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Letter to Contra Costa County, California on Just Transition from Fossil Fuels

By staff - Sunflower Alliance, November 20, 2020

Just weeks after Contra Costa County’s Board of Supervisors declared a climate emergency, a diverse group of environmental, labor, and public health advocates sent a letter to the Board calling for a planned and equitable transition away from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy, in what many are calling a “just transition” that supports refinery workers and frontline communities.

“We applaud your recent Declaration of a Climate Emergency in Contra Costa County, which underlines the need to ‘plan for a ‘just transition’ away from a fossil-fuel dependent economy.’  In furtherance of this goal, we seek your immediate action to ensure just transitions for workers and communities threatened with sudden abandonment by refineries located in the County.  We believe climate protection must go hand in hand with environmental and economic justice,”  reads the letter’s opening paragraph.  See the full letter here.

The letter highlights concerns over recent news regarding changes to traditional refinery operations in Contra Costa County—including Marathon’s announcement of a permanent end to crude oil processing at its Martinez refinery, and Phillips 66’s notice of an impending partial closure of its San Francisco Refinery facilities in Rodeo, Franklin Canyon, and Arroyo Grande.

Both companies have proposed changes that would significantly decrease the production of non-petroleum fuels, which will involve shuttering large portions of the refinery.  Neither company has identified plans for full cleanups of their industrial sites, nor have they made adequate commitments to support the wages, health care, or pensions of workers whose jobs are threatened by these changes.

“The large oil companies who have for so long made their profits in Contra Costa County’s local communities ought to be the ones to pay the steep cost associated with their departure,”  the letter states.

The letter also identifies how the communities facing shuttered refinery operations are ultimately at risk for future prospects for environmentally healthy and economically sustainable development.

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).

Unions + Environmentalists = A Movement

By Vanessa Warheit - Medium, March 13, 2017

Last week I had the enormous privilege of participating in a two-day pilot workshop designed to help organized labor and environmental groups build a movement together. The free workshop was co-sponsored by The Sierra Club, Blue-Green Alliance, Communication Workers of America, and the United Steel Workers, and hosted by USW Local 5 in the quaint oil-refinery town of Martinez, CA. I attended as the Science/Environment partnerships liaison for Indivisible Berkeley.

One thing that immediately struck me was the genuine goodwill in the room, and the sense that all of us — from refinery workers to climate activists to union managers to cable repair guys — just want a more equitable, safe planet for our families and our communities. I also confess to being somewhat surprised that the union folks were so open, and so friendly. (I think they were equally surprised to find us so open and friendly!) It was exciting, too, to see how well organized and committed they were (yes, I know, it’s called “organized labor” for a reason), as these are essential requirements for building our nascent resistance movement. I’m really looking forward to working more with them in the future, and I feel lucky to have these guys on our side.

But OK —friendly or not, how do you get oil workers and climate activists on the same page? Easy: show them their common enemy.

USW Striking Oil Workers And Supporters Speakout For Health And Safety At Tesoro Refinery

By Steve Zeltser - Labor Video Project, February 13, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Striking USW 5 Tesoro oil workers rallied on February 12, 2015 at the refinery in Pacheco, California. They were joined by CNA nurses and environmentalists who raised the issue of health and safety for not only the workers but the communities. This is the first national strike since 1980 and the companies have record profits.

Some workers face extreme fatigue with 14 days of continuous work and also short staffed crews that threaten their safety and the communities.

Additionally protesters charged that Richmond Chevron refinery managers are threatening to continue to operate the refinery with replacement workers if the USW workers go on strike

Steelworkers protest racism and lack of adequate safety at the Shell refinery in Martinez, California

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 25, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Inside sources tell us that rank and file members of United Steelworkers Union Local 5 in Martinez, California are none too happy with management of the local Shell refinery bosses.

Their main beef is that the company refuses to hire full time firefighters to staff the facility, and instead choose to rely on part timers. Given these refineries' tendency to--well--explode, especially in light of the fact that they're processing heavier and dirtier tar sands crude through increasingly corroded and poorly maintained pipes (due to maintenance budget restrictions in spite of the workers' warning against that), this isn't shocking. In fact, what's shocking is that more people don't know about this.

These same workers attended the recent (January 21, 2015) Martinez City Council meeting to complain about unaddressed instances of sexism and racial slurs (including a hangman's noose and graffiti of a Nazi swastika found at the facility) by the company.

The union conducted a brief informational picket in nearby Pacheco on January 22 to raise awareness about their grievances. Stay tuned for updates.

