Airport debate an example of united activists' gains in pollution fight
When Seattle’s first commercial airport opened in 1928, Georgetown had been a vibrant community for more than half a century.
“We were here before the airport was. They forget that,” says Rosario-Maria Medina, a community activist in the South Seattle neighborhood of Georgetown, just north of bustling Boeing Field.
We’re sitting in the house that once belonged to her grandfather Ismael Barron, who moved from Texas to Georgetown in 1959. Barron joined his brother Manuel, who’d arrived in the 1940s and, like Manuel, set up a barbershop in what was becoming one of Seattle’s most diverse areas. Georgetown and adjoining South Park had significant numbers of Latino, African American, Asian and Pacific Island residents, while the Seattle metropolitan area remained overwhelmingly white.
The roar of airplanes punctuates our conversation. To Medina, the sonic interruptions are a persistent reminder of how decades of development practices allowed the airport, industrial facilities and freeways to encroach on the community. By the time her grandfather arrived, the local library and movie theater had closed, and the completion of Interstate 5 in 1962 killed much of Georgetown’s remaining business activity.
“They knew these areas were mostly immigrants and refugees, so they knew they could do what they wanted,” says Medina.
Along with the noise, chemical pollutants rain down on the community. The residential mix of Georgetown and South Park remains diverse: 70% Black, Indigenous and other people of color; 42% foreign born; and 71.7% low income — and they suffer health problems from that pollution. Soot causes a host of heart and respiratory issues, and the toxic lead that causes developmental delays in children is still added to the aviation gas burned by small planes, decades after being banned from North America’s roads.
Emissions of carbon dioxide, meanwhile, dissolve into the atmosphere, contributing to the climate-change-driven heat waves, flooding and other weather extremes that already disproportionately affect marginalized communities.
On this fall morning, planes are coming from the north, not just landing a few blocks away at King County International Airport-Boeing Field (the county-owned airport’s full name), but also descending toward Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac), the Puget Sound area’s regional airport 5 miles to the south.
In 1999, the Georgetown community lost a fight against a Boeing Field expansion plan. And in 2008, Sea-Tac added a third runway. The noise seems to get worse every year. Takeoffs and landings at the county airfield rose 12.6% between 2015 and 2019.
In response, Medina joined a coalition that’s standing up against further increases in flights — an alliance that’s notched several wins over the past 12 months against one of the region’s core industries. It’s something that’s increasingly common across the Pacific Northwest: In Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, local activists fighting for quality-of-life issues are teaming up with climate activists and using their collective strength to sway local governments.
And they are winning. Local leaders are responding to this pressure — often backed by the rising moral and legal authority of Indigenous tribes and nations — by passing ordinances and implementing rules that deliver on their stated commitments to address climate change and environmental injustice, including rules to phase out gas heating, ban new refineries and chemical plants, and more.
“These rules just change the whole game,” says Matt Krogh, a campaign director for Stand.Earth, a climate action group based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Bellingham. Krogh says hurdles to oil, gas and coal developments have more than a practical, legal impact. They also puncture the sense of inevitability that’s surrounded fossil fuel expansion “ever since oil got big” at the dawn of the 20th century.
Communities that ban yesterday’s dirty energy, says Krogh, begin to imagine another “inevitable path” — one toward clean energy: “It’s changing how people are thinking about the future and what’s going to happen.”
Thinking globally, acting locally
The King County International Airport Community Coalition organized last year in response to a $282 million master plan update crafted by Boeing Field that foresaw more jet flights and thus more noise in Georgetown, higher emissions of carbon dioxide and, likely, rising air pollution as well. Led by former state representative and labor organizer Velma Veloria, the coalition united groups representing Georgetown and neighboring communities, such as the Beacon Hill Council, with environmental groups such as 350 Seattle.
The coalition called for the county’s elected officials to fulfill recent promises to fight climate change and environmental injustice by blocking the airport’s expansion.
