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Victory for climate activists in the Dutch Courts and in Exxon and Chevron boardrooms

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 27, 2021

May 26 will go down in history as a very bad day for the fossil fuel industry for three reasons: in the Netherlands, the courts issued a landmark decision that requires Royal Dutch Shell to cut its carbon emissions – including Scope 3 emissions – by 45% by 2030. Also on May 26, activist shareholders won separate victories at the corporate annual meetings of ExxonMobil and Chevron. Bill McKibben reflects on all three events in “Big Oil’s Bad Bad Day” in The New Yorker , and Jamie Henn wrote “A Landmark Day in the fight against fossil fuels” in Fossil Free Media.

The case of Royal Dutch Shell is summarized by Friends of the Earth Canada in their press release , which also links to an English-language version of the Court’s decision.

“On May 26, as a result of legal action brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) together with 17,000 co-plaintiffs and six other organisations the court in The Hague ruled that Shell must reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% within 10 years.

…..“This is a turning point in history. This case is unique because it is the first time a judge has ordered a large polluting company to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement. This ruling may also have major consequences for other big polluters,” says Roger Cox, lawyer for Friends of the Earth Netherlands.

The verdict requires Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by the end of 2030. Shell is also responsible for emission from customers and suppliers. There is a threat of human rights violations to the “right to life” and “undisturbed family life”.

German news organization Deutsche Welle offers an excellent, more thorough discussion in “Shell ordered to reduce CO2 emissions in watershed ruling”, which points out that the case was argued on human rights grounds – much like the precedent-setting Urgenda case and the recent German constitutional case. In those cases however, governments were called upon to defend the human right to a future safe from the dangers of climate change. The Shell case is the first time such an argument has been tried against a corporation – and is seen as a harbinger of future legal action.

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

Decommissioning California Refineries and Beyond Workshop

Big Oil Reality Check

By David Tong, et. al. - Oil Change International, September 2020

As oil and gas companies claim to be part of the solution of the climate crisis, the reality couldn’t be more different. Our new discussion paper analyzes the current climate commitments of eight of the largest integrated oil and fossil gas companies, and reveals that none come close to aligning their actions with the urgent 1.5°C global warming limit as outlined by the Paris Agreement.

This discussion paper measures oil and gas company climate plans against ten minimum criteria, focusing on the ambition, integrity, and ability necessary to implement a just transition and achieve a 1.5°C aligned managed decline of oil and fossil gas. Focusing on the oil majors, BP, Chevron, Eni, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Repsol, Shell, and Total, we find that only one company has committed to cutting oil and gas production over the next decade, and even that pledge (BP’s stated commitment to cut production by 40% by 2030) excludes around a third of the oil and gas it invests in extracting via its major share in oil giant Rosneft. Below is a summary table of these criteria included in the discussion paper.

Read the text (PDF).

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).

Exposing a Ticking Time Bomb: How fossil fuel industry fraud is setting us up for a financial implosion, and what whistleblowers can do about it

By John Kostyack, Karen Torrent, Laura Peterson, and Carly Fabian - National Whistleblower Center - July 2020

In the past several years, U.S. states, cities, counties and individuals concerned about climate change have filed important lawsuits against fossil fuel companies, asserting that the companies are responsible for climaterelated damage due to their carbon pollution. These cases confront “what might be the greatest scam in history,” in the words of historian Naomi Oreskes: the massive disinformation campaign designed to stall action on climate change by persuading decision makers and the public that it is not a problem to be taken seriously.

In this report, the National Whistleblower Center focuses on a related deception that, with a small handful of notable exceptions, is unaddressed in the climate change lawsuits filed to date: the dramatic understatement of risks posed by climate change to fossil fuel companies’ own financial condition and to the economy at large. We describe an important pathway to ensuring proper disclosures of climate risks: collaborative work by whistleblowers, prosecutors and regulators to enforce anti-fraud laws.

This report is a call to action for executives of fossil fuel companies and others with knowledge of improper accounting and disclosure practices, such as external auditors, to take the steps needed to obtain protected whistleblower status and work with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), other regulators and law enforcement officials to help expose and prosecute fraud. For the first time, legal strategies are provided for whistleblowers and others to expose and prosecute climate risk fraud in the fossil fuel industry. This is also the first report to use the methods of professional fraud investigators to identify fossil fuel industry financial disclosure practices that are likely to be fraudulent.

Climate risks—comprised of “transition risks,” the financial risks to some companies due to the world’s shift away from fossil fuels, and “physical risks,” those associated with climate change- related damage to property— uniquely threaten the finances of fossil fuel companies. Fossil fuel companies, fearful of losing access to investment capital and loans, are therefore highly motivated to conceal their exposure to these risks.

Concealment of climate risks is a matter of great public interest because when it is successful, it harms investors, the environment and the economy. Investors who provide capital to these companies suffer because they invest based on a false sense of the companies’ readiness for the transition to a low-carbon economy and for the physical shocks of climate change. This deception undercuts efforts to address climate change because it slows the shift of investments to businesses developing and deploying low-carbon technologies. It harms the economy by leaving financial institutions such as banks and insurers less prepared for the stresses of rapid asset deflation.

Read the report (PDF).

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."

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