Oakland airport expansion raises environmental concerns

Ariella Granett, of the Stop Oak Expansion Coalition, speaks about the adverse impacts associated with expanding the Oakland International Airport at a public hearing at the Hilton hotel near the airport on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 30. She was one of several speakers who spoke in opposition to the project. (Sonia Waraich - East Bay Echo)

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Port of Oakland is in the middle of a major decision-making process regarding the expansion of Oakland International Airport. The expansion aims to meet growing demand but raises concerns about its potential contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

The port’s Terminal Modernization and Development Project seeks to enhance safety standards by upgrading existing terminals and building a new 830,000-square-foot terminal, ultimately resulting in 16 additional passenger gates. This expansion is designed to accommodate a projected doubling of annual passengers from 13.4 million in 2019 to 24.7 million by 2038. The draft environmental impact report notes the project will result in potentially significant, unavoidable increases in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants that pose an elevated health risks to airport workers.

During a public hearing on the draft report at the Hilton Oakland Airport Hotel on Wednesday morning, Project Manager Dave Full explained that a substantial portion of the emissions originate from aircraft operations, over which the port lacks regulatory authority. Instead, the port is focusing its efforts on reducing emissions from ground operations, an area within its control.

The Stop Oak Airport Expansion Coalition rallies in front of the Hilton Oakland Airport Hotel ahead of a public hearing the expansion and modernization of the airport on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 30. The coalition has been speaking out against the Port of Oakland’s plans to expand and modernize the airport, citing environmental and health concerns. (Sonia Waraich – East Bay Echo)

While one person voiced support for the project, highlighting its potential for job creation, over a dozen members of the Stop Oak Airport Expansion Coalition expressed their opposition. Their primary concerns revolved around the projected rise in greenhouse gas emissions, increased noise levels, air pollution, and potential health impacts on the surrounding community.

Sanjay Garla, with SEIU United Service Workers West, which represents airport workers, told the port leadership that the union opposes the project because of the increased health risks for workers. Jack Fleck, a retired transportation engineer with environmental group 350 Bay Area, recommended modernizing the facilities without expanding, which would have community support.

Air pollution and health

The environmental report assessed the impact of doubling passenger numbers by 2038 on the region’s compliance with state and national air quality standards, which it currently falls short of. Areas meeting or surpassing national air quality standards receive an “attainment area” designation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while those failing to meet the standards are labeled as “non-attainment areas.” In such cases, state and local clean air plans are developed to improve air quality.

The vicinity of the Oakland airport is presently designated a “non-attainment area” for ground-level ozone, a key component of smog, as well as fine particulate matter, which both pose varying degrees of health risks.

Particulate matter can include a mixture of dirt, dust, soot, smoke and liquid droplets that come from a variety of sources. It is divided into two categories: coarse particulate matter, or PM 10, which refers to particles that are 10 microns in diameter, and the more dangerous fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, which refers to particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter. Because of its small size, fine particulate matter tends to linger in the air longer and deposit deeper into the lungs, leading to more serious health issues.

Sarav Arunachalam, a research professor and deputy director at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment, specializes in developing and modeling aircraft emissions to support sound environmental policies. He expressed concerns to the East Bay Echo regarding the projected increase in passengers, suggesting that it could hinder the Oakland region’s ability to meet air quality standards. That’s because the combustion of aviation fuel at low elevations, such as when airplanes are taking off, landing or idling on the runway, leads to air pollution in the surrounding community.

“With the area being in non-attainment today,” Arunachalam said, “I think having these additional emissions coming from the proposed plan would only increase the burden for air pollution in the region.”

According to the environmental impact report, the airport is expected to increase emissions of those pollutants whether or not it expands. If it does not expand, the report states it “could result in an additional increase in aircraft emissions due to idling while waiting for a gate to become available,” making those impacts significant and unavoidable.

That would put airport workers at increased risk of health impacts, the report states, but the surrounding community is not expected to be significantly impacted.

Arunachalam pointed out that extensive research has demonstrated the adverse health effects of fine particulate matter emitted from aircrafts, both near the airport and up to several hundred kilometers away. Data from the California Health Interview Survey conducted by the University of California Los Angeles, reveals nearly one in five Alameda County residents (19.7%) suffers from asthma, a figure rising to one in three (34.2%) among 18- to 24-year-olds.

“So if we go with the proposed expansion as the airport is currently considering,” Arunachalam said, “there’ll be increased impacts of these pollutants at the community scale.”

