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Grant Cooke: Benicia’s future is with Patterson, Young and the new economy

Repost from the Benicia Herald

Grant Cooke: Benicia’s future is with Patterson, Young and the new economy

By Grant Cooke, August 17, 2016
Grant Cooke

Grant Cooke

If Valero’s crude-by-rail, or CBR, project goes through, it will do irreparable damage to Benicia. If the three councilmembers—Mark Hughes, Christina Strawbridge and Alan Schwartzman— continue their support for the project, they will do an extraordinary disservice to the city.

I respect those who work on behalf of local government; however, in this case, the legacies of three pro-Valero councilmembers will be that when Benicia needed them, they stood down. They just didn’t have the vision or the ability to do what is right and best for the city.

While the same can be said for numerous elected officials in other American small towns, particularly those dominated by a fossil fuel company, it’s a painful thing to witness. What makes Benicia’s situation more painful, is that the city is gifted with a bright and forward thinking mayor and is nestled on the edge of the most innovative and financially robust center in the world.

Yet, the pro-Valero majority on the council mirrors the city’s self-inflicted company town identity. This fossil fuel dependence holds the city back from partaking in the Bay Area’s knowledge-based economy and its prosperity.

The company town malignancy is intensified by a remarkable and insulating geography that creates the city’s beauty. The town has an idyllic and picturesque quality that is enhanced by a touch of eccentricity and bohemian romanticism left over from the halcyon days of the Gold Rush.

This combination allows for a complacency in the social milieu that is on the one hand charming, but on the other, remarkably short-sighted. In fact, it’s just plain dumb, since it allows for the tacit acceptance of the status quo and masks the reality that problems are coming and action needs to be taken.

For a half-century, Benicia has allowed the refinery to prosper, hardly inhibiting its use of the atmosphere as a garbage can. For most of this time, the refinery has been the largest source of tax revenue, exercising dominant economic and political influence. Which is a pity, since the rest of the Bay Area embarked on a scientific, technological and economic renaissance that is unparalleled in human history.

Now, the era of carbon generated wealth and dominance is in decline, particularly in densely populated areas where growing number of residents are pushing back, protective of their health and well-being. Carbon-generated wealth, usually from extraction industries, is being overtaken by knowledge-based wealth. High-tech workers are transforming the communities throughout the Bay Area. Cities like Richmond that were mired in the death grip of the fossil fuel industry, are now undergoing gentrification and renewal.

So where does that leave Benicia? If the pro-Valero councilmembers have their way and Valero’s CBR project is approved, then the city will continue to be dependent on the refinery and the fossil fuel industry.It’s clear from the evidence that crude-by-rail transportation is unsafe, unhealthy, and disruptive, but it won’t matter if the project is approved and the 50-car trains take over the Industrial Park, cutting off access and exit for most of the existing businesses. Once the trains loaded with toxic and volatile Bakken crude start to roll, there will be no “do overs,” and the city’s future will languish.

There is no doubt that the fossil fuel and oil industries are in decline. Oil prices are dropping as too much supply hits the market. Renewable energy is cheaper, more plentiful and when connected to smart grids far more flexible and cleaner. Vehicles are getting more efficient and transitioning to hybrid, electric, and hydrogen power. The fossil fuel era with its environmental destruction, social and political upheavals, and corrupt power politics is winding down.

So by approving CBR, Benicia will be locked into a decline—all the while the rest of the Bay Area flourishes as the new knowledge-based economy expands.

As an interesting aside, in the last three months, Valero, Inc. made $19.6 billion in gross revenue and $87.8 billion for all of 2015. As part of the company’s second-quarter earnings announcement, Joe Gorder, Valero’s CEO, said “We are also encouraged by ample supplies of medium and heavy sour crude oils in the market…”

So, if there is plenty of supply, and the refinery’s current crude delivery process is creating substantial profits, why does the refinery still want to ship explosive Bakkan crude by trains through towns that oppose it? And why do they claim it’s necessary to bring it to a loading area with a potential blast zone that includes an elementary school?

