By Eric K. Arnold
Coal, once the staple of American industrial production, may be on its last legs. With domestic production showing a long-term decline, the fossil fuel’s days appear to be numbered.
According to the most recent annual report  of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2013, U.S. coal production fell below two billion short tons for the first time in two decades; coal mining capacity decreased, as did the average number of coal mine employees, the average sales price of coal, and total U.S. coal stocks. In April of 2015, the EIA projected coal would hit a 28-year low, reflecting significant drops in domestic demand and exports. In August, Goldman Sachs divested itself of its coal holdings; a month later, it issued a gloomy forecast for coal’s future, stating, “the industry does not require new investment,” dashing hopes for a miraculous upturn in the coal market. A report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) noted that 26 domestic coal companies have recently gone into bankruptcy proceedings; and coal’s value on the Dow Jones index dropped by 76 percent between 2009-14 (a period when the overall Dow index went up 69 percent).
According to CTI, domestic energy generation has remained flat for the past decade but energy sources have shifted: coal and oil are down, but natural gas and renewable energy are up. America’s largest coal producers are recording annual losses in the billions of dollars, while Chinese coal demand has slumped and new environmental regulations aimed at significantly reducing air pollution and increasing wind and solar consumption are being phased in by the Chinese government. Additionally, all federal coal leasing is currently under moratorium until a comprehensive review can be completed. As the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted in its online magazine, OnEarth, “it would be difficult to overstate the industry’s current distress.”
This is scary news for the coal industry, yet a welcome announcement for environmentalists who have waged national campaigns against coal for decades. These desperate times for coal producers have led to desperate measures. Their last hope, it would seem, is to increase coal’s export capacity by transporting the black gunk through West Coast ports. But even there the pro-coal forces have met with unexpected resistance, as city after city in Oregon and Washington have mounted grassroots campaigns to deliver an emphatic message: “Say no to coal.”
Oakland’s “No Coal” Stance Sends Shock Waves
A showdown in Oakland, California in 2015, over a proposal to convey coal via train to a planned marine terminal at the site of the old Oakland Army Base site, generated considerable controversy. Coal advocates based in Utah secured tens of millions in loans from an obscure public agency to dangle in front of Terminal Logistics Solutions (TLS) for the right to bring coal through West Oakland, one of the most polluted areas in the entire state. But a coalition of environmental advocates was ready with a grassroots campaign joined by numerous community organizations. A battle for the future of energy in America ensued, as the ornate chambers of the Oakland City Council became ground zero for this landmark fight.
The latest news out of California does not bode well for the pro-coal contingent. On February 16, the Oakland City Council voted to table a proposal to pay Environmental Science Associates $208,000 in consultant fees to determine whether the coal trains would pose significant health risks. The Council was reportedly set to approve the contract, but abruptly reversed its decision after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf urged them to delay the decision, and environmental advocates pointed to a recent Environmental Impact Report (EIR) authored by Environmental Science Associates for the city of Benicia, which significantly downplayed the health hazards of a proposed coal train project (though it did note significant risks of air pollution).
The Benicia EIR, prepared by a former employee of the American Association of Railroads, contradicted NRDC’s findings which stated that the aging train cars to be used in the project were not equipped to handle what the Wall Street Journal termed the equivalent of “two million sticks of dynamite” per car. NRDC’s findings had raised concerns about a potentially lethal incident, such as what occurred in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when 69 crude oil-laden cars caught fire and exploded after rolling down a hill and derailing at a speed of 63 mph. The disaster killed 47 people, incinerated much of the town’s center, caused 36 of the 39 remaining downtown buildings to be demolished due to petroleum contamination, sent 26,000 gallons of oil into the Chaudière river (resulting in a swimming and fishing ban and causing deformities in almost 50 percent of the river’s marine life) and generated cleanup costs well in excess of $7.6 million, as well as insurance claims totaling $50 million. Needless to say, Benicia rejected the proposal.
Furthermore, a poll conducted on behalf of the Sierra Club found that 76 percent of Oakland residents opposed the coal trains, while only 15 percent supported it. And on February 19, California State Senator Loni Hancock introduced four separate bills (SB 1277, 1278, 1279 and 1280) aimed at restricting coal in California and, specifically, keeping it out of Oakland.
