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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).

Coal Mine Cleanup Works: A Look at the Potential Employment Needs for Mine Reclamation in the West

By Kate French - Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), July 2020

The collapse of the coal industry is devastating small communities across the Western United States, but reclaiming these mined lands quickly could create up to 4,800 full-time equivalent jobs per year in the critical two to three year period after mine closure according to our new report, Coal Mine Cleanup Works. The report estimates potential reclamation job creation for four Western coal states (Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming) and provides recommendations for decision makers to ensure cleanup is fully funded and employs the local workforce. 

These findings offer a rare bright light of opportunity for coal communities that are facing massive lay-offs and lost revenue as the coal industry crumbles. Reclamation is one of the few immediately available job opportunities for local workers after a mine shuts down, and the report finds that these jobs are ideally suited for current or former miners.

Coal Mine Cleanup Works key findings include:

  • Surface coal mine reclamation could create up to 4,800 full-time equivalent jobs per year in the critical two to three year period after mine closure. These potential yearly jobs represent up to 65% of the current surface mining workforce in the four-state region. 
  • Reclamation is one of the few immediately available job opportunities for local workers after a mine shut down, and the report finds that these jobs are ideally suited for current or former miners.
  • An important component of a just economic transition is having some immediate job creation solutions, like cleanup jobs, paired with longer-term job solutions.
  • Delayed and underfunded reclamation are the biggest hurdles to getting laid-off miners back on the job doing cleanup work.

Read the text (PDF).

Green Stimulus for Oil and Gas Workers: Considering a Major Federal Effort to Plug Orphaned and Abandoned Wells

By Daniel Raimi, Neelesh Nerurkar, and Jason Bordoff - Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, School of International and Public Affairs, and Resources for the Future, July 2020

The global economic damages wrought by COVID-19 have dramatically magnified the suffering caused by the deadly virus. US lawmakers have already approved $3 trillion in aid to help offset the economic damage, and additional measures are under consideration. At the same time, the need to invest trillions in economic recovery has prompted calls to “build back better” by making the recovery a greener, less carbon-intensive one.

This paper, a joint effort between Resources for the Future and the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, examines the potential to boost US employment in the oil and gas workforce while also reducing pollution through a federal program to plug orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells. These wells can leak methane and other pollutants that contribute to climate change, poor air quality, and other health and environmental risks. This research included interviews with key regulatory and industry officials to present the most up-to-date information on this rapidly evolving issue.

While states and the federal government fund well plugging activities through bonding requirements, industry fees, and other sources, these funds have not historically been adequate to reduce the inventory of orphan unplugged wells. Many of these sites date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when regulations including bonding requirements were weak or, in many cases, nonexistent. Estimates for the total number of orphaned and abandoned wells range from several hundred thousand to 3 million, depending on the definition of such wells needing attention. At the same time the oil and gas industry, which has seen employment drop to levels not seen since 2006, appears able to scale up to carry out this work. Labor and equipment are readily available due to the low oil price environment created by the collapse in demand from the coronavirus.

The paper finds:

  • A significant federal program to plug orphan wells could create tens of thousands of jobs, potentially as many as 120,000 if 500,000 wells were plugged. Addressing 500,000 wells would require state, tribal, and federal agencies to identify and prioritize hundreds of thousands of additional wells, most of which are unaccounted for in current inventories of orphaned wells. These inventories indicate that the largest number of orphaned wells are in Pennsylvania.
  • A widespread federal effort to plug orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells would reduce local air pollution, safety risks, and greenhouse gas emissions at a cost of roughly $67 to $170 per ton of CO2-equivalent, well within the range of other policy options.
  • A significant pool of labor from the oil and gas industry could be deployed toward and benefit from such a program. More than 76,000 direct industry jobs were lost from February to June of 2020, a number that is likely to rise in the months to come. The job losses have been especially acute in rural regions where domestic oil and gas production occurs and where economies are closely tied to industry fortunes, such as the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico, the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Bakken in North Dakota, and parts of California, Colorado, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and other states. In these regions, this downturn not only affects workers but also funding for schools, infrastructure, public safety, and more, as a prior collaboration between RFF and CGEP found.
  • The costs of plugging and restoring well sites vary widely, and the total outlay of a well plugging program to address the known inventory of 56,600 orphaned wells could plausibly range from $1.4 billion to $2.7 billion. Expanding the program to identify and plug 500,000 wells could plausibly cost between $12 and $24 billion. States have different technical requirements for plugging wells and restoring surface locations, and some wells pose greater risks to groundwater, are harder to access, or are deeper than average. All these factors affect plugging and restoration costs.
  • One potential challenge of a very large program (i.e., addressing hundreds of thousands of wells) is that state regulatory offices would likely need to scale up administrative capacity to oversee such programs.
  • While states and the federal government require oil and gas companies to post bonds or other forms of financial assurance to pay for well plugging in case firms go bankrupt before plugging wells, these bonds often do not cover the full costs. Federal funding could exacerbate this problem if states and companies see it as alleviating their responsibility to plan for future remediation costs adequately. To avoid this, a federal program could prioritize plugging wells abandoned decades ago that were not subject to modern regulatory frameworks.

