Jerry Brown made quite a splash at the UN Climate Change talks in Paris this month. The mainstream press fawned over California's governor, lavishing praise on him for supposedly being a world leader in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But environmentalists in California have long known that while Brown talks a good game on climate change, his actual record is far from green. The governor, for example, has steadfastly refused to ban fracking in the state and has ignored calls for California to tax oil companies like other states do.
And in Oakland, which is still Brown's official city of residence, the governor has remained steadfastly silent on the most important local environmental issue of 2015: the controversial plan to build a coal shipping terminal at the former Army Base at the Port of Oakland. The terminal, which is part of a $500 million project spearheaded by local developer Phil Tagami, would ship millions of tons of coal mined in Utah and other states to ports in Asia each year. The project, as a result, would not only greatly add to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide but also threatens to worsen air pollution in West Oakland, a largely low-income area that already suffers from some of the dirtiest air in the region.
Brown's spokesperson Gareth Lacy said on Monday that Brown had no comment on the coal shipping facility.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who is friends with Brown and served as an aide to him when he was mayor of Oakland, said in an interview that she was "disappointed" about his silence on coal. Schaaf, who is a staunch opponent of the coal terminal, said that in Paris, when the issue of coal came up, Brown dodged the subject by saying it was up to the United States to create a "national policy" on coal.
"I was disappointed in his answer," Schaaf said. "If we wait for national policymakers to get their act together, it'll be too late."
Schaaf also noted that the governor's response contradicted their reason for traveling to Paris in the first place. Schaaf and Brown, along with other city and state officials, were on hand to extol the abilities of local governments to impact climate policy around the globe.
So why is Brown ducking the issue of coal in Oakland? Although the governor has long had a reputation for being a cautious politician who shies away from controversial issues, coal is not that controversial — at least not in California. The state has no coal industry to speak of, and California's utilities long ago shifted away from the dirty fossil fuel and now depend largely on natural gas, hydroelectric power, and renewables. And in October, Brown even signed a law requiring the state's two major pension funds to stop investing in coal companies. Coal, in short, has virtually no impact on the state's economy — and no effect on California politics.
So what is causing Brown's reticence? Perhaps it has to do with his longtime relationship with Tagami. The two are close friends and real estate investment partners in Oakland. In fact, Brown and his wife Anne Gust were married in Tagami's Rotunda Building in 2005. Brown also houses his charter school, the Oakland School for the Arts, in the Tagami-refurbished Fox Theater in Uptown. And it was Brown who originally made Tagami his point man on the Army Base redevelopment authority when Brown was mayor of Oakland.
Unfortunately for Oakland, there may not be a lot the city can do to block the coal terminal unless Brown steps in. Schaaf, who has said that Tagami originally promised that the terminal would not include coal, noted that the city's only hope may be to use a clause in its contract with Tagami that concerns the public health impacts of the project. The clause would allow the city to modify the deal if the project puts either workers or neighbors "in a condition substantially dangerous to their health or safety."
Schaaf also argued that the state legislature and Brown should establish a ban on all coal shipments from California. Her proposal includes a grandfather clause for existing ports that ship coal that would let them phase out their shipments over time.
State Senator Loni Hancock, who represents Berkeley and Oakland, is also adamantly opposed to the coal terminal plan. "In light of California's climate goals, this would be a tremendous step back — a tremendous blow to our reputation," she said in an interview.
Hancock recently sent a letter to the California Transportation Commission (CTC) urging it to reexamine its 2013 approval of a $242 million grant to the Army Base redevelopment project. "Coal was not part of the project approved by [the CTC]," she noted.
Schaaf pointed out, however, that the city can't afford to lose any portion of the CTC grant. She and other opponents of the project, including councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan, Dan Kalb, and Lynette Gibson McElhaney, just want the new terminal at the former Army Base to exclude coal, and to instead rely on other bulk products, like grain.
And the best way to achieve that would be for Brown to come off the sidelines and tell his friend Tagami that shipping coal through Oakland is a nonstarter. After all, Mr. Governor, that's what a real climate leader would do. Right?