If passed, the bills would declare shipping coal through West Oakland a health and safety hazard and prohibit coal from being shipped through the Port of Oakland; require comprehensive environmental data collection for coal projects by public agencies; prohibit the use of public funds to operate coal-exporting facilities adjacent to low-income communities; and require facilities which receive state funds to either prohibit coal altogether, or contribute to the state’s greenhouse gas reduction fund. In short, Hancock’s bills would close almost every loophole which has come to light in the Oakland coal train battle.
Hancock’s actions also sent a clear message to the Oakland City Council to take decisive action to prioritize the environmental health of a community already suffering from the double whammy of toxic levels of pollution and the lowest income levels in the entire city. To put people before profits, as it were. This may prove to be the nudge Oakland city officials needed to firmly reject the coal proposal, after months of inaction and behind-the-scenes dithering over possible liability concerns.
Lies, Deception and Backroom Deals Push Coal on Oakland
On September 21, 2015, almost 700 people signed up to speak at a public forum addressing a proposal to build a new coal handling facility at the former Oakland Army Base—a new record, according to clerk LaTonda Simmons. At the hearing, which lasted almost six-and-a-half hours, Oakland City Council members heard from concerned members of the community worried about the negative health impacts of fugitive coal dust residue, as well as several experts who offered testimony about environmental and public health factors. On the other side were allies of developer Phil Tagami’s California Capital and Investment Group and TLS, the company that would operate the proposed West Oakland terminal where the coal transported from Utah would arrive before being exported to China and other foreign destinations. The pro-coal advocates included several paid lobbyists and hired-gun consultants who insisted that this coal would be the cleanest coal available in the United States, as well as construction workers and church leaders who said the community needed the jobs.
Some of the most impactful testimony came from Katrina Booker, a former registered nurse who currently works as a longshorewoman at the port of Stockton. Booker’s first-person account of what it’s like to be a worker at a coal facility cut through all the rhetoric and dry statistical data to offer a dose of reality. “When the coal comes off the ships off the conveyor belts, you have the most dust there. When I work, I have to wear my mask, and that doesn’t keep the dust out. At the end of the day, my eyes are burning and red. I get nosebleeds, I have headaches, it’s hard for me to breathe. Whatever has gotten past that mask, I have already inhaled into my lungs.”
Christopher Christiansen, a 4th generation longshoreman with ILWU Local 1021, was more succinct in his assessment: “Coal is wrong for our community and our docks. The argument that we need coal… just doesn’t pass with a straight face.”
Fittingly, the last speaker to address the Council was Margaret Gordon, an environmental activist based in West Oakland who has worked tirelessly for two decades to address air quality issues in her community. Oakland, she said, is “a green city, a sustainable city,” pointing to a Rockefeller Foundation resiliency initiative adopted in 2014.
“If coal comes in here, you’re not that anymore,” she warned. “That’s a contradiction within itself. There’s no more resiliency, it’s not sustainability, none of that is happening anymore… That’s not what I have worked for [for] 20 years… cleaning up the air pollution in West Oakland.”
The Council hearing capped off a well-coordinated campaign against coal which resulted in what some long-term environmental activists are calling an unprecedented show of solidarity across demographic and ethnic lines. “It’s been a tremendous effort, probably the most powerful organizing effort I’ve seen in Oakland since I’ve been involved in environmental work,” said Brian Beveridge, who’s worked with Gordon for the past decade on the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), one of the core organizations which anchored the campaign, along with the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Communities For a Better Environment, Baykeeper, Asian Pacific Islander Environmental Network, and Sunflower Alliance.
“We’ve certainly seen powerful organizing around Black Lives Matter and some of the other social justice issues, but as far as the environment, this has really brought people together across the board. All races, genders, ages,” Beveridge said, adding that the engagement of young people and people of color, “feels like a sea change in the modern environmental movement. We’re just not that divided on it anymore. People are saying, if that’s the job they’re offering, we don’t need a job that bad. There are better jobs to be had than shoveling coal in an underground bunker. That is a really powerful thing. I don’t think the developers thought they were going to jumpstart a whole new element of the environmental movement. Talk about unintended consequences!”
The Oakland campaign began in 2013. At that time, CCIG’s Tagami insisted in a newsletter for the project that, “CCIG is publicly on record as having no interest or involvement in the pursuit of coal related operations at the former Oakland Army Base.”
But it soon became apparent that the coal industry was indeed targeting Oakland. After the Port of Oakland unanimously rejected three proposals to export coal in February 2015, Utah lobbyists visited the new terminal site in March 2015, just one month before securing a $53 million loan to help CCIG pay for the cost of constructing the facility. CCIG Vice President Mark McClure was present at a presentation before the Community Fund Investment Board (CIB), an obscure Utah state agency which granted the loan. An email sent by former Utah Transportation Commissioner Jeffrey Holt to the counties invested in the project specifically mentioned Tagami’s distaste for media attention.