Veloria carried a powerful message about the health status of those living in the lowlands around Boeing Field: When the Filipina activist left the Legislature in 2004, residents had a life expectancy that was five years shorter than people “up the hill” in wealthier Seattle neighborhoods. “Now, it’s a 13-year difference,” says Veloria. Thanks to earlier advocacy by social justice group El Centro de la Raza and the Beacon Hill Council, the coalition had on hand a Seattle & King County Public Health study on Sea-Tac, documenting its negative health impacts.
Meanwhile, 350 Seattle’s volunteer aviation team helped make the climate connection. Its members documented how aviation generates 2.5% of global CO2 emissions but 3.5% of global warming, thanks to the vapor contrails created by jets, which also trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere.
The coalition and El Centro de la Raza scored its first victory in December 2020 when King County’s elected executive, Dow Constantine, promised that the county’s 2021 greenhouse gas inventory would count emissions from all fuel pumped at airports in the county. Another win came in May, when the county’s updated climate action plan called for cutting aircraft emissions — which Boeing Field’s growth plan anticipated would increase 30% between 2018 and 2035. That could help the county meet its self-imposed mandate to cut emissions 50% from 2007 levels by 2030.
The big win came on the third day of this summer’s heat dome event, at 2:26 p.m. on June 28, when Constantine called Veloria to say the airport’s master plan update was off the table.
Another victory for citizen activists came a few weeks later when Whatcom County — home to two large refineries — passed sweeping land-use rules that ban new processing plants, such as crude-oil refineries and chemical plants.
There are more bans in the works.
Plastic bag bans are proliferating. Natural gas appliances and furnaces have been banned from certain new buildings in jurisdictions such as Vancouver, B.C., Seattle and Multnomah County, which includes Portland. And in May, Eugene, Oregon, allowed its gas supplier’s franchise agreement to expire, threatening Portland-based NW Natural’s legal authority to lay new gas pipes under city streets.
States, provinces and national governments are reluctant to push fossil fuels off the table; in fact, British Columbia still subsidizes gas production. But a tougher approach is crucial for decarbonization, says Eric de Place, who leads energy policy work for the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank. Most state, provincial and federal energy policies aimed at addressing climate change provide incentives to build more “clean” stuff, like renewable power plants, low-carbon fuels and electric vehicles. But he sees local action constraining infrastructure as crucial because only less consumption of fossil fuels actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
“I’ll be in the bleachers applauding for the clean energy stuff,” says de Place, “but I’ll be in the streets for stopping fossil fuels.”
Revoking fossil fuels’ free ride
Regional activists are busy thinking up new targets, beyond large industrial facilities, to challenge the dominance of fossil energy.
Krogh, at Stand.Earth, says many opportunities involve using building codes, land-use ordinances and other measures to restrict the growth of fossil fuel consumption that pervades civic life — or even to start ramping it down.
Widespread examples are local plastic bag bans, such as those in Washington state that led to this fall’s statewide ban. Bag bans, which often focus on the potential to slash plastic pollution, can simultaneously constrain demand for plastics. And fossil fuel producers increasingly see plastics as their best hope for future sales of gas, petroleum and coal as the world shifts to renewable power, battery vehicles and all-electric buildings. By one estimate, carbon emissions from the plastic industry could exceed those from coal power plants by 2030.
A newer set of battles over the use of fossil fuels seeks to cap the consumption of natural gas in buildings. Bans on gas appliances and furnaces in new construction have passed or are pending in at least nine cities and counties across Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. That’s in spite of heavy regional advertising by the Affordable Energy Coalition, a utility- and labor-backed campaign to protect natural gas heating.
British Columbia, Washington and Oregon all have laws that require distributors of motor fuels to steadily reduce the carbon intensity of their products. They’re also seeking to push drivers into battery-powered cars and trucks as soon as possible and reserve biofuels for heavier vehicles that are harder to electrify.
