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Phasing Out Fossil Fuels: A Just Transition in the Oil & Gas Drilling and Refining Sectors

Decommissioning California Refineries and Beyond Workshop

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).

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.

Union Members Support Coal Phase Out at Levin Terminal in Richmond

By Steve Morse, Martha Hawthorne, Jonathan Kocher, Jud Peake, and Steve Ongerth - Open Letter, January 2020

We are rank-and-file union members who support Richmond’s proposed ordinance to phase out coal and pet coke export from the city.

Others supportive of the ordinance who were present at the December 3rd meeting of the Richmond City Council, include members of unions representing nurses, educators,  and city and county workers. 

The Richmond City Council has been debating an ordinance to phase out coal and pet coke transport from the Levin Terminal over three years. It will finally come to a vote on Tuesday, January 14. We support this ordinance, and Richmond residents’ demands, because we support healthy, vibrant communities with clean air that are free from coal dust.

We also support good, well-paying jobs – union jobs – and the right to bargain collectively and organize for ourselves and our communities.  And we support full employment and a just transition for all workers displaced by the rapid transition away from fossil fuels toward clean and renewable energy that can protect us from climate disaster.

As union members, we call on other union members to oppose the fossil fuel corporations’ agenda -- which callously divides workers, community members and environmentalists -- so that we can’t effectively fight for our common interests and protect the health and safety of our families.

We ask all people to be fully part of the fight for protecting and expanding green union jobs. We all must work for a commitment to a just transition that goes beyond vague support.

We can have good jobs, healthy communities and environmental justice. With real unity, we can halt the power of the oil and coal industries to pollute our neighborhoods, and to pollute our planet.

The Green New Deal offers us a way forward. At the local, state and national level, it is our best strategy for jobs, community health and climate justice. A poll by Data for Progress shows that 62% of working union members favor a Green New Deal, while only 22% are in opposition. We want the collective voice of union workers to reflect this sentiment.

While just transition is a strategy to fully compensate and retrain workers displaced from the fossil fuel economy, the task at Levin Terminal is simpler. The workers can retain their jobs, their wages and benefits. They can retain their representation by the Operating Engineers and the other unions. By shifting terminal operations to handling materials that are compatible with community health and a sustainable world, their jobs can be sustained as well.

We commit ourselves to joining with community health and climate justice activists to create one or more viable fleshed-out plans to change the materials that are stored and shipped at the terminal.  At UC Berkeley alone, there are many resources, including the Labor Center, that could help hone this plan.

We ask Levin and the unions to commit to ongoing meetings with the Richmond community and to work in good faith to make this transition happen.  We also ask Levin to withdraw the threat that they made at the Dec. 3 City Council meeting that they would litigate if the ordinance passed. After all, this ordinance doesn't call for an immediate ban, and it includes an option to return to the council if replacement commodities genuinely cannot be found.

The Richmond City Council voted to push the vote on the ordinance to this Tuesday.  The clock is ticking, and the health and safety of the people here in our community is at stake. How much longer will workers and Richmond residents have to endure the worst air quality in the Bay Area?

Big Oil’s Bi-Partisan Helpers: a Refiner’s Fire 5 Years Later

By Steve Early - Counterpunch, August 4, 2017

Five years ago, my wife and I moved to Richmond, CA and soon learned about the local emergency response protocol known as “shelter in place.”

When large fires break out in Bay Area refineries, like the century old Chevron facility near our house, first a siren sounds. Then public officials direct everyone nearby to take cover inside. Doors must be closed, windows taped shut, if possible, and air conditioning turned off.

August 6th is the fifth anniversary of such self-help efforts in Richmond. On that day in 2012, we looked up and saw an eruption worthy of Mount Vesuvius. Due to pipe corrosion and lax maintenance practices, a Chevron processing unit sprang a leak. The escaping petroleum vapor reached an ignition source. This led to a raging fire that Contra Costa County (home to four refineries) classified as a “Level 3 incident,” posing the highest level of danger.

Nineteen oil workers narrowly escaped death at the scene of the accident. It sent a towering plume of toxic smoke over much of the East Bay and fifteen thousand refinery neighbors in search of medical attention for respiratory complaints, While local property values took a hit, Chevron stayed on track to make $25 billion in profits that year.

