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Why Union Workers and Environmentalists Need to Work Together with Smart Protests

By Les Leopold - Alternet, June 21, 2017

As Trump slashes and burns his way through environmental regulations, including the Paris Accord, he continues to bet that political polarization will work in his favor. Not only are his anti-scientific, anti-environmentalist positions firing up some within his base, but those positions are driving a deep wedge within organized labor.  And unbeknownst to many environmental activists, they are being counted on to help drive that wedge even deeper.

Trump already has in his pocket most of the construction trades union leaders whose members are likely to benefit from infrastructure projects – whether fossil fuel pipelines or new airports or ...... paving over the Atlantic. His ballyhooed support of coal extraction  has considerable support from miners and many utility workers as well.

But the real coup will come if Trump can tear apart alliances between the more progressive unions and the environmental community. Trump hopes to neutralize the larger Democratic-leaning unions, including those representing oil refinery workers and other industrial workers.  That includes the United Steelworkers, a union that has supported environmental policies like the federal Clean Air Act and California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, and has a long history of fighting with the oil industry – not just over wages and benefits but also over health, safety and the environment.  

To get from here to there, Trump is hoping that environmental activists will play their part -- that they will become so frustrated by his Neanderthal policies, that activists will stage more and more protests at fossil fuel-related facilities, demanding that they be shut down in order to halt global climate crisis.  

Oil refineries present a target-rich arena for protest. On the West Coast they are near progressive enclaves and big media markets in California and Washington.  Yet many who live in fence line communities would like the refineries gone, fearing for their own health and safety. Most importantly, they are gigantic symbols of the oil plutocracy that has profiteered at the expense of people all over the world.

But from Trump's point of view, nothing could be finer than for thousands of environmentalists to clash at the plant gates with highly paid refinery workers. Such demonstrations, even if peaceful and respectful, set a dangerous trap for environmental progress. Here's why: 

Why Union Workers and Environmentalists Need to Work Together with Smart Protests

By Les Leopold - Alternet, June 21, 2017

As Trump slashes and burns his way through environmental regulations, including the Paris Accord, he continues to bet that political polarization will work in his favor. Not only are his anti-scientific, anti-environmentalist positions firing up some within his base, but those positions are driving a deep wedge within organized labor.  And unbeknownst to many environmental activists, they are being counted on to help drive that wedge even deeper.

Trump already has in his pocket most of the construction trades union leaders whose members are likely to benefit from infrastructure projects – whether fossil fuel pipelines or new airports or ...... paving over the Atlantic. His ballyhooed support of coal extraction  has considerable support from miners and many utility workers as well.

But the real coup will come if Trump can tear apart alliances between the more progressive unions and the environmental community. Trump hopes to neutralize the larger Democratic-leaning unions, including those representing oil refinery workers and other industrial workers.  That includes the United Steelworkers, a union that has supported environmental policies like the federal Clean Air Act and California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, and has a long history of fighting with the oil industry – not just over wages and benefits but also over health, safety and the environment.  

To get from here to there, Trump is hoping that environmental activists will play their part -- that they will become so frustrated by his Neanderthal policies, that activists will stage more and more protests at fossil fuel-related facilities, demanding that they be shut down in order to halt global climate crisis.  

Oil refineries present a target-rich arena for protest. On the West Coast they are near progressive enclaves and big media markets in California and Washington.  Yet many who live in fence line communities would like the refineries gone, fearing for their own health and safety. Most importantly, they are gigantic symbols of the oil plutocracy that has profiteered at the expense of people all over the world.

But from Trump's point of view, nothing could be finer than for thousands of environmentalists to clash at the plant gates with highly paid refinery workers. Such demonstrations, even if peaceful and respectful, set a dangerous trap for environmental progress. Here's why: 

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."

How We're Surviving Right to Work: Oil Refinery Workers Get People in Motion

By Alexandra Bradbury - Labor Notes, May 16, 2017

The key is collective action, says Steelworkers Local 675 Secretary-Treasurer Dave Campbell. His union represents 4,000 workers in California and Nevada, many of them at oil refineries where workers get a window of opportunity to drop their membership each time the contract comes up for renegotiation. In each refinery of 300-600 workers, the union maintains around 90 percent membership.

That's because members have the habit of acting for themselves as a union on the shop floor. Union leaders encourage members to bolster a grievance with workplace action. For instance, a supervisor had forbidden people to wear baseball caps, sunglasses, or Hawaiian shirts in the control room. Workers collected signatures on a petition and presented it to the other supervisor, who crumpled it up and threw it away.

“We organized all four crews to show up for work with Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, and ball caps,” Campbell says, “and the union bought the roast pig for a Hawaiian luau lunch. When the superintendent saw all the workers united, he of course asked what the hell was going on—and the supervisor who had caused all this was reassigned.”

Besides being fun and effective, these activities give workers the chance to learn by doing. “In essence they see what the union really is,” Campbell says. “The union is them, and it’s their concerted, collective activity on the shop floor which gives the union power.”

State Weighs in For Caps on Bay Area Refinery Toxic and Climate Pollution

By Andrés Soto and Greg Karras, Communities for a Better Environment; Ratha Lai, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and Luis Amuezca, Sierra Club Bay Chapter - April 16, 2017 [Press Release]

Reversing regional of ficials who sided with refiners to claim pollution trading policies force them to allow increasing refinery pollution, the State Air Resources Board supports pollution limits to “cap” increasing particulate and greenhouse gas air pollution from five Bay Ar ea refineries in a letter to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District sent late yesterday.