Opposition to Coal Creates Unprecedented Unity
“When people started reading these articles from Utah, and hearing the quotes from Utah’s (CIB), and Mark McClure there talking about it, and the transcripts of those stories,” environmental activists were outraged, Beveridge said.
The first time the word “coal” appeared on a public document, “We got together and started talking about what we might do to stop it,” said Michelle Myers, president of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter. Initial efforts included door-to-door canvassing in West Oakland, because, “it was important for us to start this campaign in communities that would be most impacted.”
From there, the efforts mushroomed. There were meetings at churches; flyers were circulated via a West Oakland food truck; and organizations, such as, Bay Localize and the Rose Foundation, joined the campaign.
“We’re committed to a different future for Oakland which is all about clean energy,” said Bay Localize’s Colin Miller. “We don’t have to choose between good jobs and good health. We can actually have both.” Miller is one of the organizers for the Summer Climate Justice Leadership Academy, which helps train local youth “who have committed to a livable future for themselves and their families.”
One of those youth, 17 year-old Paulina Garcia, attended the City Council hearing and was prepared to speak against coal, “because I want to see better change in my community and find solutions for the younger generation to have a cleaner, better Oakland.”
Alvina Wong, APEN’s Oakland Community Organizer, said her organization has been involved in the No on Coal campaign for about a year. Many APEN members live in West Oakland and Chinatown, or along International Blvd where the density of air pollution is an ongoing concern. Wong has helped to mobilize hundreds of people—from monolingual Chinese to Pacific Islanders—and says that her constituents, who span the demographic gamut across age, gender, and race, have “so much energy and emotion on stopping coal!”
In addition to backing from a diverse range of environmental groups, key support also came from organized labor: the SEIU and the California Nurses Association—which provide care for people impacted by coal dust—also jumped aboard, as did the longshore workers of ILWU and the Alameda Labor Council. These were important allies, because their involvement directly countered the argument that coal was necessary to create jobs. Numerous petition campaigns demanding that Oakland ban coal circulated on social media, ultimately garnering over 10,000 signatures. A large rally before Oakland City Hall in July 2015 raised public awareness and initiated a flurry of media attention—creating a negative public perception of Tagami, who had gone to great lengths to keep his coal plans under the radar.
As Myers said of Tagami: “He’s done this in the dark of night, he’s done this after the environmental reviews have been analyzed, he did this after the community jobs agreement was already finalized, and now all of a sudden coal is his preferred commodity because he thinks he can get some money to build the terminal from it.”
Ultimately, Tagami’s apparent reneging on a “no coal” promise became a focal point of the campaign and gave anti-coal advocates an irrefutable talking point. Since April 2015, the story has been widely reported in the press in both Utah and California, and circulated throughout environmental networks.
Emails obtained by KQED under a Public Records request reveal that in May 2015, Oakland Mayor Schaaf gave CCIG’s Tagami a direct order to “stop it immediately… you must respect the owner and public’s decree that we will not have coal shipped through our city.” A defiant Tagami responded by saying, “the terminal needs to handle whatever legal bulk goods the potential customer may need to pass through the facility.”
CCIG’s Meritless Economic Claims and Quid Pro Quo Deals
Tagami’s backsliding was also noticed by EPA project manager Richard Grow, who went out of his way to praise Gordon and Beveridge for their mitigation efforts, but had much harsher words for the developer and his cronies. “It’s unsettling, disappointing to find… [that] some of those very same people at the table in our discussions have been off in Utah… trying to establish coal deals and coal contracts. None of those issues were brought to the table in our discussion.” Actions such as that, he added, are “not a tribute to the good faith we try to engage in.”
Another questionable tactic by the pro-coal forces was offering quid pro quo arrangements which they characterized as community benefits but others viewed as straight-up bribes. Early in 2015, TLS executives Bridges and Omar Benjamin took Beveridge and Gordon out to lunch, told them of plans to build an “environmentally-friendly” coal terminal, and promised the activists a percentage of profits for their support. “They offered us 12 cents a ton to back coal in the community,” Beveridge recalled. “Specifically, they said [WOEIP] can take this money and do whatever you want to it. Ironically, they suggested we use it to support a health clinic.”
