The war on fossil fuels goes hyper-local


One theme that I’ve come back to a lot in the last few months is the notion that local jurisdictions — state and even city and county governments — can take the lead in the fight against climate change, even at a time when Washington seems determined to pull back. All across the country, local jurisdictions are taking actions to promote the use of electric cars, though charging stations and other amenities, or speeding the conversion to power generation from clean energy — and making a dent in the problem of global warming, regardless of the edicts that come down from the federal government. No matter how hard the Beltway crowd pushes to bring back the coal industry, that won’t happen if there aren’t coal buyers on the local level.

One part of the country that’s stood head and shoulders above the rest of the nation in taking global warming seriously is California. A lot of the credit for that belongs to the state’s Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s used the clout of the Golden State as a stand-alone economy rivaling many foreign countries to push for mandated reductions in carbon emissions. Perhaps Brown’s spirit is contagious, because Grist recently profiled a number of small municipal governments in California that are taking some very large steps on tackling climate change. For example:

Across California, new organizing efforts zeroed in on small-town elections as a strategy to thwart big fossil-fuel infrastructure projects. Oxnard officials, for example, are battling California Energy Commission plans to site a huge gas-fired power plant on a local beach, and opponents to the plan were overwhelmingly favored in the fall elections. In the Kern County town of Arvin, which 10 years ago won the dubious distinction of having the smoggiest air of any U.S. city, a 23-year-old city councilman was elected mayor on a promise to regulate the oil industry and protect the city’s water and air — a huge task in California’s biggest oil-producing county.

And on March 14, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors shut down a Phillips 66 crude-by-rail plan to bring oil into its Nipomo Mesa refinery. The 3-to-1 vote (with one recusal) against the proposal represented a huge change in a county that for years had supported refinery projects.

“[This] is a pretty new effort to work with leaders and community organizations to engage in local elections that are critical for climate and environmental justice issues,” said Whit Jones, the East Coast–based campaign director for Lead Locally, a new project of the Advocacy Fund and which provided electoral support in Benicia, Oxnard, and Arvin. “We partnered with community organizations in California last year to make sure that voters’ demands to stop oil train terminals, or to stop fracking, were heard at the ballot box.” Another new group, Leadership for a Clean Economy, also worked in these communities, in partnership with many local environmental justice organizations.

Is the hyper-local now the new way to win national battles? Fossil-fuel industries are taking note of their losses. The Western States Petroleum Association, a powerful oil industry trade group, commented in a statement to Capital & Mainthat such local campaigns are adding a level of regulation that is costly to the industry and that California’s climate change goals can be achieved without them. “At times, local regulations unnecessarily layer upon existing state regulations that don’t take into consideration the increasingly important role of cost containment in energy and environmental policy,” wrote WSPA president Catherine Reheis-Boyd.

It’s great to see that we’ve reached a tipping point where local governments — which have long been susceptible to influence by Big Oil — are now taking on the energy giants as well. I think that’s because most people on the ground realize the serious of the climate crisis — even if they see things differently inside the Beltway. The war for our planet absolutely can be won on the local level.

Read more about the “hyper-local” efforts to fight climate change in California from Grist:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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