Sacrifice Zones

By Barbara Bernstein - Locus Focus, KBOO FM, June 5, 2017

As the fossil fuel industry turns up its pressure to turn the Pacific Northwest into a fossil fuel export hub, a Thin Green Line stands in its way. On this special one-hour edition of Locus Focus, we premiere Locus Focus host Barbara Bernstein's latest radio documentary, SACRIFICE ZONES.

Since 2003 a rash of proposals have surfaced in communities throughout the Northwest to export vast amounts of fossil fuels to Asian markets via Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. If these plans go through the Northwest would become home to the largest oil terminal in North America, the largest coal export facility in North America and the largest methanol refinery in the world.

SACRIFICE ZONES is a story about the pressure to transform a region of iconic landscapes and environmental stewardship into a global center for shipping fossil fuels. This one-hour radio documentary investigates how petrochemical development of the scale being proposed for the Pacific Northwest threatens the region’s core cultural, social and environmental values. And it shows how opposition to these proposals has inspired the broadest and most vocal coalition of individuals and groups ever assembled in the Northwest, a Thin Green Line of opposition that has so far slowed or stopped all the fossil fuel projects being proposed.

In SACRIFICE ZONES we hear from Native American tribes, longshoremen, environmentalists, business leaders, health care professionals, first responders and local residents along the blast zones of oil trains and terminals, who are raising their voices in public hearings, court proceedings, rallies and marches.

This program was funded in part by the Regional Arts and Culture Council and the Puffin Foundation.

Listen Here.

By Delaying Chemical Safety Rule, Pruitt Endangers First Responders and Refinery Towns

By Daniel Ross - Truthout, May 18, 2017

At 8:48 a.m. on the morning of February 18, 2015, an explosion at the ExxonMobil Torrance refinery in Southern California ripped through the facility with such ferocity, the resulting shockwaves registered on the Richter scale. Dust was scattered over the densely populated neighborhood up to a mile away from the blast. Four workers suffered minor injuries. A hulking 40-ton chunk of debris from the refinery's Electrostatic Precipitator narrowly avoided hitting a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of highly toxic modified hydrofluoric acid.

The damning findings of a Chemical Safety Board (CSB) review of the accident were made public earlier this month. Among some of the problems identified in the report: the refinery repeatedly violated ExxonMobil's corporate safety standards leading up to the incident, while multiple gaps existed in the refinery's safety systems.

"It was only sheer luck that the hydrofluoric acid tank wasn't hit," said Dr. Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. If it had been hit, the collision could have released a toxic ground-hugging cloud with the potential to kill for nine miles and cause serious and irreversible injuries for up to 16 miles under worst-case scenario projections, she added.

"This is yet another symptom of how in our country we always put profit ahead of safety," Hayati said.

Just before Obama exited office, his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put in place a new federal rule setting tougher safety procedures at facilities covered by the EPA's Risk Management Program (RMP). The rule is designed to prevent accidents like the 2015 Torrance refinery explosion from happening again, and to better protect first-responders and the communities perched in the shadow of facilities that store and use potentially dangerous chemicals.

According to EPA data, over 1,500 accidents were reported by RMP facilities between 2004 and 2013, causing more than $2 billion in property damages.

The new rule was supposed to come into effect in March. But after a petition opposing the rule was filed by a coalition of trade associations, the EPA initially stayed its implementation for three months. Then, after various states and companies in the refining, oil and gas, chemical and manufacturing sector filed further petitions, the EPA proposed to extend the stay an additional 20 months -- until February 19, 2019 -- in order to win time to consider these various petitions, and to possibly "revise" the RMP amendments.

Fearing that the EPA under Scott Pruitt will take the side of industry and further delay, weaken or even try to abrogate the new rule entirely, a coalition of community groups, scientists and environmental organizations filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit last month.

"We don't expect Pruitt to defend [the rule]," said Gordon Sommers, associate attorney with Earthjustice, who filed the motion on behalf of the coalition. In a letter to the EPA last year when still Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt asked the agency to withdraw the rule, citing national security concerns.

"We know where he stands and we know that his arguments are the same arguments that the big industries are making," said Sommers. "We know his priority is not protecting these communities."

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).

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