According to the East Bay Express, similar offers were made to African American church leaders—seven cents per ton—to promote the idea that coal would mean good jobs for the Black community. This notion appears to have little basis in reality as testimony from the Council hearing noted that other commodities create many more jobs than coal. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that a majority of the jobs potentially created would go to African American residents of West Oakland, but plenty of evidence that this wouldn’t be the case. As stated in Oakland Global’s August 2014 newsletter, among the hiring requirements, “there… was not a provision in the jobs policies that a particular Oakland neighborhood or ethnicity would receive priority over another. And so far, project hiring has been diverse. The top four ethnicities represented in hours worked on the Oakland Global project are as follows: Hispanic—42.1%; Caucasian—31.6%; African-American—15.3%; and "Failed to state/Other"—10.2%.”
Under this hiring pattern, less than one in six jobs would go to Black workers—hardly enough to make a significant dent in the unemployment rates of West Oakland, which is 67 percent African American, as per the 2010 US Census. The 94607 zip code, which includes the Army Base site and adjacent neighborhoods, has the second-highest unemployment rate (14.93 percent) in Oakland, over five times higher than the 94611 zip code, which includes the wealthy, predominantly white Piedmont and Montclair neighborhoods. Perhaps not coincidentally, the West Oakland census tracts in direct proximity to the Port have Enviroscreen scores of 85-90 percent—among the worst in the state for air pollution.
Besides the economic reality that coal represents an unstable market, there’s also considerable evidence that it carries a heavy burden of hidden costs. According to a 2011 study by the Center for Global Health and Environment, in coal-reliant states like Kentucky, coal expenditures exceed revenues before factoring in healthcare and environmental mitigation costs.
“The true ecological and health costs of coal are… far greater than the numbers suggest,” the study concludes, speculating that the true cost “doubles to triples the price.” And West Oakland residents already pay a high price in terms of health, as stated numerous times during the Council hearing.
“All money ain’t good money,” according to West Oakland longshoreman Derek Muhammad—a sentiment echoed by community residents and coalition members alike—and taken up by Councilmember Dan Kalb, when he said: “I’m saddened that good people would imply… that we have to choose between jobs and protecting the public’s health.”
Galvanized by Opposition, Oakland Won’t Back Down
The idea of bringing coal to Oakland has been so egregious, it’s actually been conducive to active resistance. Not only has it galvanized the environmental movement, but it’s failed to convince elected officials of its efficacy or even reasonability. Significant pushback from the No Coal in Oakland coalition; sustained community engagement targeting West Oakland’s most-impacted residents; shady practices by Bridges and Tagami; unfavorable press for the project—all of these things have indeed created the perfect “shitstorm” that Beveridge says he warned Benjamin and Bridges about months ago.
“In a sense, this is unanimous opposition, aside from the master developer himself and his partners, and a couple groups in organized labor who really feel they have a vested interest in this project,” Beveridge noted at the hearing. (Some months after the hearing, the East Bay Express would report that African American church leaders who spoke on behalf of the coal trains had either been paid to do so by Bridges and TLS, or promised money from a slush fund from future coal shipments.)
After a six hour meeting, five Council members—representing a voting majority—raised what Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan noted were “serious concerns.” The Council cited everything from the possibility of exacerbating current conditions, to the lack of available data regarding mitigation measures, to liability and emergency response concerns, to the economic viability of long-term investment in a declining market, to the ethical contradictions of promoting a project which goes against the spirit of the city’s own climate action plan as well as statewide mandates for greenhouse gas reductions. As Kalb said, “the idea that we might seriously entertain this huge volume of coal… is something we will regret and be deeply embarrassed about for many years.”
A further point of emphasis was made by Council President Lynnette Gibson-McElhaney, who spoke of her personal experiences dealing with respiratory issues in her family. “As a West Oakland resident and mother of an asthmatic child, I live these challenges every day,” she said, adding that two other family members are also asthmatic.
The Council’s decision, originally expected in December 2015, was delayed twice. Talk around City Hall was that there were concerns about lawsuits from the pro-coal lobby should the city outright reject the plan, and there was some confusion over whether the city had the authority to ban coal shipments, given that it had failed to specifically do so in the past.
Regardless, the environmental coalition pressed forward. On October 2, Earthjustice filed a legal action asking the city to require a new California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis and stated in a press release: “the environmental review for the project failed to include any discussion or analysis of the impacts of transporting, handling, or exporting coal from Oakland on surrounding neighborhoods or the environment. This is particularly problematic given the project's disproportionate impact on Oakland's most vulnerable communities of color.”
