing environmental justice in cities throughout the state with legal, policy and legislative support from partner organizations. These partnerships and coalitions are key to the victories gained in California’s environmental movement.
Wilmington, in South Los Angeles, is a predominantly Latinx community with a significant immigrant population. As is common with communities of color in urban settings, it is encircled by polluting forces: surrounded by freeways, located near the Port of Los Angeles, and in close proximity to the third largest oil field in the United States, as well as one of the biggest refineries. The transition away from fossil fuels will benefit this community immensely. The fight in Wilmington is intergenerational: Young people born in the neighborhood are working with organizations like Communities for a Better Environment to get stricter regulations on pollution reduction and prevention.
Young activists in Wilmington and surrounding communities like San Pedro are strengthening their relationships with residents who rely on these polluting industries for work by educating them about the health risks, as well as on clean energy workforce development. California has the most clean energy jobs in the nation. With investment, the Golden State has the potential to create more green jobs that can hopefully surpass the amount of jobs produced from dying fossil fuel extraction industries like coal and logging that destroy our planet. The pressure these community activists continue to put on the city of Los Angeles to take air pollution more seriously has no doubt advanced clean energy priorities at the port and in other sectors of the city including public transportation.
Similar to the Wilmington community, West Oakland residents’ decades-long resistance against poor air quality is finally starting to pay off as the Port of Oakland plans to reduce air pollution by transitioning to emissions-free solutions. For decades residents in West Oakland, a predominantly working-class black community, have suffered from some of the highest rates of asthma and worst air due to pollution produced from the port. In June of 2018 the Port of Oakland released the Draft Seaport Air Quality 2020 and Beyond Plan, that aims to improve air quality, and reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants. The plan includes proposals for vehicle electrification, as well as other zero-emissions infrastructure. A task force was created to aid in the public review process and address the needs of all stakeholders. It includes community members, the California Air Resource board (CARB), port tenants, port staff, UC Berkeley researchers and others. One member of the task force, Ms. Margaret—who is co-director of the West Oakland Indicators Project, told me she’s been “fighting for 20 years.”
The Port of Oakland’s Seaport plan notes California’s 2030 and 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals, but is timid with regards to its implementation of electrification. It uses various excuses to shy away from more urgent adoptions of electric trucks and equipment. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Public Policy rightly believe they could be more ambitious. David Wooley, the Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Public Policy, says “trends in battery technology costs suggest that electric drive technology may become competitive with new diesel equipment soon;” and he added that “action now will also position the Port, its tenants and supporting business to reduce costs and improve competitiveness of port operations over the long term.“ The process could also be sped up by using information from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach pertaining to the adoption of electric equipment and infrastructure.
The West Oakland Indicators Project has been a vital part of pushing the Port of Oakland to make sure this plan centers the public health and air quality of the surrounding community. Oakland has a long history of resistance and consistent action from frontline communities fighting against industry that harms public health and destroys the environment. Now with the support of legal advocacy organizations and in partnership with three of the state’s most active ports, these populations are gaining traction in creating urban equity and sustainable futures.
In cities and towns in California over the years organizations like Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, and Communities for a Better Environment have managed to uphold and strengthen some of the restrictive policies and regulations for companies whose work often hurts certain communities. With communities at the forefront, the environmental movement throughout California has managed to stop some refineries from being reopened and prevent widespread fracking. The support for zero emissions gives me hope that if we commit to acting on climate change with a renewed urgency we can also address some decades long spatial-racial justice issues that have plagued California cities.
Clean energy is the future for healthy, equitable communities. I hope cities across the country will join California in making the zero-emissions future a priority.