Berkeley, San Francisco consider plans to put climate-change warning labels on gas pumps

Known for its liberal politics, Berkeley has racked up a long line of firsts over the years, from taxing sugary drinks to ditching Styrofoam takeout containers.

City officials are now considering another novel plan: putting stickers on gas pumps citywide to warn consumers that burning fuel contributes to global warming.

The Berkeley City Council was set to vote to possibly move forward by early next year with the proposal, among the first of its kind in the U.S. San Francisco is drafting a similar ordinance that the city's Board of Supervisors could vote into law by next spring.

Environmental improvement efforts in Berkeley date back to 1910, when the city was the first to put police officers on bicycle patrols. In 1989, Berkeley adopted a citywide ban on Styrofoam, and about decade ago city vehicles were converted to operate on biodiesel.

Berkeley voters overwhelmingly approved the special tax on sugary drinks earlier this month, becoming the first U.S. city to pass such a measure.

Supporters of the gas-pump measure hope that simply putting the labels in front of consumers will motivate them to drive less. One environmental group compares the labels to health warnings on cigarette packages.

City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who wrote the original label proposal, said the idea is not to stop people from buying gas but rather to remind them of green and clean alternatives.

"This is a very inexpensive proposal that is simply educational," Worthington said Tuesday.

Worthington has indicated that none of the 20 gas stations in Berkeley has voiced disapproval of the plan.

But there is criticism elsewhere.

In a letter to the city, Western States Petroleum Association President Catherine Reheis-Boyd said the oil-industry lobbying group "believes the city's proposal compels speech in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."

"Far less restrictive means exist to disseminate this information to the general public without imposing onerous restrictions on the businesses," Reheis-Boyd wrote in a letter to a city advisory commission.

Implementing the labeling program could cost up to $20,000 the first year, and some say that money could be better spent.

Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Polly Armstrong said she'd prefer people buy more electric cars and slap them with stickers that say, "I live in Berkeley and I drive a hybrid."

"We are in the business of helping businesses in Berkeley, and some of the people on the council seem to be working in the opposite direction," Armstrong said. "In terms of putting stickers on gas pumps, I would argue that the people in Berkeley are really smart and they know about gasoline (impacts)."

Worthington said timing the labels to take effect in Berkeley and San Francisco simultaneously would be a "beautiful thing."

San Francisco, however, is farther along in a draft proposal. Its plan cites evidence from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that determined a "typical passenger vehicle burning one gallon of fuel produces on average almost 20 pounds of tailpipe carbon dioxide, which the EPA has determined is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change."