February 22, 2024
Air travel seems to so far have escaped scrutiny in the debate over how to meet climate challenges. But as the Oakland Airport plans its first major expansion in 40 years, that may be changing.

After an onslaught of wildfires, dangerous heat and flooding over the past few years, a recent survey shows that a third of Bay Area residents view climate change as one of the most pressing challenges facing the region.

Air travel so far seems to have escaped scrutiny in the ongoing debate. But as the Oakland International Airport plans its first major expansion in 40 years, that may be changing. On Tuesday, a broad coalition of over 60 organizations will rally at the airport in protest of the plan to build a new terminal, add more gates and ultimately increase air traffic in the East Bay.

Public awareness of aviation’s contributions to climate change “has been a huge blind spot,” said Lin Griffith, a member of the steering committee for Stop OAK Expansion Coalition. “We don’t need this.”

In July, Oakland Airport officials published a draft environmental report outlining their plans for what they described as a long overdue effort to reimagine an airport that hasn’t seen significant upgrades in decades. The plan includes the construction of a new 830,000-square-foot terminal building, upgrades to existing facilities and the addition of 16 gates.

According to the coalition, the plans come at a time when the region should be working to phase out, rather than scale up, commercial air travel. Aviation already accounts for more than 11% of Bay Area CO2 emissions, according to the group. As a state, California has set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2045.

Advocates say that if the region is serious about curbing its emissions, air travel must be a significant piece of the puzzle. In a survey conducted in July by the Public Policy Institute of California, 31% of Bay Area residents identified climate change as a top concern.

Beyond the contributions to climate change, the Stop OAK Expansion Coalition is concerned about the impact of air pollution caused by ultra-fine particles in jet fuel, which is known to cause decreased lung function, airway inflammation and other adverse health effects. East Oakland residents who live closest to the airport already experience some of the highest asthma hospitalization rates compared to the rest of the region, along with higher death rates from heart disease, stroke and lung cancer

“We’re breathing in this air pollution all the time,” Griffith said. “It’s not good.”

The Port of Oakland, which operates the airport, said the development will be a boon for the local economy, and that the airport will be “a crucial driver of the region’s economic future.” The new terminal will be built on the airport’s existing footprint, will not add runways and will not require filling the Bay in with more sediment.

“Oakland International Airport must improve its facilities or put at risk its role as a jobs and economic generator for the East Bay,” Robert Bernardo, a spokesperson for the Port of Oakland, said in a statement.  “We take our responsibility as an environmental steward very seriously.”

Even before accounting for health and climate concerns, in Griffith’s view, there’s a chance that all the development could ultimately be a poor investment. Although the airport projects increasing air traffic, Griffith sees an alternate reality in which people in the Bay Area cut back on flight as they grow more aware of the climate implications of air travel. The region’s population has already declined in recent years. The airport has already considered a rebrand in part because the Oakland name lowers passenger demand.

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On Tuesday, the coalition will march to the first of four public meetings on the airport’s draft environmental impact report process to promote their message.

“It’s very difficult for people to go backwards on things that we have become accustomed to,” Griffith said. “But we could end up with a stranded asset – a big old building and nobody in it.”

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