The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently banned natural gas in new construction, which uniquely makes sense in a city that can rely on clean hydroelectric power. However, it only makes sense because a century ago the leaders of San Francisco raped and eliminated one of the most beautiful spots in the American west, a veritable Garden of Eden. In the early twentieth century, San Francisco flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley to create a reservoir, thus destroying a landscape that was said to rival the adjacent Yosemite Valley in its beauty and was the home of Native Americans for thousands of years.
The O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed 97 years ago, flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley and destroying every tree, bush and leaf of grass inside of it. This act obliterated the habitat of thousands of creatures and made a beautiful and unique spot vanish from the earth. Before the man-made, intentional inundation, John Muir, America’s most famous conservationist, praised Hetch Hetchy as “a grand landscape garden, one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.”
By 1934, the valley was flooded and water was flowing downhill from Hetch Hetchy almost 170 miles to San Francisco, which, by then, had a population of over 630,000. The downhill force on the water also provided an excellent source of hydropower, one that did not independently alter habitats (since the dam already did that to create a reservoir). Today, 70% of the city’s electricity is generated by this downhill flow of Hetch Hetchy water.
San Francisco’s new ordinance means that new buildings in the city cannot use natural gas intakes for stove-tops, ovens, water heaters or heating. Instead, new San Francisco buildings will use electricity for these things, mostly generated from Hetch Hetchy water flows. Overall, this ban will have zero net impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, because it is far too small. The ban is not enough to help the environment by any measure. Nevertheless, Ban Natural Gas San Francisco, a group that advocated for this, noted that one of its motives was that, “35% of San Francisco’s carbon emissions arise from natural gas combustion and leaks in residential and commercial buildings.” Noticeably, the group did not mention the destruction of Hetch Hetchy anywhere on its website, even though it is that destruction which makes the ban on natural gas possible a century later.
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It may seem like this is an ancient issue, one that was settled in 1914 when work on the O’Shaughnessy dam began, but it is not. In 1987, the administration of President Ronald Reagan, under the leadership of Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel, suggested opening the dam to drain Hetch Hetchy in hopes that it would return to its natural state. At the time,The Sierra Club, which was first led by John Muir in 1892, “reaffirme[ed] its policy adopted in 1907 and 1910” and pushed for the return of a natural Hetch Hetchy.
The argument for undamming Hetch Hetchy continues, but San Francisco does not want it. San Francisco leaders realize that the consequences of undamming the valley would be great for city. The city might not be able to survive without Hetch Hetchy water and Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric power. While San Francisco is lucky to obtain 70% of its power from Hetch Hetchy water, nationally the burning of natural gas, coal and oil produces 62% of electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration. Therefore, it is safe to say that without Hetch Hetchy, an ordinance like this would probably just cause more pollution at the power plant. In other words, San Francisco can make this ordinance—which will have no net benefit on greenhouse gas emissions, anyway—because the city continues to live and prosper off of one of the most egregious violations of the planet in history.