San Francisco's once-busy Port hasn't handled fossil fuels — like coal and crude oil — since the 1960s.
And if environmentalists have their way, the Port of San Francisco will never see a fossil fuel again.
The City's Environment Commission passed a resolution Thursday urging the Port to close its docks to the future possibility of carrying fossil fuels.
Burning coal to produce energy is on the decline in the United States, thanks in part to global concerns over carbon emissions' contributions to climate change.
But exports of domestic coal and petroleum coke — a fossil fuel squeezed from tar sands in Canada, which emits up to ten times more carbon when burned than coal — are on the rise, fueled by rising demand in China and in India.
To play its part in the effort to combat sea-level rise, the commission is backing a push to deny the Port of San Francisco to companies wishing to export coal, petcoke and crude oil.
The effort is mostly symbolic, as San Francisco's port handles a tiny amount of cargo compared to the Port of Oakland and the Port of Stockton.
Nonetheless, shutting off the Port to fossil fuels would send an influential message, supporters say, and make San Francisco a leader in the climate change struggle.
“We're saying we need to leave that coal in the ground,” said Jess Dervin-Ackerman, a conservation organizer with the S.F. Bay chapter of the Sierra Club. “We need to stop using it … and a [message] from local government is much more powerful than a message from us.”
Passengers will be the main cargo handled by the Port of San Francisco at Pier 35 and at Pier 27 once The City's new $100 million cruise terminal opens in the fall.
The Port hasn't handled container traffic — the ships stacked with steel boxes that regularly pass under the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge — in a decade.
The Port is hard for tractor trailers to access, and a short rail tunnel that limits cargo loads gives the Port of Oakland an unbeatable competitive advantage. What does come in is mostly steel for new construction projects at Pier 80 and rock aggregate, used to make concrete, at Pier 96.
And of the 2.4 million containers Oakland handles every year, a tiny amount — less than 0.5 percent — is either iron ore, petroleum coke or coal, Port spokesman Robert Bernardo said.
The Bay Area does deal in coal and petcoke, however: at the privately-held Levin-Richmond Terminal and at the Port of Stockton.
At Levin-Richmond, piles of coal and petcoke are visible from Interstate-580; the port exports about 1.2 million tons a year, Dervin-Ackerman said. In Stockton — a secondary choice for most export companies because of a shallower channel that limits cargo loads — about 1 million tons are exported.
In San Francisco, there's an effort afoot to convert Pier 96 into a bulk maritime cargo port to handle raw iron ore that would be shipped to China and made into steel there.
That rankles environmentalists, who say that an iron ore facility could easily be converted to handle coal or petcoke, and the Port would be under enormous pressure and be offered enormous sums of money to do just that.
BAN THE BURN
No petcoke companies have yet asked San Francisco's Port to consider handling the product.
The Port has received “multiple” inquiries from coal companies in recent years, port spokeswoman Renée Dunn Martin said, and rejected them each time.
Thursday's action by the Environment Commission urging the Port to close its docks to fossil fuels was intended to send a message, commissioners said, that such products would not be welcome here.
Any outright ban would likely need approval from the Board of Supervisors as well as the Port Commission.
And symbolic or not, a message needs to be sent — and environmentalists are eager to put The City on record.
“This could be really big,” Environment Commissioner Joshua Arce said.