Admittedly, Valero’s CBR project is not simple. There are key issues at stake, including the tax revenues versus the city’s right and responsibility to protect the health and well-being of its residents. Many people are involved to various degrees in the decision. Unfortunately, the town’s residents can’t vote on the project, since the decision is solely in the hands of the city council.

The pro-Valero CBR faction has tried to diminish the importance of the decision by claiming the opposition is simply a ruckus stirred up by passionate environmentalists opposed to Big Oil. The intent is to frame the local election, and opposition to the project, as simply a one issue ballot. But the reality is far different. It’s not merely a CBR issue, or whether the refinery is good or not for the city, but a clear and simple question of what is to be Benicia’s future? Will the city – pushed by the three pro-Valero councilmembers – be locked into fossil fuel’s decline, or will it have the wherewithal to step into the 21st century and join the Bay Area’s booming knowledge-based economy?

If Benicia is going to survive as a chartered city, it has to go where the future beckons, which is to the new economy. If it dithers, the city will be passed over, as the new economy leapfrogs to Vallejo and other cities along the Interstate 80 corridor.

Three decades in, the scientific and technological Renaissance is just getting started, powered by a steamroller of venture capital. Silicon Valley is awash with cash and opportunity, and the Bay Area’s great universities and national laboratories are brimming with patents just waiting for implementation. High-tech and green tech startups and businesses are growing exponentially each year. Chinese and other foreign buyers are trolling Northern California for the newest inventions and technology.

The Green Industrial Revolution will continue to grow, pushing out along the region’s main transportation corridors. Eventually it will extent from Palo Alto to Sacramento. Just as Apple overcame Exxon, the new economy will push out the fossil fuel industry in the Bay Area. Within a couple of decades, the Bay Area refineries will lock their gates, unable to withstand the shifts in the energy markets and the expenses of offsetting carbon emissions.

What the fossil fuel industries in the Bay Area—and by extension those cities that have cast their lot with them—are not realizing is that there is a generational and workforce shift taking place. The older work force who had a high tolerance for the fossil fuel and heavy industrial manufacturing industries are being overtaken by a tsunami of high tech workers. These young folks are sophisticated, intelligent and extremely sensitive to health and recreation. (Just visit San Francisco’s marina green on the weekend). Their lifestyles are far different than the established group. High-tech workers live in denser neighborhoods, drive efficient autos and take public transportation. (Visit Emeryville, or the area around Pleasant Hill’s BART station.)

Above all, tech workers have enormous amounts of money that is rapidly changing the real estate market and the Bay Area’s lifestyle. As these workers mature, they will pressure politicians for the things they value, which is certainly not carbon emissions or refineries.

Rarely in life does time and circumstance allow us to decide our fate. The future is often veiled and clouded, and usually clarity only comes with necessity, too often calamity. This is true for individuals as well as cities. Cities, especially small company towns, rarely have the visionary leadership and the ability to break loose from the status quo, until like Stockton or Vallejo they implode.

Benicia’s fate is remarkably unambiguous; stick with the old fossil fuel industry and go down with its decline, or join the Bay Area’s Renaissance and prosper. Throughout the world, other cities have faced much harsher realities and have been successful in transitioning to a new economy. Melbourne, Copenhagen, Berlin and Bristol leap to mind. In each, change was driven by strong visionaries who understood that change was the best option and who had the leadership skills to pull the cities and their residents forward.

Does Benicia have similar visionary leadership? That is clearly central to November’s local election. There are two councilmembers up for re-election—Tom Campbell and Christina Strawbridge. Mayor Elizabeth Patterson is being challenged by Vice Mayor Mark Hughes. Three councilmembers – Strawbridge, Hughes and Alan Schwartzman who is not up for re-election – favor Valero and its CBR project.

Mayor Patterson has shown time and again that she understands the dilemma the city faces and why its future lies with the new economy. She clearly has the vision, talent and leadership required to move the city forward, and should be re-elected. Councilmember Campbell also understands that Benicia’s future prosperity can’t be dependent on Valero’s CRB project and he should continue.

