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Toxic Relationship: How refineries affect climate change and racial and economic injustice

By Jean Tepperman - East Bay Express - July 22, 2020

California should begin gradually reducing output from its oil refineries in order to avoid climate catastrophe and to make the transition to clean energy as equitable as possible. That's the conclusion of a major new report released July 6 by Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), endorsed by more than 40 environmental and social justice organizations.

While most people agree on the need to use less fossil fuel, many fear that requiring refineries to reduce production could lead to higher gasoline prices and a big economic hit for workers and communities that depend on refineries for income. Report-author Greg Karras responded, "If we start now, doing it gradually, it will give us the time to replace refinery-dependent economics." The report calls for cutting production 4 to 7 percent a year, starting in 2021.

California has set targets for cutting carbon emissions between now and 2050: the state's share of global cuts needed to keep temperature increases below catastrophic levels. Because the carbon that causes climate change builds up in the atmosphere, California has a carbon "budget"—the total amount it can emit from now until 2050. According to Decommissioning California Refineries, California will have to refine much less oil per year to avoid blowing through this carbon "budget" by about 2037.

"California is the biggest oil-refining center in Western North America," Karras said. "Oil refined here emits more carbon than all other activities in the state combined." Even if all other sources of carbon are reduced on schedule, Karras said, "we must refine much less oil if we hope to meet the state's carbon limit."

"We have to break free from our toxic relationship with oil before it takes us over a cliff," Karras said. "When you're in a car heading toward a cliff, it matters when you start putting on the brakes."

The sooner we start, the more likely we are to escape the worst impacts of climate change.

The issue is not just climate, said Andres Soto of CBE. He pointed out that refinery pollution is concentrated in communities like Richmond, centers of racial and economic injustice.

"Only 20 percent of Richmond is Euro-American," he said.

And the health consequences of having a refinery as a neighbor are severe.

Rodeo, another Contra Costa refinery town, "is in the 98th percentile for asthma," said resident Maureen Brennan, and it has high rates of skin disease, autoimmune disease and cancer—all linked to refinery-generated pollution.

Retired refinery worker Steve Garey, past president of a United Steelworkers local in Washington state, said starting now to plan for reduced refinery production could actually benefit refinery workers, since "the movement away from fossil fuels and toward renewables is going to accelerate. It's an economic reality. Renewables are cheaper than fossil fuel and getting cheaper all the time."

Recently when the pandemic cut demand for gasoline, Garey said, the Marathon refinery in Martinez shut down, leaving the workers and community stranded.

The current drop in oil use, Karras said, gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn away from the cliff and build a cleaner and more equitable recovery.

Decommissioning California Refineries: Climate and Health Paths in an Oil State

By Greg Karras - Communities for a Better Environment, July 2020

Machines that burn oil are going away. We will burn much less oil, either to prevent the increasing accumulation of pollution impacts that could cause the collapse of human societies as we know them, or as a footnote to the collapse of our societies and economies on which the petroleum fuel chain now feeds. Which path we take matters.

Sustainable energy technologies that are proven, available now, and obviously more economic than societal collapse could replace oil and other fossil fuels. But critical oil infrastructure, permitted mainly in working class communities and communities of color, is still growing. Environmental, economic, and racial injustice weaken societal capacity to break free of this toxic path. Societal capacity to organize—political feasibility—has emerged as the primary barrier to solving our existential pollution crisis.

California has this problem. It hosts the largest oil refining center in western North America. It has the worst air pollution in the nation, and yet it has allowed its oil sector’s critical infrastructure to grow in low-income communities of color, where this pollution is disparately severe compared with the state average. It uses pollution trading—the exchange of money for permits to pollute—leaving communities largely on our own to fight refinery and oil terminal expansion projects.

Communities rose up to stop tar sands projects in many inspiring efforts that for a decade have held to a trickle the flood of cheaper, dirtier oil that refiners sought. But some projects slipped through. The petroleum fuel chain emits more carbon from extracting, refining, and burning fuels made from the oil refined in California than all other activities in the state combined, and as other emissions have begun to decline, its emissions have not.

In fact its emissions increased from 2013–2017 as refiners here increased production for exports that sold for more money than the entire oil sector spent on permits to emit under the state’s carbon trading scheme. They could do that because no refiner faced any limit on carbon emissions from its plant. They still can because politicians caved in to their demand to make carbon trading the only curb on those emissions. Since 2017, state law has prohibited state air officials from setting a carbon-cutting limit on any oil refining plant under this carbon trading scheme.

Governor Brown argued this law was the best “compromise” that was politically feasible. Yet state climate policy has ignored the need, first voiced by the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union decades ago, for a mandate that assures workers a just transition. Equally important to political feasibility, communities must predict how fast to transition their job and tax bases from oil to sustainable alternatives. But by letting any polluter delay emission cuts at any time, pollution trading makes it harder to make this very prediction.

Read the report (PDF).

