Federal judge overturns Oakland’s coal export ban

It's a blow to the city's environmental and social justice agenda.

Container ships loading and unloading in the Port of Oakland, the site of a proposed export terminal that would handle millions of tons of coal. (CREDIT: Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)
Container ships loading and unloading in the Port of Oakland, the site of a proposed export terminal that would handle millions of tons of coal. (CREDIT: Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

A federal judge overturned Oakland’s ban on coal shipments through a planned export terminal on Tuesday, dealing local environmental and social justice groups a blow to their agenda.

The city of Oakland passed a ban on coal shipments through the proposed terminal in 2015, after it came to light that a 2013 proposal to develop a large stretch of the Oakland Army Base would be used to ship coal from Utah to markets overseas. When the city agreed to develop the army base in 2013, with developer Phil Tagami — a friend of California Governor Jerry Brown (D) — the contract allowed the city to impose future regulations on the project if there were health or safety concerns.

In response to plans to ship some 5 million metric tons of coal annually through the terminal — coal that would come from mines in Utah, Wyoming, and elsewhere throughout the Powder River Basin — Oakland city officials enacted a ban on coal shipments in 2016. They argued that coal trains and the resulting shipments would bring particulate pollution like coal dust into surrounding communities and disproportionately impact low-income and minority populations that live around the proposed terminal.

High concentrations of coal dust have been shown to contribute to a number of adverse health impacts, particularly respiratory illnesses like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema. Coal dust also contains toxic heavy metals like mercury and arsenic, which can leach into the soil near coal shipping facilities.


In his decision this week, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ruled that the city had not adequately shown that the shipments of coal would have adverse public health and safety impacts on the surrounding community. Chhabria wrote in his decision that the city’s case was “riddled with inaccuracies” and “faulty analyses, to the point that no reliable conclusion about health or safety dangers could be drawn from it.”

Oakland city officials expressed disappointment with the ruling, but said that the city would continue to asses its options — including appealing the decision — in order to prevent coal from moving through the terminal.

“There was more than substantial evidence that shipping this much coal through this one location has substantial health and safety impacts,” Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, who wrote the coal ban, told SFGate. “We need to do whatever it takes within the law to hold firm in our opposition to this ridiculous proposal.”

Oakland is not the only city to have enacted a ban on a particular kind of fossil fuel export in response to a proposal for development. However, since Chhabria’s decision was based solely on the particular agreement between the city of Oakland and developers, it’s unlikely that Tuesday’s ruling will impact those other bans or ongoing litigation surrounding them.


Since the mid-2010s, the West Coast has seen more than a dozen proposals for fossil fuel export terminals, as oil, gas, and coal companies with extraction operations in the middle of the country looked for cheap, fast routes to ship their goods to markets in Asia.

The majority of those proposals were successfully defeated through a combination of local laws and opposition — cities and counties from Portland, Oregon, to Whatcom County in northern Washington have enacted either permanent or temporary moratoriums on the shipment of particular fossil fuels through their city or county boundaries.

Portland, which amended its zoning code in 2016 to prohibit the construction of bulk fossil fuel infrastructure, has been defending that move in court. In January, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that the ban did not violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution — which holds that only Congress can regulate interstate commerce — potentially paving the way for more cities to enact similar bans.

Interior states with financial interests in coal and fossil fuel exports have also stepped up, challenging Pacific states in court over their resistance to export terminals. In Washington, six interior states recently filed a brief in federal court urging a judge to overturn Washington state regulators’ denial of crucial permits for what would be the largest coal export terminal in the country. A pending appeal in that case is set to be heard by the state Pollution Control Board in late September of this year.