Big Oil In Our Backyard: Activism At Home

Trains carrying crude are proposed to come to Benicia.
Crude oil trains are proposed to come to cities like Benicia, putting residents and our Bay at risk. Photo by Daniel Adel

Through personal reflections and historical exposé, I’ve been giving my hometown and the waters of the Carquinez Strait the spotlight since joining Save The Bay in February. A former state capital, not to mention an early contender for Metropolis of the West, Benicia, a sleepy town just shy of 27,000 people, remains hidden from public imagination. Visitors describe the city as quaint and picturesque – a vision that runs counter to the reality that the eastern end of the city fronting Suisun Bay is the site of heavy industry.

While Benicia never became the commercial or political hub its founders envisioned it to be, it is of vital economic importance to the nation as home to one of the Bay Area’s oil refineries. Opposite the bay from the Shell Oil Refinery in Martinez is Valero Refinery, the centerpiece of Benicia’s massive Industrial Park. Both sites, long symbols of our fossil fuel based economy, garnered the attention of locals and environmentalists alike earlier this month.

On Sunday May 17, I joined a Refinery Corridor Healing Walk led by Idle No More SF Bay organizers. We marched 9.5 miles from Martinez to my hometown of Benicia, crossing sights both monstrous and beautiful. What felt like a dream on this most remote side of the Bay was long overdue.

A grassroots movement among indigenous peoples in Canada, Idle No More made headlines for opposing hazardous fossil fuel projects including the building of the Keystone XL pipeline over indigenous land in Alberta. Bay Area activists joined Idle No More last year to create the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition. Working together, the two groups have organized healing walks along the refinery corridor of northeast San Francisco Bay to bring attention to the health risks and dangers that the refineries pose and the crude coming through the communities from the Alberta tar sands and the Bakken oil fields.

Indeed, in recent years, Bay Area refineries have attracted national controversy with expansion projects to increase the amount of crude coming in and being refined. This, in a time when scientists agree that 80% of the world’s fossil fuel reserves should remain underground, unburned, to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

The Valero Benicia Refinery’s expansion project may be the most controversial of all with its crude-by-rail proposal to transport the highly flammable, explosive Bakken oil along the existing Amtrak rail corridor adjacent to the Suisun Bay and marsh. Nevermind that Benicia residents don’t even have access to passenger rail, the crude-by-rail project is being considered as a less costly alternative to crude by ship and pipeline.

Yet, as evidenced by the Lac-Mégantic disaster in Quebec, crude train derailments are increasingly commonplace. Benicia, our waterways — and for that matter, any of countless communities along the rail route — all risk catastrophe with this project. The recent oil spill in Santa Barbara is also a vivid reminder of how oil pipelines, especially those near waterways, can have disastrous effects on our ecosystem. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, “It is the kind of disaster that local officials say could happen in the Bay Area, especially around the oil refineries in Richmond and Martinez, where petroleum is regularly transported between marine terminals and storage facilities along San Francisco Bay and the Carquinez Strait.” As the Executive Director of Audubon California put it, “Time and time again, we’re reminded that the benefits of putting oil so close to our natural treasures are never worth the risk.”

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Getting to Zero: Pledges for a Better Bay

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Over the past weeks, we’ve invited you to join our Zero Trash, Zero Excuse campaign via email and social media. As a result, a total of 844 people have taken the Zero Trash Pledge. At last Saturday’s Uncorked festival, many festival goers stopped by our booth to show us their pledge. Here are some of the ways that Save The Bay members and staff have pledged to keep trash from flowing into San Francisco Bay:

“I pledge to accept no excuses in stopping trash from flowing into the Bay.”

“I pledge to strongly encourage my family to quit their plastic water bottle addiction.”

“I take a pledge to say ‘no straw please’ when I order a drink.”

“I pledge to join Save The Bay in demanding my city reach Zero Trash.”

“I pledge to wash + reuse Ziploc bags”

“I pledge to call on my city to enforce existing laws that keep trash out of our waterways.”

“I pledge to carry bamboo utensils so I never have to use plastic utensils again!”

“I pledge to urge my city to be more proactive in passing strong policies to keep trash out of the Bay.”

Will you take the Zero Trash Pledge? Visit to take action.

Benicia: What Could Have Been

 A modern Benicia map with the original 1847 layout of streets superimposed.
The Benicia that might of have been: a modern Benicia map with the original 1847 layout of streets superimposed, extending far up into its hills and out into the waters of the Carquinez Strait. Courtesy Steve McKee

Ever wondered how San Francisco looked with its fabled Yerba Buena Cove? Come visit the north side of the Carquinez Strait, to its pre-Gold Rush rival. In the now sleepy town of Benicia, you’ll find a 19th century street grid cutting abruptly into its naturally rocky shoreline. This is because most of the coves and inlets of Benicia were never filled in for urban development.