Greenhouse gas emissions

Climate scientists agree that burning fossil fuels produces heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide, which are leading to the warming of the planet and the intensifying of extreme weather events around the planet. In order to prevent the planet from warming to a dangerous level, scientists emphasize the need to stop burning fossil fuels.

According to the environmental impact report, expanding the airport is expected to increase carbon dioxide emissions from 154,000 metric tons per year to almost 226,000 metric tons by 2038.

While an increase in carbon dioxide emissions is concerning, Donald Wuebbles, emeritus professor from the department of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a lead author on several international climate assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the East Bay Echo that aviation isn’t a major contributor to overall carbon dioxide emissions. Aviation emissions amount to around 2% of the total emissions humans are generating from burning fossil fuels, he said.

Other aspects of the transportation system are far worse sources of carbon dioxide and methane emissions than planes, Wuebbles said. In the U.S., transportation accounts for 29% of all emissions and 8% of those emissions come from aircrafts, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The bulk, 58%, are generated from passenger cars and light-duty trucks, while the second largest category of emitters at 23% was medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

However, the condensation trails, or contrails, that planes produce are also an issue for the climate, Wuebbles said. Contrails form when particles from aircraft engine exhaust mix with water vapor and then freeze, creating trails of wispy ice clouds that ultimately have a warming effect on the planet.

“Aviation nonetheless is a relatively small contributor totally,” Wuebbles said. “Aviation, eventually, as we do things about controlling climate change, which we’re being way too slow at, will become a more important contributor.”

However, Wuebbles noted that the situation is evolving as regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the United Nations agency International Civil Aviation Organization, recognize the significance of carbon emissions reduction. They are collaborating with the global aviation sector to advance the development of sustainable aviation fuels, offering a promising path toward long-term aviation sustainability.

Sustainable aviation fuels

Sustainable aviation fuel can be derived from diverse sources, such as plants or algae, and contains natural carbon that doesn’t contribute to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. However, it may still result in contrail formation, Wuebbles said. Contrails don’t always form and depend on the upper atmosphere being super saturated with moisture, so he said there’s a lot of research going into how to avoid those supersaturated layers.

“It probably won’t be too long before the aviation community will figure out how to deal with that,” Wuebbles said.

At the public hearing Wednesday, Full said Southwest Airlines, Oakland airport’s largest carrier, has already started using sustainable aviation fuel and is committing to replacing 10% of its total jet fuel consumption with sustainable aviation fuels by 2030.

Gary Graham Hughes, California policy monitor for environmental organization Biofuelwatch, who spoke at the hearing, said there’s more that goes into making aviation fuels sustainable than getting the science right. Hughes pointed to a couple previous attempts by Southwest to buy renewable jet fuel that didn’t pan out, including its contract with Red Rocks Biofuel. The company, founded in 2011, spent more than $300 million trying to build a refinery to convert forest residues into fuels in Lake County, Oregon. The refinery was never completed and foreclosed in December before being bought by Houston-based NEXT Renewable Fuels a few months later.

“It’s really not the climate solution that companies like Southwest will claim,” Hughes said.

Wuebbles said the aviation community is still figuring out how to deal with the supply chain for sustainable aviation fuel, which is slowing down its adoption, but that it’s important to push the industry to adopt sustainable aviation fuels in the next decade or so.

Arunachalam agreed that the aviation industry needs to transition to sustainable aviation fuel as quickly as possible to meet the industry’s goal of become carbon-neutral by 2050. However, he added more attention should also be paid to the health-impacting components of aviation fuel, like fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, so that sustainable aviation fuels are both “health-neutral as well as climate-neutral.”

Next steps

The public comment period has been extended through 5 p.m. Oct. 16. Comments can be submitted using an online form found at oaklandairport.com/terminaldevelopment, by email to TermDev@portoakland.com, or by mail to Port of Oakland, Environmental Programs and Planning Division, Colleen Liang, 530 Water St., Oakland, CA 94607.

The project is presently under review as part of the California Environmental Quality Act, and it also awaits a separate review process under the National Environmental Policy Act, overseen by the Federal Aviation Authority. The timeline for that review has not yet been determined.

Photo caption: Ariella Granett, of the Stop Oak Expansion Coalition, speaks about the adverse impacts associated with expanding the Oakland International Airport at a public hearing at the Hilton Oakland Airport Hotel on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 30. She was one of several speakers who spoke in opposition to the project. (Sonia Waraich – East Bay Echo)

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