Putting California on the High Road: a Jobs and Climate Action Plan for 2030

By Carol Zabin, et. al. - University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, June 2020

Over the last 15 years, California has emerged as a national and world leader in the fight to avoid climate disaster, passing a comprehensive and evolving suite of climate measures to accelerate the transition to a carbon- neutral economy. The state has also emerged as a national leader in embracing economic equity as a goal for state policy, charting a path towards a new social compact for shared prosperity in a rapidly changing world. Meaningful commitment to both of these goals—ensuring that all Californians thrive in the transition to a carbon-neutral economy—requires the development and implementation of a bold agenda that aligns California’s ambitious climate and workforce action plans. This report presents a framework for California to advance that agenda.

Assembly Bill 398 (E. Garcia, Chapter 135, Statutes of 2017) required that the California Workforce Development Board (CWDB) present a report to the Legislature on strategies “to help industry, workers, and communities transition to economic and labor-market changes related to statewide greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.” To fulfill this mandate, the CWDB commissioned the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley, to review the existing research in the field and prepare this report. The summary presented here describes the key concepts, findings, and recommendations contained in UC Berkeley’s full work.

The statutory language of AB 398 makes clear that this report should address workforce interventions to ensure that the transition to a carbon-neutral economy:

  • Creates high-quality jobs;
  • Prepares workers with the skills needed to adapt to and master new, zero- and low-emission technologies;
  • Broadens career opportunities for workers from disadvantaged communities; and
  • Supports workers whose jobs may be at risk.

This report presents a comprehensive strategy that identifies roles for state and local climate, economic development, and workforce development agencies in achieving these goals, alongside key partners such as business, labor, community, and education and training institutions. All recommendations align with the CWDB’s Unified Strategic Workforce Development Plan, which has put forth a set of actions to leverage and coordinate the state’s myriad workforce and education programs to support high-quality careers for Californians. In keeping with the statutory directive, the report discussion is further enriched by comments provided to the CWDB through a series of stakeholder meetings held in July and August 2018.

This report builds upon the framework established in California’s 2017 Climate Change Scoping Plan (Scoping Plan), which presents a roadmap of policies and programs to reach the climate protection target in Senate Bill 32 (Pavley, Chapter 42, Statutes of 2016) of a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from 1990 levels. The Scoping Plan is organized into sectors based on the state’s major sources of greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding climate action measures: Transportation, Industry, Energy, Natural and Working Lands (including Agricultural Lands), Waste, and Water. This report organizes the available information from existing academic research, economic models, and industry studies for the Scoping Plan sectors and presents for each of them:

  • Information about current labor conditions and the impact on jobs of the major climate measures;
  • Guidance for policymakers, agencies, and institutions that implement climate and/or workforce policy on how to best generate family-supporting jobs, broaden career opportunities for disadvantaged workers, deliver the skilled workforce that employers need to achieve California’s climate targets, and protect workers in declining industries; and
  • Examples of concrete, scalable strategies that have connected effective climate action with workforce interventions to produce good outcomes for workers.

Future Beyond Fossil Fuels: California’s Just Transition

By staff - Sunrise Movement, May 1, 2020

You may have heard the term ‘Just transition’ floating around, but what does it mean? This webinar will focus on what a just transition means for workers in California, and how the vision of a Green New Deal can guide the much-needed economic recovery from the COVID crisis.

This video features IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus cofounder, Steve Ongerth, speaking on workers, unions, and just transition in Northern California.

Still Digging: G20 Governments Continue to Finance the Climate Crisis

By Bronwen Tucker and Kate DeAngelis - Oil Change International and Friends of the Earth - May 2020

In 2015, governments around the world committed to hold global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (°C) and to strive to limit warming to 1.5°C by adopting the Paris Agreement. This analysis shows that since the Paris Agreement was made, G20 countries have acted directly counter to it by providing at least USD 77 billion a year in finance for oil, gas, and coal projects through their international public finance institutions. These countries provided more than three times as much support for fossil fuels as for clean energy.

With the health and livelihoods of billions at immediate risk from COVID-19, governments around the world are preparing public spending packages of a magnitude they previously deemed unthinkable. In normal times, development finance institutions (DFIs), export credit agencies (ECAs), and multilateral development banks (MDBs) already had an outsized impact on the overall energy landscape and more capacity than their private sector peers to act on the climate crisis. In the current moment, their potential influence has multiplied, and it is imperative that they change course. The fossil fuel sector was showing long-term signs of systemic decline before COVID-19 and has been quick to seize on this crisis with requests for massive subsidies and bailouts.1 We cannot afford for the wave of public finance that is being prepared for relief and recovery efforts to prop up the fossil fuel industry as it has in the past. Business as usual would exacerbate the next crisis— the climate crisis—that is already on our doorstep.

Read the report (PDF).

