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Breaking a bad habit


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Precisely 75 years ago March 19, the legendary California Zephyr debuted with "modern" passenger train service from Chicago to Oakland. As a child, I often watched from my bedroom as the orange-and-silver Zephyr locomotive roared by our Redding home.

In the 19th century, iron rails literally stitched our continent together. In 1875, the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway reached San Luis Obispo and the town began to thrive. In 1894, the larger Southern Pacific Railroad steamed into town; by 1901 it connected SF to LA.

Initially, steam locomotives were powered by coal. By 1960, diesel trains like the Zephyr dominated this vital transportation network.

Private passenger trains couldn't compete, however, with airlines and freeways. The last California Zephyr came churning past our home in 1970, the same year I left home for college at UC Santa Cruz.

And in January 1971, after only a few months in Santa Cruz, we learned of a major disaster just to the north: Two Standard Oil tankers had collided outside the Golden Gate, spilling 840,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the ocean.

Hours earlier, the Arizona Standard had left the Chevron terminal here at Estero Bay carrying a full load of crude oil for the company's Richmond refinery. In the dead of night amid dense fog, it rammed into another tanker outbound from Richmond with its hold full of bunker fuel.

That oil fouled the shoreline from Tomales Bay to as far south as Año Nuevo. As the oil spread southward, an enormous volunteer force materialized—the largest citizen response to a Bay Area disaster since the 1906 earthquake—and I joined them.

With my fellow UCSC students, we trekked to our northern beaches and set about the gruesome task of rounding up dozens of shuddering seabirds covered in bunker fuel. We tried to clean them up using mineral oil supplied by Chevron; most didn't make it. International Bird Rescue estimates that of the 4,300 birds we treated, only about 300 survived.

Those dark days in 1971 anointed me as a lifelong environmentalist. In 1979, the Abalone Alliance began to launch protests against licensing Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant; I was among them. In the early 1980s, as Sierra Club chapter chair, I forged an alliance with the chamber of commerce to fight offshore oil leasing off the Central Coast.

Sadly, a series of unfortunate events have long since overtaken the best intentions of our environmental movement to direct our energy policy.

In 1973, armed forces of Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War by invading Israel. Ultimately, Israel counter-attacked and prevailed, but the consequences of that war resounded beyond the Middle East.

OPEC nations implemented an oil embargo that crippled U.S. imports of crude oil from the Persian Gulf and caused severe gasoline shortages. Fuel stations were besieged by long lines of cars; gas prices soared to record heights.

In response to the OPEC oil embargo, President Richard Nixon announced "Project Independence," pledging that "by 1980, we shall meet America's needs from America's own energy resources." In a special message to Congress, Nixon noted that "our greatest dependence for energy until now has been on fossil fuels. ... We must not and we need not continue this heavy reliance in the future."

Then Nixon announced his own program: "The major alternative to fossil fuel energy for the remainder of the century is nuclear energy." He called for 1,000 nuclear plants to be built by the end of the 20th century, producing half the nation's energy demand.

That never happened, of course: Orders for nuclear plants dropped precipitously after Nixon left office in 1974. Opposition to nuclear power grew in the wake of the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

And today, there is still no plan to provide safe, permanent depositories for the 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste now stored at 77 reactor sites in 35 states, including Diablo Canyon.

So where are we now, half a century after Nixon set that laudable goal of weaning the nation off fossil fuels? Last year, the U.S. consumed 79 percent of its energy from fossil fuels; only 8 percent is from nuclear power and 13 percent from renewables (solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal).

In 2010, we experienced another massive oil spill—the nation's worst—when the Deepwater Horizon platform blew out and discharged a plume of more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, smaller spills from pipelines, trains, and ships continue to plague our shorelines and waterways. In 2015, the Plains All American pipeline ruptured near Refugio State Beach and spilled 143,000 gallons of crude onto the Gaviota Coast west of Santa Barbara, fouling no fewer than four Marine Protected Areas.

Do we have the political will to break our addiction to fossil fuels? Can we ever find a way to safely store and manage the spent fuel from our remaining operational nuclear power plants—let alone any new ones? Δ

John Ashbaugh is still haunted by the nightmares of those oil-covered birds on the beaches of Santa Cruz. His therapy is writing this monthly column for New Times. Contact him through the editor at [email protected].


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