The Oakland International Airport has big plans. Officials with the Port of Oakland, which operates the airport, want to build a new 830,000 square foot terminal, adding 16 passenger gates, all within its current geographic footprint. This would increase the airport’s number of gates by one-third, allowing millions of additional passengers to fly on thousands of more flights every year. 

In July, the Port of Oakland announced a critical milestone in its plan to modernize and expand the airport with the publication of a draft environmental impact report. The report outlines how the airport will balance the potential negative environmental consequences of growing. 

But not everyone is on board with the expansion project. East Bay environmentalists and residents are alarmed at the possibility Oakland International Airport will be encouraging even more air travel, a means of transportation that causes significant greenhouse gas emissions. The new report has done little to assuage their fears.

A growing demand for air travel out of Oakland

Aviation officials announced the project in 2021, saying the airport needs to be able to meet an expected increase in passenger demand. The airport’s most recent peak was in 2019, when it reported roughly 13.4 million total passengers. The existing terminals were designed to accommodate about 8-10 million. This issue became a less pressing problem during the COVID-19 pandemic when Oakland experienced a dramatic decline in passengers. In 2020, the airport saw just 4.6 million total travelers. Numbers have since rebounded as leisure, business—and a combination the airport refers to as the “bleisure” traveler—have returned to the skies. At the end of 2022, the airport reported over 11 million passengers. 

And the airport predicts passenger demand will continue to soar. According to the impact report, OAK projects it will have 17.6 million annual passengers by 2028. By 2038, that number is expected to jump to 24.7 million per year. 

This will also mean a significant uptick in the number of planes using the airport: in 2019, there were 242,757 total “aircraft operations” at Oakland Airport, meaning the takeoff or landing of airplanes. By 2038, that number is projected to grow to 323,501—an increase of 33.2%.

“Passenger activity is anticipated to recover and continue to increase due to market-based demand,” a spokesperson said. The airport uses long-term forecasts that are based on historical data on economic activity and demand. 

CO2 emissions, pollution, noise

A crowd of people wearing face masks and carrying bags walk through an airport terminal. The passengers are flanked on both sides by signs for different airport gates and eateries.
Passengers inside of Oakland International Airport. Credit: Amir Aziz.

Environmentalists say an expansion of this magnitude is part of the problem that’s driving climate change and other environmental harms. According to the group Stop OAK Expansion Coalition, aviation accounted for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions in the Bay Area in 2019.

Greenhouse gas emissions are a major catalyst of climate change, which has led to disastrous flooding, fires, and other extreme weather events around the globe, including in the Bay Area. Last year, UC Berkeley researchers reported that rising sea levels threaten to flood Oakland’s airport within the next 20 years. Oakland spent $30 million to raise the height of a dike that runs along the shoreline to protect the airport. 

“It appears the airport is not taking responsibility for the polluting nature of their business,” said Ariella Granett, a member of the steering committee for Stop OAK Expansion.

Airport officials noted that all improvements to the airport are taking place on existing property. The impact report offers detailed explanations for how the project will address construction noise and the potential environmental impact of building near sensitive ecosystems like wetlands. The report also analyzes greenhouse gas emissions that will be generated during the construction process. But officials say it’s outside their purview to address the emissions of aircraft that use the airport.

“The majority of the emissions are a result of aircraft emissions (from market-based demand), which the port does not have the authority to regulate,” said an airport spokesperson. They added that the port has installed electrical infrastructure for commercial and cargo airlines and will do the same for the new terminal and relocated cargo area.

Granett said officials may not be able to regulate emissions, but they can cap them by not expanding the airport’s operations. She also pushed back against the idea that growth is necessary to meet increased demand for air travel in Oakland.    

“A modernization project like this will probably add to the demand—it’s manufacturing demand,” Granett said. “If you build it, people will come and people will fly.”

Some are concerned that adding more flights over Oakland will hamper plans to reduce air pollution in neglected communities. Lujain Al-Saleh, a project coordinator for Communities for a Better Environment, said the airport project may conflict with a plan her group is currently working on to cut down air pollution in East Oakland.

“Most likely there would be an increase in particulate matter, which is something that is really harmful, because it often will go into our bloodstream, can go into our brains, and impacts cognitive functioning,” Al-Saleh said.

Some residents in Bay Farm Island, a small community directly north of the airport, are also worried about the project. Jon Hamilton, president of the Citizens League for Airport Safety and Serenity, said the airport upgrade could result in more planes taking off from the airport’s north field, which sends them directly over Bay Farm. He said residents are already accustomed to dealing with the roar of planes and unpleasant pollution.

“We can walk outside our house and all we smell is jet fuel,” Hamilton said, adding that this usually happens during specific weather conditions. “Obviously adding more planes is going to increase that jet fuel smell.”  

Hamilton is also worried that East Bay residents might not be aware they’ll have the opportunity to comment on the project’s draft environmental impact report. The final date for submitting comments is September 15, 2023. The airport is also holding public meetings on August 15 and 30 to share information and receive feedback. 

Jane Martin, a political coordinator for SEIU-USWW, a union that represents workers at airports in California, said her organization doesn’t currently have an official position on the expansion project, although they are concerned about the climate impact and how emissions might affect Black and brown communities in Oakland. She said when LAX recently embarked on a major expansion, SEIU negotiated for better protections for airport workers. Martin said the union is concerned about the project increasing non-union jobs at the airport.

Expansion would create jobs and benefit travelers

The project has its defenders among local stakeholders. Greg Bonato, a trustee for the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County, a coalition of 28 unions, said the council supports the airport upgrade. 

“I think it’s a great project,” Bonato said. “It will provide hundreds of middle-class job opportunities and allow residents to train as apprentices and get in the trades.”

Dan Connolly, former chair of the San Jose Airport Commission, said Oakland Airport is due for a facelift. In his experience it’s easy flying out of Oakland, but there are downsides. 

“It felt pretty cramped and pretty dingy, and not very attractive,” Connolly said. “As somebody that has to choose between three airports, I would choose San Francisco and San Jose hands down.”

Connolly said Oakland can’t rival San Francisco’s airport, but the planned expansion could give it a competitive advantage over San Jose, which would have fewer gates.  

“It’s the nature of the beast that when you got the ability to add more gates and take on more airlines, that’s a good thing,” Connolly said, adding that carriers weighing whether to do business with San Jose or Oakland are looking for cheaper landing fees and space leases. “Oakland probably will do well if they do their expansion.”

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