In the California city of Petaluma, which covers less than 15 square miles, there are currently 16 gas stations. But there will never be another one, even if one of the existing stations goes out of business. The ones that are left also can’t ever expand the number of fuel pumps, either, though they can add electric charging stations and hydrocarbon pumps. City officials recently approved a permanent ban on new gas stations in a move that climate activists say is national first, and a crucial step towards curbing our reliance on fossil fuels.
“It’s a really important sign of things to come where, because we haven’t seen sufficient action at a state or federal level, cities have an opportunity to do the right thing and make sure we are planning a transition from a carbon economy to a clean energy economy,” says Matt Krogh, an oil and gas campaign manager with the environmental nonprofit Stand.earth. “There’s no need to build new fossil fuel infrastructure of any sort. We have all the tools we need for a clean energy economy, and these wasted investments are things that are going to become polluting liabilities, and communities get left holding the bag.”
Across the country the number of gas stations has been steadily declining, as big businesses like Costo, Sam’s Club, and Safeway have been adding gas stations to their existing stores. This can run smaller gas stations out of business—but also creates large environmental repercussions. “If they go out of business, there’s no one to pay for the cleanup or to offer new services like transitioning to electric charging or hydrogen,” Krogh says.
Gas stations have underground storage tanks which can crack and leak, polluting the soil and groundwater. That land has to be completely remediated before the ocation can be used for anything else, a process which often costs millions of dollars. In the U.S., there are currently 450,000 “brownfield” sites—previously developed land that currently isn’t in use and may be contaminated—and the EPA estimates half of those sites are contaminated by petroleum from underground tanks at abandoned gas stations.
Fewer gas stations could also mean a quicker transition to electric vehicles. California will ban new gas car sales starting in 2035, but still, the more that gas stations are available before then, Krogh says, “the less people understand the need to start transitioning to electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.” Within the Stand.earth nonprofit is a movement called SAFE Cities, an acronym for “Stand Against Fossil Fuel Expansion,” which supports policies that oppose new fossil fuel infrastructure or transition away from fossil fuels. New gas station bans could soon be part of such policy packages nationwide, along with standards like no gas in new buildings and expanded EV charger access.
The fight against new gas stations in Petaluma, one of nine cities that make up Sonoma County, has been going on for nearly two years, since a local Safeway submitted a proposal to convert a corner section of its shopping center into a fueling station, right across from an elementary school, daycares, and a little league field, sparking public health concerns from the community. The city’s review process was limited in the amount of power it had to stop it, says Petaluma City Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer.
“There was no way to deny the project, I thought, based on the merits,” Fischer says. So, instead she asked for a moratorium on new gas stations and a climate emergency ordinance to allow the council to reassess its rules on gas station construction. (Though the council voted unanimously on February 22 to approve the permanent ban, it has to approve it again at a second reading on March 1 before it takes effect.)
The ban won’t affect that Safeway station—that proposal is currently in the courts after local groups sued to stop its construction—but it’s a sign of the seriousness of the city’s plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2030, and could be a catalyst for more bans in the region. One activist group, the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations (CONGAS), has been advocating for a Sonoma County-wide ban on new gas stations since late 2019, when it fought a proposal for a new gas station in a nearby unincorporated county.
After the group won, they discovered another new proposal, and another. “We realized we’ve got an ongoing issue here, where developers still want to build gas stations even though it’s [the 2020s],” says Woody Hastings of CONGAS. “We felt pretty strongly that we don’t want to have to keep stomping out fires. We want to change the permitting rule around gas stations.” He’s clear that the group doesn’t want to shut down existing gas stations, just prevent new ones from being built—and he says they’re actually doing these developers a favor, “because we do believe that the phase out of fossil fuel vehicles will come much more quickly than people think.”
Petaluma’s permanent gas station ban is a sign that this change is possible, even though the city hasn’t historically been a climate leader. “We’re actually behind when it comes to what needs to be done and what other communities are doing,” Fischer says. “We don’t have electric buses, we don’t have an electric fleet in our city, we just bought our first electric car. The city of Santa Monica started that 20 years ago, at least.” Now, though, Sonoma County residents hope others can look to Petaluma as an example to get other local governments to pass similar bans. “I hope everyone follows suit,” Fischer says.