Growing up in historic Benicia, it was always evident to me what it could have been. Hard as it is to believe today, when conceived in the year 1847, Benicia’s founders envisioned the settlement to grow to be the alpha city of the American West. Despite its deep water port on the Carquinez Strait and easy access to California’s interior, San Francisco quickly usurped that role with the dawn of the Gold Rush.

Nonetheless, Benicia’s early optimism now presents itself as an interesting counter-example to San Francisco, which led the region with its amazing growth, but also the careless environmental degradation that came with reckless 19th and 20th century city planning.

A look at the history of each city’s name presents us a more telling tale of their early rivalry.

Benicia was originally slated to be called Francisca in honor of Doña “Francisca” Benicia Carrillo de Vallejo, the wife of Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, arguably the most powerful individual in the historic Mexican province of Alta California and one of the co-founders of the city. Perhaps, more importantly, the city of Francisca aimed to associate itself with something much larger: San Francisco Bay. A nod to the crown jewel of our region, already famous in an era when marine travel was king, the city was envisioned as the new metropolis of the West.

Fearful that the formation of Francisca would eclipse it, Yerba Buena, the small fishing village sitting on a cove of the same name, renamed itself “San Francisco,” effectively forcing the use of Señora Vallejo’s second name of “Benicia.” Indeed, the name San Francisco stuck in the minds of gold seekers around the world, who would always remember that city named after the Bay, rather than its rival Benicia.

In dramatic fashion, San Francisco erased not only its former name, but all traces of it. Yerba Buena Cove now sits underneath today’s Financial District, once a grid of carefully fought over “waterlots.”

It begs the question of how Benicia would have looked if built out as intended. The above map of Benicia as proposed in 1847 would certainly have it looking much more like its former rival. In accordance to the 1847 street grid, the rolling hills near and above Benicia’s Interstate 780 freeway would have developed like San Francisco’s Nob and Russian Hills. The thought of a majestic hill city before the Carquinez Strait sounds glamorous, but that urban development would have come at a great cost to its waterfront.

Indeed, after the Gold Rush, rampant filling of shallow areas reduced San Francisco Bay’s size by one-third and destroyed 90 percent of the Bay’s tidal marsh. For Benicia to have largely escaped this is a powerful testament to what could have been.

So perhaps, in an parallel world, Benicia would have stuck to its original name of Francisca. The gold prospectors that would have gathered in Benicia would have helped to secure its hold as a major world city. The natural contours that so define its shoreline today could have been transformed into a zigzag of rectangular geometry. High-rise buildings mounted on bayfill and plans to construct a “clean cut” shoreline like San Francisco’s Embarcadero could have taken place. Yet, for those wildlife and residents who enjoy a quiet life before the Carquinez and take pride in our town’s natural coves and inlets, this lack of development is a blessing in disguise.

Myself, having both grown up in Benicia and lived in San Francisco for two years, it comes as more of a mixed blessing. Like many Bay Area residents, I long for the urban amenities provided by residing in a city like San Francisco, such as accessible public transit. At same time, I’ve written before how the Carquinez Strait has been my connection to the Bay. My hometown’s many shoreline parks were instrumental in fostering my sense of place at a young age and ultimately my future pursuits as a student and advocate of the environment.

Reflections on a Day in the Field

Picture of Save The Bay Office Volunteers
Save The Bay Office Volunteers (left to right): Melisa Lim, Jennifer Inman, Jennifer Braun, Daniel Adel. Photo by. Jon Backus

On March 19, I got the chance to engage in field work far out in the tidal marsh wetlands of Hayward’s Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, one of Save The Bay’s restoration sites. I spent much of the morning and afternoon feeling the bay breeze and soil. It was a welcome reprieve from communications work — writing, research, data entry, and online advocacy — behind the desk.

Accompanied by staff and fellow office volunteers, we each tended the soil and plants along the transition zone pictured above.

I earlier wrote how volunteering with Save The Bay was a way to connect with my Bay Area roots, but that was prior to getting my hands dirty. Growing up here, I’ve heard stories and been presented photographic accounts of habitat (specifically wetland) restoration all my life, but to take part in it myself was extremely rewarding and has given me a newfound interest in it.

As part of our experience, all office volunteers have the unique opportunity of working both in and outside an office environment. For some, this day was our first time working on a habitat restoration project.

Here’s what some of our volunteers had to say about their experience working in the field and in the office:

Tending soil and plants, one-by-one. Photo by. Daniel Adel

“Being out on the Bay at a restoration site was an inspiring experience. Eden Landing is great because it has a “before” part which will be left unrestored for bird nesting and the levees which are starting to be colonized. So I could really witness the progress that comes from the restoration efforts of STB. Being close to the water and seeing all the birds also increased my sense of connection to the Bay and the feeling that it is a habitat for wildlife, in contrast to much of the shoreline which is so built and sterile.

