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Friday, 01 April 2016 10:11

Will Oakland Become Largest West Coast Transport Center for Dirty Coal?

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2016april1 coaloaklandWill California Governor Jerry Brown allow Oakland to become a coal hub? (Photo: Sicko Atze van Dijk)

Throughout his lengthy political career, California Governor Jerry Brown has probably been called just about everything in the book; from Governor Moonbeam (during his first tenure) to hopeless optimist (his run for the presidency), from crass opportunist (his period as two-term mayor of Oakland), to environmental visionary (his current tenure as Governor leading the fight against climate change). However, he’s probably never been characterized as a “head in the sand” kind of guy, and yet that’s exactly the ground he’s occupying by continuing to remain silent about plans by one of his closest friends and political allies to export millions of tons of coal from Oakland’s port; a plan that could have a devastating environment and heath impact on Oakland communities.

As the Contra Costa Times reported this past November, Oakland is on the precipice of “becoming the largest coal exporter on the West Coast.” And Oakland officials have spent months reviewing “thousands of documents to determine whether they can legally oppose coal shipments from a city-owned bulk commodities terminal being constructed on the old Oakland Army Base.”

One exceedingly important issue is whether city officials, who appear to be remarkably united in their opposition, has the authority to block the plans of Phil Tagami, a prominent Oakland developer who is a longtime friend, political ally and financial supporter of Governor Brown.

“Tagami, a former port commissioner with deep personal and business ties to Gov. Jerry Brown, won the contract to oversee the city's portion of the Army Base redevelopment to transform about 160 acres adjacent to the Port of Oakland into a $500 million logistics center with new shipping terminals and warehouses,” the Contra Costa Times reported.

“Tagami has claimed that because his contract doesn't expressly prohibit coal, the city has no right to restrict his business. He has said the coal cars would be covered, reducing or eliminating the local threat of airborne pollutants,” The Times pointed out. And he has threatened to sue if he doesn’t get his way.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rachel Swan, “Tagami said he and Brown have privately discussed the coal plan …. [but] he wouldn’t elaborate on the nature of … questions” Brown had. And while many of tried, reporters, environmental activists, and government officials have yet to pry an opinion out of the governor.

As the East Bay Express’ Robert Gammon reported in late December, “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.” And yet, the governor continues to remain silent on Tagami’s project.

Gammon points out that while Brown “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.

Tagami and Brown “are close friends and real estate investment partners in Oakland,” the East Bay Express’ Gammons noted. “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.”

In addition, in 2012 Brown “recruited Tagami to serve on the California Lottery Commission, and on the state medical board in 2013.

On its web page entitled “Fight for a Coal-free Oakland,” the San Francisco Bay Chapter of The Sierra Club points out that a poll [conducted in the first few months of this year] shows that 76 percent of Oakland voters oppose the coal-export proposal, including a majority (57%) who oppose it “strongly.”

The Sierra Club has also prepared an “Oakland Coal Exports” fact sheet, which leads with A private developer wants to use public land and taxpayer dollars to export dirty coal through Oakland. Not only would this hurt our global climate, it would damage the health of local communities that already face dangerous levels of air pollution.”

Oakland, a city with a long and colorful history of political progressivism, is undergoing a rebirth of sorts with accelerating downtown development projects, new restaurants abounding, and a booming new tech economy. The downside of development and the influx of new, young and more financially secure settlers is that many of the city’s longtime residents – read that black, Latino and poor white – are being forced out of the city by outrageous increases in rents and the lack of adequate low-income housing.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Swan, the governor might have to take a stand if a “suite of bills by state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley” banning “the export of coal from Oakland and cut[ting] off public funding for any port in the state that handles coal,” comes to his desk.

In addition, the Oakland City Council “will vote on whether to hire a consultant to study the hazards of transporting coal through the city and into the former army base by rail.”

If he refuses to oppose the plan, the legacy of a climate change battling Governor Brown is clearly at stake. Will it be Governor Crony or Governor Courage? Stay tuned.

Not to be reposted without permission of Truthout.