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Bay Area activists respond to Phillips 66's renewable diesel announcement

By Janet Pyegeorge, Shoshana Wechsler, Matt Krogh - Stand.Earth, August 20, 2020

Protect the Bay coalition calls the move ‘another example of what will likely happen in an unmanaged transition off fossil fuels’

RODEO, CALIFORNIA — Bay Area activists are responding to Phillips 66’s announcement made last Thursday, August 13, that the company would close its Santa Maria refining facility, its carbon plant in Rodeo, and convert its 122,000 bpd Rodeo petroleum refinery to a 42,000 bpd renewable diesel facility by 2024, saying this abrupt revelation — which joins the recent announcement of the idling of the Marathon Martinez refinery — is another example of what will likely happen in an unmanaged transition off of fossil fuels. Phillips 66 made the announcement without advanced warning to Contra Costa County decision makers and without community involvement.

Members of the Protect the Bay coalition, which was formed in 2019 to prevent the expansion of the Phillips 66 refinery and marine terminal in Rodeo, expressed the following concerns and questions in response to Phillips 66’s announcement:

Shoshana Wechsler, Sunflower Alliance: "We congratulate Phillips 66 on its long overdue admission that refining petroleum is toxic and harmful. But becoming the world’s largest supplier of biodiesel by merely recycling used cooking oil doesn’t quite compute. That’s a whole lot of freedom fries. Let’s face it — refining and burning 'renewable' transportation fuels is only a first step towards genuine sustainability.”

Wilder Zeiser, Stand.earth: “On the face of it, reducing Phillips 66’s refining capacity could be a positive step, in alignment with CBE’s recent report, “Decommissioning California Refineries.” But to understand the details — local pollution shifts, where the feedstock will come from, how many millions of acres could be needed for soy and palm trees — there must be a full scale environmental review combined with a 180 degree shift away from their planned tar sands expansion.”

Nancy Rieser, Crockett Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (CRUDE): "We need to be mindful of 'greenwashing' during these times when refineries look for ways to prolong their life cycles while the world moves toward solar energy and electrified transportation. This project, in particular, bears closer scrutiny. The first press release about this project stated that used cooking oil would be the primary feedstock and was silent about the need to turn millions of acres into soybean production. It also suggested that less harmful emissions will be coming out of the stacks."

Gary Hughes, Biofuelwatch: “The false promises of biofuels are being leveraged by Phillips 66 to hide their ambition to stay locked in on fossil fuel energy far into the future. Our organization stands with the residents and working people throughout the North Bay refinery corridor that are organizing for a just transition and demanding an end to the treatment of their communities as sacrifice zones.”

Janet Pygeorge, President, Rodeo Citizens Association: "Our vision for Rodeo does not include Phillips 66. How dare they use our community name in their project of fake promises. Read between the lines: What kind of feedstocks? There is no mention of scrubbers to prevent toxic emissions into the atmosphere. In Rodeo, our families live every day knowing the toxic air we breathe destroys our immune system and is a silent killer 365 days a year, 24/7. A few of us left to continue our fight to save lives. BAAQMD, listen to our plea to live. You must protect the people.”

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.

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.”

This isn’t what a just transition looks like: They Saved Tens of Thousands of Lives, Then They Lost Their Jobs

By Patrick Young - Rising Tide North America, July 9, 2019

At around 4 am on Friday, June 21, a massive fire and explosion rocked Alkylation unit at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia. The explosion was so powerful that it shook houses and apartment buildings around West Philadelphia. The ball of fire could be seen for miles, turning the predawn sky orange. As the fire raged, while every human instinct must have screamed to run away from the fire, members of the PES Emergency Response Team (ERT) dropped everything to run toward the fire. They battled the blaze for hours and by 10 am the fire was contained but still burning.

Like anyone who is familiar with refinery operations, Jim Savage, an operator at PES and a union activist immediately turned his thoughts to the ERT writing, “Huge props to our refinery Emergency Response Team. I’ve always questioned their sanity, but their courage and professionalism has never been in doubt. Those explosions were terrifying and I have no idea how we didn’t have injuries or even worse. It’s going to be a long and dangerous day for them, so keep them in your thoughts.”

It took a full day to fully extinguish the fire. The explosion was bad, but it could have been much, much worse. Unit 433, the Alkylation unit where the explosion occurred used hydrofluoric acid (HF) as part of the refining process. HF is by far the most dangerous chemical in the facility and PES’s most recent emergency response plan reported that there were as many as 71 tons of the chemical at the facility. Just after the explosion, the operator on the board at the refinery’s central control room transferred the HF that was in process to another container, preventing a mass release of the chemical.

