Category Archives: Benicia Community Sustainability Commission

Benicia: Not exactly a smart, green city

Repost from the Benicia Herald

Grant Cooke: Benicia: Not exactly a smart, green city

By Grant Cooke, August 28, 2015
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Grant Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident and owner of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is also co-author of “The Green Industrial Revolution: Energy, Engineering and Economics.” His new book, “Smart Green Cities” will be published in 2016.

THOMAS HOBBES, THE GREAT 16TH-CENTURY British political philosopher, wrote in “Leviathan” that humans living without legitimate government would eventually dissolve into a “state of nature.” This state of nature was brutish with violent chaos, evil discord and civil war. Legitimate government, Hobbes believed, had a “social contract” to wield power and authority.

Hobbes’ vision that governmental power be used for the moral good evolved into our current view that government, particularly on the local level, has a responsibility and obligation to protect and maintain the safety of its citizens. Which brings us to present-day Benicia and the return of the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project as we anticipate the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR).

Under Hobbes’ social contract, it is the obligation of local government to maintain public safety. Anything that presents a known risk of explosion or other significant health risk is not something that city government should tolerate. To willingly allow a project that presents a public danger to move forward is ridiculous. And to argue that the Crude-by-Rail Project (CBR) is safe is equally ridiculous. A quick Internet search reveals numerous examples of trains carrying Bakken crude derailing or exploding.

The fossil fuel industry has a clear record of putting profits above safety. We have ample local examples, from the Chevron fire in Richmond to the San Bruno natural gas explosion. With tens of thousands of oil cars carrying volatile crude into the Bay Area, one or more explosions is all but guaranteed to occur. We all know it’s just a role of the dice whether the explosion happens in Benicia or another town along the line.

The conversation will probably build with the release Monday of the RDEIR. No doubt, the discussion will be as heated as ever. Regardless, let’s put some broad strokes on the situation, as there are several factors to consider:

  • Firstly, the CBR is an effort by Valero to increase its business and, therefore, its profits. Unfortunately, for that to happen the city must risk its residents’ health and well-being. This is not in your interest.
  • Valero, an oil company, benefits from the CBR; the city doesn’t. The idea that Valero, or any for-profit fossil fuel company, is a “Good Neighbor” to Benicia is silly and naïve.
  • Benicia’s future, and the city’s future tax base, can no longer be dependent on heavy-carbon industries. The current tax revenue from the refinery is not sustainable, or even desirable.
  • The decline in costs for renewable energy will create an energy price deflation that will make oil non-competitive. Ali Al-Naimi, Saudis Arabia’s oil minister, told a climate conference in Paris in June that the world’s largest crude exporter will eventually sell solar power instead of crude. He also renewed the kingdom’s commitment to current levels of production, putting more pressure on U.S. oil producers and refiners.
  • Besides the global switch to renewable energy, our local refineries will be under growing pressure from regional air quality regulators to clean up their emissions. And as the international effort to make large emitters pay for their carbon releases grows, carbon taxes or offsets will cut into refinery profits.
  • Within a decade or so, Valero and most Bay Area refineries will be shuttered. We need to begin discussions with Valero about what happens when they shut down. How will the refinery pay for the site cleanup and residual hazardous waste?
  • Even as the tax stream from Valero declines, Benicia, like most California cities, is also facing exponentially rising retiree benefit costs. The revenue decline cannot be made up with increased resident taxes (as the base gets older, it is harder to raise taxes) — so Benicia will be forced to cut services.
  • Also likely: Benicia’s municipal services and government will merge with Vallejo’s or go to a regional model. The era of small, local government is ending for numerous reasons. Small city governments can’t achieve the cost efficiencies or employee productivity needed to keep pace with rising costs and retiree benefit obligations. Large organizations can make better use of technology and smart systems to improve productivity and increase efficiency.
  • Small city governments don’t have the resources needed to deal with the future’s looming problems. Valero’s CBR clearly shows how ineffective small cities like Benicia are in dealing with problems that overlap. The same is true as small cities are forced to confront the future’s critical problems of mitigating climate change, wealth inequality (poverty, homelessness, gang violence and terrorism), and restraining agglomeration and urban sprawl. For example, Benicia city government’s ongoing struggles to convert to a new information technology package. Or the City Council’s inability to address even simple environmental issues like eliminating the use of plastic bags, promoting renewable energy or endorsing a pro-environmental or sustainability position. If a city government can’t agree that reducing the number of plastic bags clogging up our landfills is a good thing, how can it promote community respect for the environment — or more complicated values like decency, tolerance or a respect for others?

* * *

FOR MANY REASONS, BENICIA IS AT A CROSSROADS, and its future is worrisome. As a city, we need to come to grips with the reality that the fossil fuel/carbon era is ending, and we have to turn to a pro-environmental, knowledge-based and sustainable economy.

For the past several months, I’ve been researching the world’s smart and green cities. Despite the heroic efforts of Benicia’s Community Sustainability Commission, I’m sad to say that my lovely hometown is neither.

I was reminded of this the other evening at a friend’s house that overlooked our bay. The view was beautiful, with the silvery-gray straits glowing in the declining sunlight. But when I looked closer, I saw trash along the waterline, and the water showed traces of oil and pollution in the shallows.

It was so much different than Copenhagen’s harbor. Did you know that the citizens of Copenhagen had the wherewithal a few years ago to clean centuries of pollution and trash out of their harbor? And that every summer, four major swimming areas along that city’s waterfront attract thousands of Danes and other Europeans to bask in the northern sun and swim in the harbor’s clean waters?

Can you imagine going for a swim in Benicia’s harbor?