In October, British Columbia announced that it would be accelerating its phaseout of conventional cars and trucks, seeking to triple the proportion of electric car sales required in 2030 from 30% to 90%.
Hemming in Boeing Field
The fight to constrain airport growth in the Puget Sound region also challenges conventional wisdom. The King County International Airport Community Coalition’s call to stop aviation growth runs directly counter to the expansion ethic under which public airports operate and plan for the future — a growth doctrine that’s particularly strong in Washington state, with its extensive aerospace industry centered around Boeing.
Allowing flights to keep on increasing — which they have done steadily except during the early months of the COVID pandemic — means carbon emissions might continue to increase for the foreseeable future, despite significant industry efficiency measures. That’s what the county airfield’s plan projected, and the airport’s recent track record suggests reality could significantly exceed its projections.
According to an overview released with the plan last September, the steady increase in traffic at Boeing Field between 2015 and 2019 was forecast to be a 2.9% decline.
And the airport’s plan downplayed its pollution impacts. It reported zero emissions of soot and other particle pollution. It also minimized climate impacts in several ways. The plan counted only the 10% of fuel burned during takeoffs and landings, rather than all of the fuel the airport pumps for planes’ full journeys. It also ignored additional warming caused by exhaust-induced clouds, or contrails. Add them up, and climate impacts associated with Boeing Field could already be well over 10 times higher than it estimates.
While that airport’s growth plans have been grounded for the time being, activists will face a tougher fight taking on Sea-Tac, a regional hub that is well on the way to completing a growth plan of its own. And Sea-Tac answers to the Port of Seattle, whose enabling statutes enshrine economic growth as a priority.
Activists’ best hope for Sea-Tac may be electing progressive candidates to the port’s independent governing commission. All three of the winning candidates in November’s commission election campaigned on environmental and equity positions, including two women of color who unseated incumbent commissioners.
Activists also have to contend with plans for a second Sea-Tac. In 2019, the Washington Legislature voted unanimously to create a commission tasked with finding short-term expansion opportunities at the state’s congested airports and picking a site for a new regional hub. The new hub would pave the way for decades of aviation — and emissions — expansion.
Seattle attorney Sarah Shifley, co-founder of the volunteer aviation team for 350 Seattle, calls that “flabbergasting” after the June heat dome, this summer’s fires and Hurricane Ida, which caused more than $95 billion in damage in Louisiana — all events attributed to climate change and thus driven, in part, by historic aviation emissions. “I actually think it’s insane,” says Shifley, without a hint of hyperbole.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, like Boeing Field director John Parrott and the global aviation industry, sees fuels with a lower carbon footprint than jet fuel — so-called “sustainable aviation fuels” — as the best way to square aviation growth with their commitments to decarbonize.
In written answers to InvestigateWest, the governor’s office noted that stopping aviation growth could have “repercussions” for Washington’s economy and insisted that increasing aviation capacity “remains sound.” Inslee’s office identified alternative fuels as the “most promising” among various technologies to address aviation emissions, which include nascent efforts to electrify airplanes.
However, energy and climate experts doubt low-carbon fuels can deliver on such expectations, given the challenges associated with expanding biofuels and the weight of batteries needed to electrify large planes. And, as Shifley notes, focusing on “sustainable” fuels ignores the disproportionate local impacts on communities like Georgetown and Beacon Hill.
Increasingly, even experts associated with Washington state’s extensive aviation fuel development programs say constraining aviation demand must become part of the solution.
Ross Macfarlane led Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest, a stakeholder group formed to create a road map for cleaner aviation fuels. He says the cost of aviation should rise to reflect its impact on climate to help drive demand for air travel toward cheaper and cleaner alternatives, such as high-speed rail and virtual business meetings.
This story is part of the series Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia, which explores the path to low-carbon energy for British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. This project is produced in partnership with InvestigateWest and other media outlets and is supported in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.