California Town Bans New Gas Stations to Curb Carbon Emissions

The city hopes to become carbon neutral by 2030.

Fuel pumps at a gas station
Patrick Strattner / Getty Images

When I wrote about Exxon’s efforts to drive up demand for plastics, I referenced its championing of recycling not as an example of corporate responsibility, but as a strategy for heading off more disruptive measures like bans on single-use plastics. I also noted this approach is not exactly new. While oil majors have begun championing ideas like "net-zero" targets, and even carbon taxes, these efforts are fairly transparently designed to distract society from other options. 

One such option these folks would prefer not to discuss, for example, would be a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure. Yet that’s exactly what Petaluma, California, has done: It is the first town in the United States to put a cap not just on new gas station construction, but on the addition of new pumps at existing gas stations too. 

It’s all part of a movement that appears to be spreading across California, which is seeking to not only enact community-wide bans but also to generate community opposition to individual gas station developments too. Here’s how one of the groups leading this movement, CONGAS—Coalition Opposing New Gas Station—describes the importance of its efforts: 

“In every drop that comes out of a gasoline dispenser, there is a trail of devastation for communities and the environment around the world that leads all the way back to the point of extraction of the crude oil from the ground. Low income communities of color in the US and around the world, “frontline communities” are poisoned and/or displaced by effluent and emissions from these operations; low income communities along rail and roadways are threatened by the hazard of oil and gas transportation; similar historically disadvantaged communities of color near refineries and gas processing facilities, “fenceline communities,” face respiratory disorders, cancer, and death rates much higher than the national average. Indigenous communities around the world are severely impacted by pumping and pipelines.”

Of course, as is always the case when discussing environmentally harmful industries, I am sure there will be critics who ask how the members of CONGAS move around town or get their goods transported. However, such bad faith arguments ignore the fact that fossil fuel dependence has been designed into our communities—and it will take a concerted and coordinated effort to design it back out. 

As such, CONGAS is careful to communicate it is not simply a NIMBY organization opposing new infrastructure, but rather it is looking to use gas station bans as one tool in a broader rethink of what we prioritize in our society: 

“We are not just against new gas stations. We support smarter land use planning that reduces the need to travel in the first place, improvements in clean, frequent, affordable public transportation, improved bicycling and walking infrastructure and amenities, and expanded electric vehicle charging options.”

Our society has a long history of banning or restricting harmful industries—and for good reason. Yes, each of us can do our part by carpooling, telecommuting, biking, or driving electric—but those individual actions should be a contributor to, not an alternative for, coordinated action at the local, regional and federal level. Given the coast-to-coast impact of recent wildfires, many folks are beginning to realize that we simply cannot afford to allow existing fossil fuel infrastructure to exist any longer than is absolutely necessary for a transition. The idea of building new such infrastructure is simply throwing good money after bad, and locking ourselves into an expensive clean-up job later. 

For communities looking to enact their own bans on gas stations, you can check out CONGAS’ model ordinance. And for those wanting to offer more localized support, check out the list of proposed gas station developments that CONGAS is in the process of fighting in and around Sonoma County. 

I suspect that Big Oil can’t net-zero its way into these folks' hearts. Californians have seen too much these past few years to fall for half measures.