Copenhagen’s clean harbor points to the sharp contrast in attitudes about the environment held by Europeans and Americans. After decades of neglect, Europe has come around and now takes pride in cleaning up its environment. Most European nations, reflecting the will of their citizens, are mindful of waste and diligently work to reduce carbon emissions. Hamburg, for example, is deeply worried that global warming will raise sea levels and create havoc with their harbor and lowlands. The city has carved out several green zones, added trees to absorb carbon and reduced auto traffic. In Scotland, over 40 percent of the country’s domestic energy use is supplied by renewable energy. Germany is striving for 100-percent renewable energy by mid-century.

But Benicia — a city that sits on the water — doesn’t seem to give a flip about potential flooding from warming seas, or the steady degradation of its remarkably beautiful environment. The lack of concern underscores the general sense shared by far too many Americans — particularly those involved in the carbon industries — who view our environment and atmosphere as one large garbage can.

Grant Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident and owner of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is also co-author of “The Green Industrial Revolution: Energy, Engineering and Economics.” His new book, “Smart Green Cities” will be published in 2016.

    Valero slurps up grant money that was recommended for smaller non-profits; City Council approves

    From Benicia Independent reader Judi Sullivan of Benicia
    [Editor: Note that the City Council was definitely NOT unanimous in its approval of the money grab by Valero.  Councilmember Schwartzman proposed the deal.  He, along with Councilmembers Hughes and Strawbridge voted in favor; Mayor Patterson and Councilmember Campbell opposed.  – RS]

    Letter to the Editor

    By Judi Sullivan, 6/27/14

    It’s important for us, as citizens, to be aware of what our city staff and council members are doing, as they are the rule makers for our town.  After attending last week’s June 17th   City Council Meeting, I became concerned with how the annual grant proposals introduced by the Community Sustainability Commission were addressed by this governing body.

    The Agenda for the evening was to go over the grant proposals that had been submitted to the CSC which then made recommendations for granting seven of the 13 proposals.  They presented the Council with three well-delineated tiers of charted options, noting the ones they felt most qualified to be awarded with the monies available, although stated all that were submitted had their merits.

    Financial backing for these yearly distributed grants comes from a large legal settlement made between The Good Neighbor Steering Committee, a small group of volunteers from the Benicia citizenry, and the Valero Refinery.  It was amended in 2010 to include the City of Benicia as a third party in the settlement agreement.   Members from the GNSC initiated the CSC, which is currently an advisory committee to the City Council and as such, was the overseer of the grant funding process.

    The CSC’s vision for the purpose of these grants was to create a ripple effect throughout the community by promoting programs that offer alternatives in how to be more individually and community-wise sustainable in line with The City of Benicia’s Climate Action Plan.  Special emphasis was placed on proposals dealing with reducing water/energy/green house gases.  This included projects that would educate the public on these issues. The groups chosen for funding by CSC were typically grassroots non profits and small businesses that met the above criteria, giving top priority to those seeking funding who did not have an adequate source of financial assistance available to bring their worthy proposals to fruition.

    One grant stood out from the rest.  It was from Valero.  Their proposal asked for around $857,000 to install a water-reducing boiler unit.  To accept this proposal would have taken the entire amount of money set aside for grants this year.   Although Valero has the right to apply for a grant, one might ponder why Valero, the 4th largest oil company in the US, would be in competition with small grassroots non-profits and smaller businesses for one of these grants?  Especially considering that the monies available for these grants comes from the settlement with Valero.  Apparently, as part of the settlement agreement, they have a right to compete with the other grants presented, yet they are not to be given special privilege for receiving one.   As it turned out, most of the council session was focused on issues surrounding their request, in lieu of most of the other grants, which got little or no floor time.

    If Valero’s boiler unit is built, it would cause a major reduction in water usage for the refinery.  That easily fits the water reduction aspect of the grant criteria.  Since the refinery uses fifty percent of our city’s raw water supply, and our city received no water allotment from the state this year, there is a pressing need for all of us to reduce requirements for our city’s water.  For the first time in our history, we are relying upon stored water.

    The issue concerning offering Valero a city-funded grant to install a new boiler stems from the fact that Valero has ample funds to complete this desired project on their own.   It has been revealed that making this change to their facility would pay for itself in a year’s time with a million dollar water cost savings to the refinery.  When one contemplates the short and long term benefits to Valero, and consequently, to our city, one is led to wonder why the decision to make this change didn’t happen long before now as part of a cost effective business plan?

    As a city, do we want to set a precedent for having our grant funds disproportionately doled out to highly profitable corporations who don’t need our financial assistance to make the needed difference in lieu of giving attention to our other grant proposals which are deemed valuable but are unable to operate without grant approval? Are we missing the point of providing these grants?  Are we dishonoring the intrinsic value of the other grants because they can’t possibly compete with what a large corporation can do?  Is it really necessary to make a “deal” with Valero in order to get our other programs funded?

    The proposed “deal” brokered by Councilman Schwartzman with Valero General Manager, John Hill during the session was certainly handled in an unorthodox manner.  Since this situation was written up in the June 19th edition of the “Benicia Herald” about the City Council Meeting, details of that discussion won’t be repeated here, although it might be fair to say it would appear that this “deal” may have been discussed privately by those promoting it prior to the meeting without the full knowledge of others who would normally be part of such negotiations.  One of those excluded parties was GNSC, who was not informed of this plan, nor was their perspective welcomed.   This was highly irregular since they are the originators of the settlement agreement that has provided the funds being debated.  They are still involved, by law, with carrying out all aspects of the settlement along with the city and Valero.

    Supposedly, the delayed decisions on approval of grants will be taken up once again at the next City Council Meeting in July.  If you have a vested interest in grants up for approval this year, you might want to pay closer attention to what is happening.

    As we know, The City Council has the power of the vote, but we as citizens have the right to voice our opinions on such matters.

    Judi Sullivan