Town Business: Coal Conflicts; Local Green Energy; Soda Pop Tax


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A Union Pacific train laden with coal passing through the Sierra Nevada foothills toward the Bay Area in August 2015. - TOM ANDERSON
  • Tom Anderson
  • A Union Pacific train laden with coal passing through the Sierra Nevada foothills toward the Bay Area in August 2015.
Coal Conflicts: Oakland officials want to hire an outside consulting firm to  help determine whether or not there will be significant health and safety impacts from a proposal to ship millions of tons of coal through the city. If the consultant finds negative health and safety impacts from fugitive coal dust, or other risks, then the council might block developer Phil Tagami and former Port of Oakland Executive Director Jerry Bridges from turning a marine terminal they are building at the old Oakland Army Base into the largest coal export facility on the West Coast.
The city administrator's office has selected Environmental Science Associates (ESA) to conduct the study, and is recommending that the council hire ESA under a no-bid contract.
But anti-coal activists are actually opposed to the city hiring ESA. The activists claim that ESA doesn't have expertise in the fields necessary to understand the health impacts of coal. Furthermore, anti-coal activists also say ESA has a conflict of interest, and will likely rubber stamp the coal export scheme. Coal opponents claim that ESA normally works with fossil fuel companies to help them gain approval for projects like oil shipments via rail and pipeline.
City officials say, however, that only ESA has the kind of expertise needed to wade through thousands of pages of documents and other records to figure out just what might happen if the coal scheme becomes a reality.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf already hit pause on the contract with ESA back in February, after anti-coal activists told her the contract's scope of work was too limited. This time, however, Schaaf supports the contract with ESA.
But there's another potential conflict of interest that could impact the decision to hire ESA. The Express will elaborate in a news story later today. Stay tuned.

Local Green Energy: Years ago, Oakland studied whether it was feasible for the the city to set up a public energy authority that could purchase electricity on the open market, and also use ratepayer funds to upgrade Oakland's energy infrastructure – or even to build new power-generating assets like rooftop solar. The final report for that effort said it was too tall an order for Oakland to accomplish. Facing more pressing issues like the foreclosure crisis, budget cuts, and the loss of redevelopment, Oakland backed off.
But all the while, the local green energy concept has been incubating. And recently Alameda County officials revived the proposal, and have drawn in numerous cities, including Oakland, to discuss what a local green energy authority might look like.
On Tuesday night, the council will hear a report updating them on the progress that Alameda County has made towards launching a local, renewable-focused energy program that would include Oakland.

Soda Pop Tax: The council is expected to vote this week to put a sugar-sweetened beverage tax on the November ballot. The tax, one cent per fluid ounce of drink, could raise as much as $10 to $12 million annually, all of which would be spent on health programs to try to get Oaklanders to drink less corn syrup-infused junk.
Soda pop industry giants ("Big Soda" companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and their lobbying group the American Beverage Association) recently hired “one of the preeminent political law, government law, and lobbying firms in the country” to help them defeat Oakland's sugar-sweetened tax. Last week, Big Soda filed paperwork with the Oakland City Clerk's office to establish a political action committee that they'll soon be pouring money into. So we can expect to see ads saturating billboards, bus stops, BART stations, and the airwaves — probably a few million dollars worth, given the size of the market and the profits at stake — decrying what Big Soda is already trying to define as a "grocery tax" that will hit consumers hard.
And perhaps there's a kernel of truth in Big Soda's claim: the sugar-sweetened beverage tax will probably be passed on to the consumer, so it's a regressive way of taxing children and the poor to fund health and education programs.