Hydrofluoric acid is an incredibly dangerous chemical used as a catalyst in some oil refineries (there are inherently safer technologies in use in many refineries but owners of many older refineries, including the PES facility in South Philadelphia have refused to invest in safer systems). HF quickly penetrates human tissue, but it interferes with nerve function so burns may initially not feel painful, giving people a false sense of safety. Once it is absorbed into the blood through the skin it reacts with calcium and can cause cardiac arrest. It volatilizes at a relatively low temperature and travels as a dense vapor cloud — PES reports that the supply of HF stored at the South Philadelphia refinery could travel as far as 7 miles putting as many as a million people at risk.

On June 21, the members of United Steelworkers Local 10–1 on the PES Emergency Response Team and in the refinery’s control room prevented the dozens of tons of HF at the refinery from being released saving tens of thousands of lives.

Then on June 26th, those workers learned that they were losing their jobs. Philadelphia Energy Solutions announced that it was shutting down refinery operations and laying off nearly all of the workers at the refinery within weeks.

Class, Empathy, and the Green New Deal

By John Russo - Working-Class Perspectives, May 6, 2019

The recent debate over the Green New Deal got me thinking about a lecture I gave in 2018 at the Columbia University Seminar on Energy Ethics. The faculty who attended were mostly environmental lawyers and scientists. I am neither. But they asked me to discuss “The Fragility of the Blue-Green Alliance” – not so much the formal partnerships between union and environmental groups but rather the complex challenges of bridging differences between workers and environmentalists. My remarks were informed by three things: Pope Francis’s Encyclical (2015) on the environment, Laudato Si; my research on working-class communities and economic change; and my frustration with the reporters, liberals, and environmentalists who show little understanding of the experiences of working people.

Our views on climate change reflect our social and economic positions, which in turn reflect multiple factors — class, race, ethnicity, gender, place, and religious and ethical frameworks.  Any discussion of climate change or environmental policies must acknowledge not only that individuals have different stakes in the environment and the economy but that sometimes, those stakes are themselves contradictory. Working-class people and their communities are harmed by both environmental and economic injustices, and they have few economic choices. Solutions that might seem obvious, like ending the use of coal, can come with real costs to workers and their communities, even as they address environmental injustices and climate change.

In talking with colleagues at Columbia, I drew on a local example, from an article in the New York Times, “How Skipping Hotel Housekeeping Could Help the Environment and Your Wallet.” The article described how hotels were promoting opting out of daily room cleaning as a sustainability program, because it reduced the hotels’ use of electricity, water, and chemicals. Customers could earn food and beverage credit by skipping housekeeping. But, I asked, sustainability for whom? As the Chicago Tribune reported in 2014, “green programs” like this were killing jobs and cutting wages as housekeepers lost tips and had to work harder, since fewer workers now had to clean rooms after guests left, but with the same hours as before.

“I’m Very Scared and I’m a Sad Mom”: Commerce City Residents Testify at Suncor Refinery Expansion Hearing

By staff - Unicorn Riot, August 9, 2017

Commerce City, CO – On Wednesday evening, August 2, 2017, over 100 residents of Commerce City, Colorado, filled the Suncor Energy refinery public hearing for Suncor’s request for modifying their permits (PDF) to allow for more emissions. Unicorn Riot livestreamed the hearing (full video embedded below).

According to the ‘Notice of Public Comment Hearing’ (PDF) published on June 20, 2017, on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission website, there was already a “preliminary determination of approval for modifications to the Title V Permit for the Suncor Energy Refinery Plants 1 and 3.”

This public hearing was not initiated by Commerce City’s government, the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE), nor Suncor, it only happened because the Cross Community Coalition, with and through its counsel Earthjustice, submitted a request for a public comment hearing (PDF) before the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission.

According to the request for the public hearing,

The Suncor Refinery (previously under other ownership) has been found to have repeatedly violated its air pollution permits, and has been subject to numerous enforcement actions as a result.

 

Frequent accidents have raised significant concerns in neighboring communities, with alarming orange clouds of smoke often seen rising above the refinery from miles away.”

Briana Bradley testified against Suncor at the hearing and explained that she had just recently bought her first house with her husband, which happens to be less than a mile from the refinery.

I’m very scared and I’m a sad mom. I started raising my stepson seven years ago, and his mom took off on him, so my husband and I have tried to give him the absolute best life that we can. . . and I just found out that I’m pregnant. . . and now I’m scared to death.”

Bradley went on to say:

So, I get this sheet tonight with 18 ozone alert days, and I have let my son play in the backyard every single one of those days because I didn’t know. . . Also babies born within a 10-mile radius of one of these plants can suffer upper respiratory problems — which we have heard plenty of stories about tonight — rashes, increased hospitalization — which we’ve also heard about tonight — fatigue, dizziness, vomiting, nose bleeds, and heart defects.”

Another mother, Dina Fuente, testified against the permit modifications because her two children already suffer from asthma, allergies, and other respiratory problems.

We moved to this area five years ago, and in the last two and a half years, it seems like the clinics and the hospitals have been our second home. My youngest was out of school 17 days last year because of asthma.”

During the hearing, which lasted over two hours, about fifty people testified against Suncor’s request, and two people testified in favor.

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.

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