Reportedly, members of USW Local 5 will also join in a community rally in front of city hall (400 Civic Center on McDonald), in Richmond, California at 5 PM, Wednesday, January 28, 2015. At 6 PM, the US Chemical Safety Board will issue its final determination on the August 6, 2012 toxic fire and explosion at the Chevron Richmond Refinery.

San Francisco Bay Area Oil Infrastructure

The following pamphlet, compiled by Gifford Hartman (Fall 2014) offers a brief, and concise description of the five oil refineries in the San Francisco Bay Area, located northeast of San Francisco. [PDF File]

Capital Blight - Oil Town Rebellion

By x344543 - March 22, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

For years, the communities of Western and Northwestern Contra Coast County and southwestern Solano County, located on the San Pablo and Suisun Bays, northwest of the San Francisco Bay have been dominated by the fossil fuel industry (and to some extent--until 1993--by the US Military Industrial Complex), and the capitalists running that industry have run each of these communities essentially like company towns.

Under these conditions, all official institutions, including elected city, county, and regional governments, most other businesses, and even the unions that supposedly "represent" the workers in these facilities are beholden to the dominant capitalist interests. Dissident residents or workers--if there are any--often find themselves isolated and alone if they can even find the courage to speak out at all. Complaints about working conditions, corrupt union officials, bought politicians, environmental racism, toxic pollution, and capital blight often fall on deaf ears and are usually dismissed as the product of "outside agitators", even "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" or some such thing.

In this northwestern Bay Area region, there are four corporate refineries that dominate the towns of Avon and Pacheco (Tesoro), Benicia (Valero), Martinez (Shell), Richmond (Chevron), and Rodeo and Crockett (Conoco-Phillips), and--as one would expect--dissenters have indeed had a difficult, almost impossible time being heard.

Chevron in particular has run Richmond as a virtual company town as long as it has existed (indeed, the refinery predates the town's founding).  For years, the people of the nearby residential neighborhoods have complained of toxic pollution and political double standards that favor the corporation--allegations that are supported by mountains if evidence. Until recently, the local politicians were entirely loyal to the company.

The environmental struggles of these communities--mostly composed of African-Americans, Asian, Latino, and working class White people--have often been ignored by mainstream environmental NGOs. Locally based environmental groups, including the West County Toxics Coalition and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), have had to do the vast majority of the work of bringing attention to the plight of their residents. On occasion, Greenpeace and Earth First! have given attention to them, but for the most part, it's been locals--most of whom are not typically activist oriented--who've borne the brunt of the struggles.

Many of these refineries are unionized--mostly by the United Steelworkers Union, with a minority of the workers instead belonging to IBEW Local 180. Naturally, the leadership of these unions has oriented themselves towards capitalist interests, who have on numerous occasions tripped over themselves to voluntarily speak on behalf of their capitalist masters.

For example, in 1999, after four refinery workers were killed in a fire, at the Tosco (now Tesoro) facility in nearby Avon, CBE spoke up on behalf of the deceased and called for stricter regulations of refineries (to protect both workers and the environment). Tosco, of course, opposed the proposed regulatory changes, instead calling for more watered down oversight which--CBE argued--left the foxes guarding the hen-house. Rather than support CBE, Jim Payne of the PACE union local that "represented" the workers at the time excoriated the environmentalists, declaring,

"It absolutely infuriates me that those damned tree-huggers would place this regulation in jeopardy,"

Certain residents of the nearby communities of Avon and Clyde were not especially welcoming of CBE either because--naturally--Tesoro used their substantial economic and political leverage to convince these people that CBE were "outside agitators", perhaps even "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" (imagine that!).

This incident was very similar to the PCB spill in Georgia Pacific's lumber mill in Fort Bragg, California, that took place a decade earlier, in which the union leadership of IWA Local 3-469 (one Don Nelson) essentially took the company's side, leaving the rank and file workers to seek outside help from Earth First! and the IWW. Those efforts were led by Anna Marie Stenberg and (you guessed it), Judi Bari.

In spite of years of frustration and the corporations' seemingly iron rule, aided in large parts by their attempts to divide and conquer workers and environmentalists, the political winds in these northwestern Bay Area refinery towns appears to be shifting. Dissidents are gaining traction within their communities, no longer finding themselves isolated from their fellow residents. Workers employed by these industries are speaking out and even making alliances with environmentalists, the communities are finding that they can elect politicians willing to chart a course independent of the dominate corporate forces, and regulatory agencies—who usually provide official cover for the capitalists they’re ostensibly charged with regulating—are actually showing signs of actually demanding accountability from the powers that be.

The Fine Print I:

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