Read the text (PDF).

Pipe Dreams: Why Canada’s proposed pipelines don’t fit in a low carbon world

By Axel Dalman and Andrew Grant - Carbon Tracker - July 2020

Carbon Tracker’s modelling shows no new oil sands are needed in a low carbon world.

Prospective pipeline projects represent a significant expansion of capacity, with taxpayer support. However, new pipelines are surplus to requirements under Paris Agreement demand levels.

Canadian authorities face the challenge of trying to reconcile their natural resources development plans with their positioning on climate. Canada has previously having shown leadership on climate change issues, but its government support for pipelines – which are reliant on the failure of the Paris Agreement – risks damaging its credibility.

Key Findings:

Our research has previously shown that no new oil sands projects are needed in a low carbon world. All unsanctioned oil sands projects are uncompetitive under both the International Energy Agency’s 1.7-1.8°C Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) and c.1.6°C Beyond 2 Degrees Scenario (B2DS).

All proposed new pipelines from Western Canada, in particular Keystone XL and Trans Mountain expansion, are surplus to requirements in a Paris-compliant world. Pipeline capacity may have proved a constraint in recent years, but under SDS, all future oil supplies from Western Canada can be accommodated by upgrades and replacements to existing pipelines, local refining and limited rail freight.

Even if discounts for Canadian crude narrow, new oil sands projects remain uneconomic. Western Canadian heavy oil trades at a steep discount to international benchmarks due to quality and transport challenges, averaging $25 below Brent over the last decade. Even if greater pipeline capacity reduces this to $10 in the future, in line with levels seen during previous periods of unconstrained supply, new projects still remain uneconomic under the SDS. Indeed, even if Canadian heavy oil were to trade at parity with Brent, which is extremely unlikely due to its lower quality, there would still be no new oil sands production under the B2DS and just 120,000 bbl/d would enter the market in the SDS – a level which would be covered by existing rail capacity.

Investors in oil sands face depressed cash flows in a low carbon world of falling oil demand and weak pricing, but will be forced to produce or pay the price due to inflexible “take-or-pay” transport fees for excess new pipeline capacity.

While take-or-pay contracts spread the impacts, pipeline investors still face financial risks as upstream production weakens. Uncontracted capacity will probably remain unused by producers, and contracts may cannibalise tariffs from other pipelines. Even take-or-pay commitments are subject to counterparty risk in a falling oil market.

The Canadian government’s stakes in Keystone XL and Trans Mountain could well prove to be a drain on the public purse. Under the SDS, government tax revenues and the value of the assets are unlikely to reach the levels anticipated at the time of sanction.

Canada’s leadership position on climate change may be undermined by its support for projects reliant on the failure of the Paris Agreement.

Read the report (Link).

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).

It’s Time to Nationalize the Fossil Fuel Industry

Robert Pollin interviewed by C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, June 26, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy provides a golden opportunity for creating a fairer, more just and sustainable world as it shatters long-held assumptions about the economic and political order. Its impact on the energy industry in particular can boost support for tackling the existential threat of global warming by raising the prospect of nationalizing and eventually dismantling fossil fuel producing companies, a position argued passionately by one of the world’s leading progressive economists, Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

C.J. Polychroniou: It has been argued by many that the coronavirus pandemic is a game changer for numerous industries, and could change the way we work and the way we use energy. We could also see the possible return of the social state and thus the end of austerity. First of all, are there any comparisons to be made between the current health and economic crises and what took place during the Great Depression?

Robert Pollin: There is one big similarity between the economic collapse today and the 1930s Great Depression. That is the severity of the downturns in both cases. The official U.S. unemployment rate coming from the Labor Department as of May 2020 was 13.3 percent. But a more accurate measure of the collapsing job market is the number of workers who have applied for unemployment insurance since the lockdown began in mid-March. That figure is 44 million people, equal to about 27 percent of everyone in the current U.S. labor market, employed or unemployed. By contrast, during the Great Recession of 2007-09, official unemployment peaked, and for one month only, at 10.0 percent.

