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Baltimore’s gas stations: Good issue, wrong battlefront | COMMENTARY

In this May 13, 1979 photo, the Sunoco gas station in the 4500 block Falls Road advertises a lack of fuel, a product of the gasoline shortages of the times. Now, a City Councilman has proposed a ban on building new gas stations in the city to limit gasoline sales. (Photo taken by Baltimore Sun Staff Photographer Ralph L. Robinson).
In this May 13, 1979 photo, the Sunoco gas station in the 4500 block Falls Road advertises a lack of fuel, a product of the gasoline shortages of the times. Now, a City Councilman has proposed a ban on building new gas stations in the city to limit gasoline sales. (Photo taken by Baltimore Sun Staff Photographer Ralph L. Robinson). (Robinson/Baltimore Sun)

Recent events have produced a striking contrast in efforts to slow the destructive impact of climate change. In Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a lower court ruling that requires the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to undergo what is expected to be a lengthy and formidable environmental review process. Climate activists had long targeted the Keystone as perhaps the single most disastrous energy project pending in the United States because of the way it would enable the development of the Canadian tar sands. On that same day, a Baltimore City Councilman introduced legislation to prevent more gasoline stations from being built in Baltimore on the grounds that enabling people to drive fossil fuel-powered vehicles also contributes to climate change.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey, the lead sponsor of the proposed zoning ordinance, isn’t wrong about cars. Transportation represents the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions contributing about 28% of the problem (with power plants right behind at 27%), according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. The question is where exactly is this battle best fought? It’s one thing to block construction of a theoretical pipeline. The biggest loser there are investors in the fossil fuel industry but the economic trade-off between hurting them and enabling tar sands development which scientists have estimated would have produced 110 million tons of carbon dioxide a year should have been an easy call: Denying the pipeline may deny investors billions, but building it might cost the world trillions. That’s why the Obama administration was steadfastly against the project.

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What is the cost of banning more gasoline stations? That’s hard to say. It might not be a lot given that the city’s declining population (falling below 600,000 for the first time in a century, according to U.S. Census estimates released in March) suggests fewer, not more, such facilities are needed. What is the gain in the fight against climate change? Perhaps not much there, too. Whatever subtle pressure the choice exerts to convince people to take public transit instead of drive, there are many extenuating circumstances involved. Public transit remains primarily a state government function. Much of what prevents people from using it today is its inconvenience. If the choice is between driving and taking transit that requires several transfers and an hour or more to get from home to work, what will commuters do? Alas, there’s a second option that might prove as popular as it has in the past: Move out of the city.

Councilman Dorsey believes that gas stations that so often include convenience stores are part of what discourages grocery stores from investing in Baltimore. His theory is that without the competition, more grocery stores with healthier fare would take their place. Here’s an alternative theory to explain the city’s food deserts and its failure to attract more groceries: Baltimore’s high concentrations of low-income households are unattractive to grocery chains that, beginning decades ago, moved out to the suburbs where they could cater to a wealthier clientele. Throw in the racial component, and it’s classic red-lining. Wegmans isn’t threatened by 7-11 any more than Home Depot fears Royal Farms’ hardware aisle. What makes it so much worse is that a socket wrench desert doesn’t cause the hardship and adverse health effects the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables does for low-income households.

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That’s not to suggest the City Council has no business working to reduce the impact of climate change. It does. But a certain amount of realism is required. If the issue is how best to get city residents out of their cars, the fight needs to be taken to Annapolis where Baltimore’s inadequate transit system needs to be addressed. If it’s fuel efficiency or tailpipe emissions, that playing field is in the halls of Congress which can regulate the auto industry. In City Hall, the focus must be on improving quality of life from reducing homicides to supporting public schools, from promoting jobs and opportunities for all to fighting racial discrimination. Climate change is a serious issue and Baltimore stands to suffer greatly from its ill effects including worsening weather, flooding, smog, job losses and failing infrastructure. But the city can’t lead with its chin. Make it harder to live and work here or just over-regulate what families and employers remain and you won’t save the world (or open up more urban supermarkets), you’ll more likely accelerate the city’s population decline.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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