Steve Young, a new challenger for a council position possess exceptional talent and leadership skills, and clearly understands that the city’s best interests are to reject Valero’s CBR. As a member of Benicia’s Planning Commission, he spent countless hours on the issue, painstakingly doing the research and leading the commission through the pros and cons as each member came to agree that the CBR project was not the town’s best option.

Patterson and Campbell were outvoted by the three other councilmembers, and the council failed to accept the Planning Commission’s recommendation, instead giving Valero the opportunity to reopen the issue with the Surface Transportation Board. Cluttering the decision was some questionable recommendations from the city staff, goofy advice from a consulting attorney, and bullying from Valero’s high-powered lawyer. In short, the whole process reeked of the misinformation and strong-armed tactics so common when an oil company puts pressure on small town politics.

Given his remarkable dedication to Benicia and the work required to bring the whole CBR permitting process into the public light, Steve Young has clearly shown that he has the intelligence, talent and leadership skills needed to help the city transition away from the past and embrace the future.

For Benicia, come the November election, Mayor Patterson and Tom Campbell should be re-elected. Steve Young should be the newly elected councilmember.

Grant Cooke is a longtime Benicia resident and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is also an author and has written several books on the Green Industrial Revolution. His newest is “Smart Green Cities” by Routledge.
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Valero’s secret output level – 65% of permitted output

By Roger Straw, August 5, 2016

A letter by Kathy Kerridge appeared in the print edition of today’s Benicia Herald. Kerridge clarified statements made many times in recent months regarding Valero’s recent product output as approximately 65% of the refinery’s capacity.

The refinery does not disclose its current operating output, claiming that it is a trade secret.  Kerridge discloses the source for the public knowledge on this.

First a little background: When Commissioner Steve Young questioned Valero executives at the Planning Commission hearing on Feb 8, the transcript has “(No audible response.)” See p. 184. And when Young asked Valero environmental engineer Don Cuffel about this at the Planning Commission on Feb 9, Cuffel’s response was clearly evasive – see page 49-50 of the transcript.

The significance, as Kerridge points out below, has everything to do with Valero’s ability to increase air pollution and even (if permitted) to expand its operations to overseas oil export, if the City were to approve Valero’s Crude by Rail proposal.

Kerridge’s letter follows.  (I have added live links to the sources. I have also excised references to Benicia’s whack-a-mole critic, whose repetitive nonsense is not worth repeating on these pages.)


Letter to the Editor, Benicia Herald, by Kathy Kerridge

HERE IS A SOURCE
August 5, 2016

Dear Editor,

In last Sunday’s paper and in other recent letters [a critic] has been quite upset over the claim that Valero is operating at 65% capacity. He has repeatedly attacked [candidate for City Council] Steve Young over this and most recently attacked me demanding my source for the fact that Valero is operating at less than full capacity. Well here is the source: a report done by Applied Developments Economics, Inc. for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Here is a link to the report: Socio-Economic Analysis of Proposed Regulation 12, Rule 15: Petroleum Refining Emissions Tracking and Regulation 12, Rule 16: Petroleum Refining Emissions Limits and Risk Thresholds.  Look for Table 7 on page 15.

Applied Development Economics reported that Valero is refining 114,443 barrels of crude a day. Valero’s VIP permit in 2003 allowed for an annual average of 165,000 bpd, (with maximum daily permitted level set at 185,000 bpd.) Please see Valero’s permit for that. 114,444 divided by 165,000 equals 69%. Of course if you looked at the maximum daily capacity they are operating at 62% capacity. The average of the two is 65% just what Steve Young has been saying.

Why does this matter?

It matters because the Crude by Rail project will bring in heavy tar sands crude which emits much more reactive organic gases, more toxic air contaminates, benzene and heavy metal pollution. Bakken crude, which they also want to bring in could also result in more pollution. See the reports by Dr. Fox in response to the Crude by Rail DEIR filed 9-15-2014 and report by Greg Karras, senior scientist for CBE, filed 9-15-2014 with the city.