Working in the development team, I get to see many of the grant proposals that were developed to request funding to support the restoration work.  Before our field experience, the project activities, objectives and outcomes described in the proposals lacked concreteness. I can now relate to what I read and I feel that makes me more effective in shaping future proposals.” – Melisa Lim, Grant Writing and Development Volunteer

“Overall, I have very much enjoyed my time at Save The Bay. I’ve been treated like staff and given substantive, interesting projects to work on. So far I’ve researched and written a blog on the threat from oil trains, have learned what the Bay Restoration Authority is all about, and even met a State Senator! My current project is to highlight some of the projects that might get funded if voters approve Bay restoration funding in 2016, and develop a set of materials and photos that create a vivid picture of the benefits of restoration in the minds of potential political allies.

Eden Landing was a magical day. It was a treat to be out on the levees in an area currently closed to the public, and see snowy plovers and the murmurations of sandpipers. I was amazed at how extensive the salt ponds are there and glad I could do my bit to help return them to tidal habitat.” – Jennifer Braun, Policy Volunteer

You’ve heard voices from volunteers working in communications (myself), development, and policy, but now hear from one of our habitat restoration volunteers who spends most of her time in the field:

“As a habitat restoration intern for Save The Bay, I am fortunate to work at our restoration sites twice a week and I have been to Eden Landing a handful of times. Every experience is unique in that I always learn something new about the reserve. I have removed invasive plant species and planted native plants such as California sage and Salt Marsh Baccharis along the site. Understanding the importance of how these native plants provide important habitat for endangered species such as the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse and the California Ridgway Rail has been very educational for me.  I have also had the opportunity help with watering and mulching native plants at our restoration sites and see the hard work that has taken place due to Save The Bay’s dedication to this area.

I am working along side the staff with the public, school and corporate programs; staff workdays which involve planting natives at our restoration sites; native plant collection for the Oro Loma project, as well as seed propagation and assisting in the nurseries.” – Jennifer Inman, Habitat Restoration Volunteer

Interested in Save The Bay’s Office Volunteer Program? Learn more and apply here.

Returning to my Roots

A tall, arching bridge and hills giving way to the blue peace – looking out into the Carquinez Strait from the Benicia waterfront. Photo by. Daniel Adel

As a Benicia native, the Carquinez Strait was (and continues to be) an everyday sight. As a child, I would often frequent my hometown’s many shoreline parks, such as the tidal marsh wetlands of the Benicia State Recreation Area immediately downhill from my residence. The stunning views of San Francisco Bay, the sights of tall, arching bridges and hills giving way to this expansive blue peace – knowing that our estuary was the meeting place of California’s waterways before draining into the Pacific Ocean, had a strong impact on my psyche, my sense of place, and ultimately my future pursuits as a student and advocate of the environment.

For the last month, I have had the privilege of working as Save The Bay’s Communications Volunteer, helping to update Save The Bay’s website, social media platforms, archive photos, and keep track of volunteers at our restoration events.

It’s strange, seeing how all the pieces came together.

As a result of personal and academic influences, I have, in recent years, been involved with many environmental causes, such as campaigning for fossil fuel divestment in the halls of San Francisco State (now my alma mater), or marching in Downtown Oakland to address climate justice in my ancestral South Asia. Such hard-hitting global issues were topics I covered as a writer for the environmental magazine, Earth Island Journal. Sharing such stories are also the focus of much of my personal social media feed.

While these experiences, forming the basis of my post-college career goals, are why I applied as an office volunteer for an environmental non-profit like Save The Bay, my connections with this organization’s work go back many years – rooted in my experience of growing up in the Bay Area.

My upbringing in Benicia provided me with a lifelong appreciation for San Francisco Bay. Save The Bay’s legacy of protecting our shoreline has always been extremely visible to me, but the organization in name first entered my consciousness after reading Richard Walker’s book, The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area and subsequently watching the KQED documentary, Saving The Bay: The Story of San Francisco Bay several years ago. As a recurring topic in my Environmental Studies courses, it became more and more apparent to me how Save The Bay has shaped the trajectory of our region – and now my career.

It’s heartening to finally take a step back and return to my roots – the Bay Area. It’s such an honor to have the opportunity to contribute to work that has been so near and dear to me, and to use the experience to build on some of my more contemporary pursuits, such as writing and communicating for an environmental cause.

Old and new memories – looking south to Contra Costa County from across the Carquinez Strait. Photo by. Daniel Adel

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been frequenting the Benicia shoreline almost every day, revisiting old memories and connecting to new ones at Save The Bay.

My origins in the Bay Area, its history, achievements, and role in inspiring broader progressive movements around the world, have strongly shaped my identity. As I continue my role in communications, in becoming more familiar with all its nuances and technicalities, I aspire to bridge my two passions: writing and advocacy.