Climate Activists Can’t Afford to Ignore Labor. A Shuttered Refinery in Philly Shows Why

By Mindy Isser - In These Times, January 10, 2020

In the early morning hours of June 21, 2019, a catastrophic explosion tore through the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refinery in the southwest section of Philadelphia. The training and quick thinking of refinery workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, averted certain disaster and saved millions of lives. One month later, on July 21, PES declared bankruptcy—their second in as many years—and began to close down the refinery in the following months, laying off almost 2,000 people with no meaningful severance. According to workers who spoke with In These Times, the refinery stopped running crude oil in early August, although there are fewer than 100 workers who were kept on as caretakers for the waste water and steam generating units.

The fire on June 21 and the mass layoffs that followed impacted more than just the physical site of the refinery and the workers who made it run. It also ignited a debate throughout the city about what would become of the refinery site, which has been in operation for more than 150 years. On the one hand, the explosion underscored the dangers the refinery posed to the community immediately surrounding it, and the city as a whole. On the other, the subsequent closure of the refinery meant that workers were suddenly out of work, with no plan from PES or city officials of how to put them back to work.

This debate, while focused on Philadelphia, reflects much larger questions roiling supporters of a Green New Deal: how to ensure a just transition for fossil fuel workers who lose their jobs, and how to build bonds between unions looking out for their members, and climate organizers trying to stop fossil fuel extraction. Interviews with community organizers trying to curb the refinery’s toxic pollution, and workers laid off from the refinery, indicate that the answers are not easy, but require listening to workers, many of whom are already thinking about climate change—and forced, right now, to deal with the hardships of losing their jobs. In the words of Jim, a former worker who requested only his first name be used due to fear of retaliation, “Fossil fuels need to be phased out aggressively. That being said, I’m in the industry. You can’t just allow the people in that industry to become like the coal miners, just floundering.”

California’s Revised Safety Regulations for Oil Refineries; Process Safety Management for Oil Refineries; CCR Title 8, General Industry Safety Orders §5189.1

By Mike Wilson - Blue Green Alliance - March 24, 2020

An August 2012 pipe failure and fire at the Richmond, Chevron refinery endangered the lives of 19 workers and caused some 15,000 residents to seek medical attention for symptoms related to smoke exposure. In response, California Governor Jerry Brown launched an interagency refinery working group, which concluded that "improving refinery safety is a goal strongly shared by government, industry, workers, and communities.” The group’s report recommended that the following regulatory changes "be required as soon as possible” in the state’s oil refineries:

  • Implement inherently safer systems to the greatest extent feasible;
  • Perform periodic safety culture assessments;
  • Incorporate damage mechanism hazard reviews into process hazard analyses;
  • Conduct root cause analyses after significant accidents or releases;
  • Account for human factors and organizational changes;
  • Use structured methods, such as layer of protection analysis, to ensure adequate safeguards in process hazard analyses.

Read the report (PDF).

The Chevron Way: Polluting California and Degrading California

By various - International Transport Federation, et. al., November 2016

In the recent election, Chevron-backed campaigns lost bigtime, despite the $61 million the company has spent to influence California elections since 2009. That’s far more than any other oil company spend in state elections. The report, by the International Transport Workers Federation, was released Nov. 17 at the Chevron gates by a coalition including the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), and more.

Members of the coalition said the report, The Chevron Way: Polluting California and Degrading Democracy, will educate the public about the corrupting influence of corporate money and alert politicians that they will be judged on whether they act in the public interest or in Chevron’s interest.

In this election, in State Assembly and State Senate races, candidates heavily backed by Chevron lost. In Monterey County, Chevron spent $1.5 to oppose a ballot measure to ban fracking and expanded oil drilling. Despite being outspent 33 to 1, the measure passed.

In Richmond, Chevron sat out this election, having spent $3 million in the last election, when its candidates lost anyway. This year, two additional progressive candidates won seats on the city council and a longstanding Chevron candidate was voted out.

Chevron makes billions in profits from its huge retail and refining business in California, but has aggressively cut tax payments to federal, state and local governments. In 2015, the company paid no net income tax in the US, but instead banked nearly $1.7 billion in tax credits.

In 2015, Chevron had over $45 billion stashed in offshore accounts, including the company’s 211 active Bermuda subsidiaries, and the company’s global effective tax rate fell to below 3%.

Read the report (PDF).

Chevron Richmond Refinery August 6, 2014 Pipe Rupture and Fire [REPORT NO. 2012-03-I-CA OCTOBER 2014]

By staff - U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, October 2014

An August 6, 2012, release of flammable vapor led to a fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California. The CSB released three investigation reports into this incident.

This report is particularly sigificant in that it reveals that the refinery workers repeatedly tried to warn the managers and employers of the deteriorating conditions of the refinery's infrastructure (which led to the fire), but were ignored. Knowing this, climate justice activists and organizers can develope relationships with workers in capitalist extractive industries and do the painstaking, tedious work of cultivating relationships and building trust to build a united front against the capitalist class.

Read the report (English PDF).

Animation of Fire at Chevron's Richmond Refinery, August 6, 2012

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