So if Valero operated at its permitted levels with more toxic crude we would see an increase in our local air pollution, particularly since there are no overall plant limits on these emissions at this time, and there may never be. This could cause real health impacts especially to students at Robert Semple school. The air district has been looking at this problem for several years and may never enact a numeric limit. Please see the Air District agendas for the last several years, proposed rule 12-16.

Let me add a few more words about accuracy. In a letter to the editor on July 5 [a critic] stated that Benicia’s opt out rate for Marin Clean Energy was “22% – three times higher than any other city.” He did not state a source. Given that in Benicia the opt out rate is 21% and the overall average for all cities opt out rate is 21%, according to Marin Clean Energy it appears that [the critic] has gotten his facts wrong. What else has he gotten wrong in his letters? I don’t have the time or energy to fact check every statement he makes, but I do look at the source.

Kathy Kerridge JD
Benicia

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Town Considers Rebuilding School Outside of the Oil Train Blast-Zone

Repost from KOMO News, Seattle WA

Oil train blast zone worries prompt radical plan

By Jon Humbert, May 24, 2016

MT. VERNON, Wa. — Larry Anderson walks by the school where his kids learned basic arithmetic and geography.

As he walks down into a wooded area behind Madison Elementary school in Mt. Vernon, those two schoolhouse subjects intersect like never before.

“Deeply personal because of what can happen,” Anderson says while overhearing the whistle of a nearby train.

Anderson spent years working at refineries storing and transporting hazardous materials. So the half-mile proximity between Madison and the train tracks is a legitimate worry.

“The alarms go off. And we’re going to hear this alarm,” he said.

While the chances are slim, the destruction is powerful when trouble hits the tracks.

Train derailments, explosions and disasters like we’ve seen in recent years have communities on alert.

Recent derailments in Tacoma and Magnolia brought the fears home to Western Washington; a local fear that environmental activist Alex Ramel wants to hammer home.

“We want to connect the dots there between those refineries,” Ramel said.

His group STAND has not only been championing plans to move away from fossil fuels but boosting safety and security on existing rail lines.

“The oil that’s coming in on oil trains is the dirtiest, it’s the most dangerous and it’s not necessary,” Ramel said.

STAND used mapping technology to plot the U.S. Department of Transportation danger zones for rail accidents. The KOMO Investigators used the concept to map out more than 140 schools from Olympia to Canadian border.
BlastZone_NW-Washington2 The red zone is for a half-mile impact zone. The yellow border is a one-mile evacuation zone.

Right now only Mt. Vernon’s school district appears to be in a position to change locations.

Anderson proposed a radical idea to get Madison out of the blast zone entirely.

“What we presented to voters were things that we knew were absolute essentials,” said Mt. Vernon Superintendent Carl Bruner.

He was thrilled that voters approved a $106 million bond in February, which included a full tear down and rebuild of Madison.

That was an opening Anderson felt could bring attention to moving Madison out of the dangers of the blast zone and rebuild it on a district-owned plot of land about a mile outside the blast zone.

“Our board would consider alternative sites,” Bruner said.

The district is hiring a safety consultant to see if it could be done.

“We absolutely need to look at where we’re putting schools. Where we’re putting children in particular but at the end of the day, there’s not a lot of land that we have,” said State Representative Jessyn Ferrell.

She was intrigued by what was happening with Mt. Vernon. But in cities like Seattle, there aren’t alternative sites or much money to rebuild.

“We are in a very tricky urban environment,” Ferrell said.

Industry experts like Bruce Agnew of the Cascadia Center say the devastation of rail accidents gets headlines, even if accidents are rare. But it’s just simple probabilities it will happen again.

“There’s always terrible accidents involving the transport of hazardous materials. The issue is mitigating the risks,” Agnew said.

Risks that may be small, but catastrophic. So Anderson’s unique idea could continue to pick up steam.

“You can choose not to do, to not build in that zone. There’s no reason to build in that area right now,” he said.

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