All’s Fair in Coal Wars: Utah Tries Money Laundering
But the coal lobby won’t go down without a fight and an entrenched legal battle may lie ahead. In November 2015, CCIG filed a brief to dismiss the suit on the basis that the statute of limitations to contest a CEQA review expired in 2012, even though coal was not specifically mentioned in the original project proposal. Later that month, Earthjustice dismissed its lawsuit without prejudice (meaning it could later be refiled), after learning that CCIG “had pursued project funding from the Utah counties without City support, knowledge or involvement.” In a statement, Earthjustice’s Irene Gutierrez explained, “We believe it is in the best interest of our community client groups to continue advocacy efforts and work in good-faith with city staff to achieve a mutually acceptable solution.”
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity teamed up to petition the Utah courts to block the use of public funds intended for Utah communities in California. This action was followed by an Op/Ed in the Salt Lake Tribune (SLT) which called the use of CIB funds for the crude-by-rail scheme “disturbing” and noted that the loan application wasn’t received until four weeks after the loan had already been approved. It went on to note conflict-of-interest concerns and the riskiness of using public funds for such a venture, echoing an SLT editorial which also noted the lack of transparency and apparent attempt to hide the coal scheme from the public (“coal” was never mentioned during the CIB’s public hearing in April 2015). Furthermore, it noted, “There was no mention of the fact that the city of Oakland has a policy that opposes the shipment of fossil fuels through its ports, and lawsuits could ensue. There is no guarantee the port will be completed, and it's unclear how the loan would be collateralized.” At press time, the Utah Attorney General had not yet made public his review of the CIB loan’s legality.
Despite the recent victories for the environmentalists, the battle is far from over. On March 1, 2016, Utah State Senator Stuart Adams introduced a bill, SB246, which would reroute the $50-plus million loan through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, essentially sidestepping the legal issue of using CIB funds for a purpose they may not have been intended for. This equally dubious gamble funds the risky venture with monies drawn from Utah’s highway improvement budget, which would then be repaid with CIB funds—creating an elaborate shell game. Earthjustice lawyer Ted Zinkowski likened the new bill to a money-laundering scheme, noting “All the questions we raised about this use of CIB money would remain.” But Utah officials seem willing to overlook those questions in the hopes that the loan will help stimulate rural counties which are highly dependent on coal mining.
In an interview with the SLT, Utah governor Gary Herbert had plenty to say about what he evidently believes is an inalienable right to coastal ports for his landlocked, energy-producing state: "We need to have access to the ports and the fact you don't like it should not stop us from doing what's in the best interest of the people of Utah."
Such rhetoric in the name of the free market may not be in the best interest of the people of California, however. Herbert’s comments failed to mention the possibility of any health risks in the crude-by-rail scheme, nor do they address California’s existing environmental laws, which mandate mitigation of communities already suffering from high levels of pollution. Hancock’s recent bills, if passed, would add teeth to environmental legislation already on the books, such as AB32 and SB535. Responding to Adams’ bill and Herbert’s remarks in the SLT, Hancock said, “It is very ironic that the state of Utah would use Utah taxpayer money to build a railroad to take coal to California where people do not want it… Why don't they keep their money in Utah and create sustainable jobs?”
Oakland Activists Ready to “Occupy” Coal Route
Big money, shady dealings, controversial politics, and a unified coalition of local grassroots activists and nationally-known environmental organizations: this story has all the trappings of the kind of movie Hollywood used to make in the post-Vietnam War era, when it still had a moral center. But this is no mere fictional account because real human lives and the survival of a disadvantaged community lie in the balance.
Should the City of Oakland put the kibosh on the coal proposal, it’s hard to imagine that the TLS, CCIG, and Utah coal lobby would just skulk away without exhausting every possible legal avenue at their disposal. It’s possible that the coal proposal could be decided on in Oakland before Hancock’s flurry of bills wend their way through the legislative process, but it’s just as likely that any decision by the Oakland Council could be further delayed until state lawmakers vote on the proposed restrictions.
But even if the environmental argument ultimately loses in court, grassroots organizers are prepared to take actions to block the trains. As Al Weinrub of the Oakland Clean Energy Alliance said, “This has been so well-organized, it’s not going to go away. If they lose the fight here, they’ll take it to the streets… people will lay down on the tracks. It’s gonna be another Occupy.”