Oil companies seek to process lower quality grades of oil that could increase refinery emission intensity and refinery mass emissions.  Caps on emission intensi ty and mass work together to protect against those health and climate threats.  The State’s letter supports both protections, finding they work together with its state climate program. That finding contradicts the refiners’ argument that Air District Rule 12 - 16, which sets mass caps, conflicts with the State’s cap - and - trade pollution trading scheme.  Air District staff joined the refiners to make this claim against its own proposal in workshops last week.

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).

Oil Refineries Don’t Just Pollute; They Also Kill Workers

By Jim Morris - Center for Public Integrity, December 13, 2016

ANACORTES, Washington—From 500 yards away, John Moore felt the concussion before he heard it.

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).

Geelong refinery workers just scored a huge win for safety

By Rosie Jones - Green Left Weekly, October 12, 2016

The Geelong refinery dispute may not hold the record for the longest campaign for workers’ rights, but the dispute over safety nevertheless won due to a concerted campaign.

On October 5, almost 300 workers voted to walk out of the refinery, owned by Viva Energy Australia, over safety concerns. They began a 24-hour picket, covering four access gates to the refinery. The initial walk out was facilitated by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).

The next afternoon, a notice was put up on all four gates, literally nailed to the trees along refinery road, saying the AWU and the AMWU had received an injunction order from the Supreme Court to refrain from any further participation in the action — not just on the site but anywhere. In response, concerned community members set up a small camp at the main gate to support the workers.

News: Air District Commits to Studying Refinery Pollution Caps

By Shoshana Wechsler - Sunflower Alliance, June 18, 2016

The community-worker coalition that’s been fighting for years to limit pollution from Bay Area refineries won a significant victory June 15. The Air District board told the staff to evaluate our proposal for immediate, numerical caps on refinery emissions, along with three other proposals. This move came despite strong opposition from Air District staff, who argued that numerical caps on greenhouse gases are pointless and that numerical limits on all forms of pollution are legally questionable.

The next challenge for the coalition will be getting the Air District to move fast enough to prevent the refineries from bringing in a major influx of extra-polluting crude oil from Canadian tar sands.

In the June 15 board meeting of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, staff presented four proposals for controlling refinery emissions:

  • Analyze each refinery’s total energy efficiency as a way of reducing greenhouse gases
  • Continue the current program of making rules for reducing greenhouse gas and toxic emissions by separately analyzing each process in the refinery.
  • Place an immediate overall cap on greenhouse gas and toxic emissions from each refinery
  • Develop a Bay-Area-wide program for reducing emissions of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas)

The staff recommended that the board authorize further analysis of three of these proposals. It recommended dropping the community-worker proposal, using the same arguments offered before: that emissions caps may not be legally defensible and could conflict with the state’s cap-and-trade process for greenhouse gas emissions.

After strong arguments from the community-worker coalition and allies on the board, however, the board directed the staff to prepare an official Environmental Impact Review of each of the proposals. In more than two years since the coalition has been advocating these caps, the staff has failed to produce a detailed analysis of this proposal, despite numerous board requests. So this clear board direction represents a major advance for the environmental, community, and labor groups.

Board members John Avalos of San Francisco, Rebecca Kaplan of Oakland, and John Gioia, the Contra Costa County supervisor whose district includes four oil refineries, joined the community-worker coalition in insisting on a full review of all four proposals.

It should be possible to produce the Environmental Impact Reviews, provide a period for the public to comment, and produce revised reviews before the BAAQMD’s next board meeting in September. But given the slow pace of work on refinery emissions rules in the past, the community-worker coalition intends to keep pushing for a September report, so it will be possible to adopt final rules before the end of the year.

There’s also the question of what topics the Environmental Impact Review will include. In the June 15 meeting, Board member Kaplan insisted that the EIR must include an estimate of the health impacts of the emissions increases that would occur if caps are not adopted.

Background

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) has been discussing methods for limiting refinery pollution for more than three years. More than two years ago the community-worker coalition submitted its proposal: Tell refineries they’re not allowed to increase the levels of pollution they emit, starting now.

In addition to limiting harm to health and the climate, this proposal is critical for stopping Bay Area refineries from bringing in large amounts of crude oil from Canadian tar sands. Because tar sands oil takes so much energy to process, and because it spews out such large amounts of pollution that’s harmful to health, a cap on refinery emissions would effectively prevent an increase in tar sands refining. Scientists have stated that to prevent runaway climate disaster, the tar sands oil has to stay in the ground.

Bay Area refineries are turning to tar sands crude because their traditional sources of crude oil – in California and Alaska – are drying up. Tar sands oil producers, for their part, are increasingly looking to the Bay Area as an outlet for their product, since the Keystone XL pipeline was defeated, and Canadian First Nations are strongly resisting the shipment of tar sands oil through their territories. And Bay Area refineries, already equipped to handle “heavy” crude oil, are closer to being ready to refine tar sands than most others.

The Western States Petroleum Association, representing the oil companies, has been fighting regulation every step of the way. Recently they’ve sent mailers opposing regulation to residents in the districts of selected BAAQMD board members. It is reported that they are hoping to get a California legislator to introduce a bill banning local caps on greenhouse gas emissions.

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