Ann Hermes/Staff
A Climate Action Now sign is posted outside a Shell station near the downtown area on April 8, 2021, in Petaluma, California.

No new gas stations? One California town’s fight against climate change.

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Communities around the globe are thinking through how best to reduce the environmental effects of fossil fuels, with great debate. In the small city of Petaluma, California, residents have united around one way to pursue that goal: to ban any new gas stations in town. 

It may not make much difference in the community’s carbon footprint. “My gut reaction to it was that maybe this is more symbolic than anything,” says Kevin Fang, an assistant professor of geography, environment, and planning at Sonoma State University, who lives one town over from Petaluma. “Are they doing other things, or are they not doing other things, that would actually enable people to consume less gasoline?” 

Why We Wrote This

Can a single town make a difference in the fight against climate change? Petaluma’s effort might not save the world, but residents hope it can change minds.

Still, supporters say the symbolism sends a message, promoting a shift in attitudes on climate action. Further changes to behaviors and policies may follow – including perhaps shifting toward new models of transportation.  

Local architect and climate activist Pete Gang says the ban helps residents understand how urgent the situation is, and “helps change the public perception of what’s happening.”

When Daniel Bleakney-Formby moved to Petaluma, California, over a decade ago, he knew he had found his place. 

“It’s a group of people that feel the same way about resources that I do – that the small daily actions and choices that I make and others like me make have an effect on not only my own circle, but then that creates a ripple effect going outwards,” says Mr. Bleakney-Formby, who runs a produce stand in downtown Petaluma.  

That’s the spirit, he says, behind Petaluma’s decision on March 1 to ban the construction of any new gas stations in the town. 

Why We Wrote This

Can a single town make a difference in the fight against climate change? Petaluma’s effort might not save the world, but residents hope it can change minds.

The initiative is one example of momentum around a movement that activists call a “keep it in the ground” strategy aimed at moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Several other cities, such as Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, have proposed similar ideas.

Neither the activists nor the people of Petaluma are under any delusions that forbidding new gas stations will turn the tide. But the fight against climate change is mental, too – changing attitudes and habits to begin making more balanced choices. And signaling a move away from reliance on petroleum at least begins to shift expectations.

The ban helps residents understand how urgent the situation is, says Pete Gang, a local architect and climate activist. “It helps change the public perception of what’s happening,” he says. “As we collectively have tried to come to terms with the climate crisis, we have to change people’s perceptions of the world that they’re living in and their habits and expectations, because a carbon neutral world looks radically different from the world that we live in now.”

The fight began when Safeway announced plans to build Petaluma’s 17th gas station. Residents pushed back, given the site’s proximity to a school, playground, and day care center. When the City Council approved Safeway’s plans, opponents filed a lawsuit. The lawsuit is ongoing, but the opposition prompted the city to implement a moratorium on new gas station construction in 2019. The moratorium became permanent on March 1.  

Courtesy of Victoria Webb
Daniel Bleakney-Formby (right), his husband, and Petaluma City Council member D'Lynda Fischer hold out organic apples and quince at Mr. Bleakney-Formby's produce stand outside his shop, Jupiter Foods, in downtown Petaluma, California, November 2020. Ms. Fischer, who frequently helps out at the produce stand, spearheaded Petaluma's ban on new gas stations.

The new ban prohibits the construction of additional gas stations and also bars the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure at existing gas stations. Clean energy infrastructure, such as hydrogen fueling and electric charging, is encouraged. 

California has been particularly aggressive with attempts at dialing back the effects of fossil fuels. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order requiring that by 2035, all new vehicles sold in California have zero emissions. But the city of Petaluma went even further this January by setting itself a carbon neutrality goal for 2030. 

“We know that we need to move away from gas altogether,” says Petaluma City Council member D’Lynda Fischer, who spearheaded the initiative. “And so it doesn’t make any sense anymore to be approving gas stations or any other sort of infrastructure that’s going to be obsolete in nine years, or that doesn’t meet our goal in nine years to have a different sort of future.” 

In many ways, Petaluma’s largely like-minded and environmentally conscious residents position it to become a successful early adopter of clean energy. But the question remains: Can the ban on new gas stations make a real difference?  

Some experts are skeptical. “In the case of Petaluma, I’d say it’s underwhelming and really not impressive,” says Jason Henderson, a professor of geography and environment at San Francisco State University. “I don’t want to be a downer, but it’s not like we can just shift to electric cars and all of our problems are going to go away. There’s still going to be the proliferation of the infrastructure of private cars, and that’s the bigger problem we miss.”

For Mr. Henderson, a concrete commitment to expanding bicycle infrastructure and improving public transportation would carry more weight than a ban on new gas stations in a town that already has 16 stations for only 60,000 people. 

But local activists see the fight against new gas stations as part of a much larger movement steering the world away from harmful fossil fuels. 

“It’s not only about local impact,” says Woody Hastings of the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations, a grassroots organization working to stop the construction of new gas stations in Sonoma County and other nearby counties. “It is high time that we begin to actually get serious about changing what we see as obsolete 20th-century permitting rules that allow gas stations to be built.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Customers pull up to gas stations at a busy intersection on April 8, 2021, in Petaluma, California.

If Petaluma can take this step forward, he says, maybe other cities around the country will follow. 

Petaluma itself has seen attitudes change since 2019 when it adopted the original moratorium. The decision to freeze the construction of gas stations stemmed in part from the city’s adoption of a climate emergency resolution earlier that year.  

Ever since, residents are much more likely to point to the climate emergency in City Council meetings when decisions are being made, says Mr. Gang, the local activist who helped draft the resolution. “I am very keenly aware of the progress that has been made over the last 10 years – just the mood, the conversation. ... Now [climate change] is a real thing. It’s serious.”  

That shift in mindset is taking place in some quarters of the petroleum industry, too. Fossil fuel companies are also concerned about how to successfully herald a transition to cleaner energy – and they have the technology and the experience to contribute meaningfully, says Jodie Muller, a senior official at the Western States Petroleum Association. 

But a ban on new gas stations may not have the intended effect, she says. “As we move into the future, consumers are going to need stations for all types of fuels. We don’t exactly know what that fueling infrastructure is going to look like, and there could potentially be new stations needed with some sort of mixed fueling services.”

She worries that policymakers sometimes pass legislation without thoroughly considering the consequences for residents – such as potential price increases. 

For Mr. Bleakney-Formby, the ban on new gas stations is proof that Petaluma is headed in the right direction, even if it hasn’t figured everything out. “You’ve got to take some steps, and stop just talking about all of this,” he says as he bags locally grown dates, lettuce, and apples for a customer at his produce stand. 

And he doesn’t believe the momentum will stop here.  

“It’s just little things, you know – having conversations,” Mr. Bleakney-Formby says. “And all of that is just so important, like, ‘Oh, I can do that too. I’m going to start a compost pile. I’m going to plant a tree.’ And collectively, it makes a big impact.”

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