Herb Caen, the beloved scribe for the San Francisco Chronicle, once said, “You can pet a llama but you can’t Petaluma.” Today, the 60,000 residents of Petaluma, 40 miles north of the City by the Bay, are served by 16 gas stations. The city council thinks that’s enough and has passed an ordinance banning the construction of new gas stations. “Prohibiting new gas stations serves the public interest by preventing new sources of pollution that adversely impact environmental and human health,” it states. The ordinance makes permanent a temporary ban that went into effect in 2019.
The ban has made headlines across the country and around the world because it means Petaluma is the first US city to prohibit the construction of new gas stations. Mayor Teresa Barret tells the Petaluma Argus Courier, “We didn’t know we would be the first, and I keep saying that we didn’t do this to be the first. We’re taking one step at a time here, because that’s how change is made. To me, it’s really important we’re not just ticking off boxes. If we want to be carbon neutral by 2030, we have to make these changes.”
Actually, no one should be surprised that tiny Petaluma has taken this bold first step. The city has agreed to a comprehensive plan to become carbon neutral by 2030 with this mission statement: “Acting decisively by joining and inspiring others across the world to initiate a massive local economic impulse and model 21st century green architecture, landscape design, and engineering to restore ecological balance and economic stability. To this end, we aim to achieve greenhouse gas carbon neutrality for the City of Petaluma by 2030.”
A recent study by the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority found the transportation sector is responsible for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions within its borders. The neighboring communities of Santa Rosa and Sebastopol are also considering banning the construction of new gas stations in their communities.
The mayor has been inundated by inquiries locally, nationally, and from other countries. “It’s really taken me, and most of us, by surprise. I just thought, wow, I had no idea it would go international. By the time I disconnected from one Zoom interview yesterday I had an email from someone in Ireland. Then one of my neighbors told me their in-laws in England saw a story about us — our little town of Petaluma.”
A Tipping Point
Woody Hastings, of the Sonoma Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations, sees Petaluma’s move as a potential tipping point. “We now have Petaluma providing an example for other cities to look at and adopt their own (bans). I think it helps to make the case that, to take the climate crisis seriously, you’ve got to put meaning and substance to these climate emergency resolutions.”
There may yet be a 17th gas station in Petaluma. Safeway got approval for a gas station prior to the temporary ban taking effect in 2019 but has yet to construct the new facility, which has been tied up in litigation. Save Petaluma, a local community action group, objects to its proximity to an elementary school and nearby residential neighborhoods.
Predictably, those who make their living by selling gasoline are not pleased by the ban. In a statement this week, the California Fuels & Convenience Alliance called efforts like the one in Petaluma part of “an alarming trend.” It said, “Various localities throughout the state have started down a misguided direction, banning new gas stations within city and county limits, through ordinance or moratorium. This single-minded approach will ultimately cause greater harm for communities than any potential benefit.”
Maybe, but as for the people of Petaluma, the ban is not particularly controversial. Mayor Barret says the only “hate mail” she has gotten is from people in other parts of California and in other states. She says, “This is not a hard-fought, contentious decision. These are, by and large, unanimous decisions that are bringing us forward. We are just responding to our community.”
The CEO of Volvo says he doubts anyone will want to buy a gasoline powered car by 2030. Stodgy GM aims for all of its cars will be electric by 2035. Gas stations may one day go the way of Pony Express offices. Changes are coming to the world of transportation and the pace of change is accelerating. First Petaluma, then Peoria, then Pittsburgh? Hey, it could happen — and probably will.