Decline and Fall: The Size & Vulnerability of the Fossil Fuel System

By Kingsmill Bond, Ed Vaughan, and Harry Benham - Carbon Tracker, June 4, 2020

Renewable costs are below those of fossil fuels. Five years ago, fossil fuels were the cheapest baseload. The collapse in renewable costs means that for 85% of the world, renewable electricity is the cheapest source of new baseload. By the early 2020s it will be every major country. Because of the rise of cheap renewables, the fossil fuel system is ripe for disruption. This disruption will be have profound financial implications for investors as a quarter of equity markets and half of corporate bond markets are ‘carbon entangled’.

Those responsible for our pension schemes should sit up and take notice; but even greater concern should be felt by financial regulators, as they grapple with finding the right tools to manage the risks of a deflating ‘carbon bubble’.

The world faces two contrasting pathways. Either it can secure the ‘trillion dollar green gigafall’, the trillions that can be generated at low cost from the sun and the wind – particularly benefiting the poorest inhabitants of the world currently dependent upon high cost fossil fuel imports. Or it can stay locked into business as usual, tied into a declining industry that both threatens the global economy with the worst effects of a warming planet, and damages investors with losses, low returns and destabilised equity and credit markets.

In Carbon Tracker’s first report, some ten years ago, entitled ‘Unburnable Carbon – are the World’s Financial Markets Carrying a Carbon Bubble’ we highlighted that listed fossil fuel companies have the potential to develop enough reserves to take the world way beyond 3˚C. Our second report, ‘Unburnable Carbon – Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets’, noted that if we can’t burn what we have already found, why continue to invest in the fossil fuel industry’s expansion? Yet today, we know that some $1 trillion is spent annually on expanding supply and this report goes more into these numbers. Before we wind down the fossil fuel system, we need to stop expanding it.

Some argue that ‘fossil fuels will go away of their own accord’ as the result of the rapid progress made by cleaner technologies and the collapse in demand for fossil fuels driven by the terrible COVID-19 epidemic. Unfortunately, as this report makes clear, financial markets are still heavily tied in to the fossil fuel system.

Read the report (PDF).

Green Strings: Principles and conditions for a green recovery from COVID-19 in Canada

By Vanessa Corkal, Philip Gass, and Aaron Cosbey International Institute for Sustainable Development, June 2020

Key Messages

  • The COVID-19 crisis, while difficult and tragic, also provides a critical opportunity to align efforts to meet Canada’s climate goals with the challenge of economic reconstruction post-pandemic.
  • IISD has developed seven "green strings" recommendations: key principles, criteria, and conditionalities that should be applied to government measures for economic recovery from COVID-19 to ensure a green recovery.
  • Canada’s leading environmental groups, representing close to two million people, have signed on to the recommendations, including the Pembina Institute, Climate Action Network Canada, David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace Canada, Équiterre, Ecojustice, Ecology Action Centre, Conservation Council of New Brunswick, Stand.earth, Leadnow, Sierra Club Canada Foundation, and Wilderness Committee.

The reasons to set and apply "green strings" are clear:

  • Conditions in the public interest are the government’s right and duty.
  • The benefits of green stimulus and recovery measures are backed by evidence. 
  • We need a new economic model for the workers of today and tomorrow.
  • Urgent action is needed to address the climate crisis. 
  • Health and climate change imperatives go hand in hand. 
  • There is strong public support for ensuring a green recovery. 

The following seven “green strings” should be attached to COVID-19 recovery measures announced by Canada’s government:

  1. Support only companies that agree to plan for net-zero emissions by 2050.
  2. Make sure funds go towards jobs and stability, not executives and shareholders.
  3. Support a just transition that prepares workers for green jobs.
  4. Build up the sectors and infrastructure of tomorrow.
  5. Strengthen and protect environmental policies during recovery.
  6. Be transparent and accountable to Canadians.
  7. Put people first and leave no one behind.

We can no longer continue with the status quo, worsening the climate and biodiversity crises and locking our country and the global community in to stark health, environmental, and economic outcomes. We must seize this difficult moment to transform our economy and our institutions to serve vital public policy goals from environment to equity. The stakes are high.

Read the text (Linked PDF).

Unifor's Road Map for a Fair, Inclusive and Resilient Economic Recovery

By staff - Unifor, June 2020

Unifor is Canada’s largest union in the private sector, representing 315,000 workers in every major area of the economy.

The union advocates for all working people and their rights, fights for equality and social justice in Canada and abroad, and strives to create progressive change for a better future.

Unifor brings a modern approach to unionism: adopting new tools, involving and engaging our members, and always looking for new ways to develop the role and approach of our union to meet the demands of the 21st century.

Every person of working age in Canada has a right to a good job and the benefits of economic progress.

Unifor is presenting this plan in June 2020, four months after the novel coronavirus arrived in Canada, at a time when restric-tions on movement, activities and business operations are begin-ning to lift, but infection rates and illness continue to grow.

Read the report (PDF).

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