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Are Refinery Workers Climate Enemies?

By an anonymous ex-member of the IWW (with a response by Steve Ongerth) - ecology.iww.org, April 28, 2022

Editor's Note: Since Monday, March 21, 2022, the workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, members of the United Steelworkers Local 5 have been on strike and picketing the facility after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage increases and demanded cuts in union staffing that focused on health and safety in the refinery. The bosses have responded by bringing in scabs (including managers from other Chevron facilities). Meanwhile, USW Local 5 members have been picketing the refinery 24-7, and have been, at times, joined by members of the local BIPOC and/or environmental justice community. After IWW EUC cofounder and long-time Bay Area IWW General Membership Branch member, Steve Ongerth, brought a call for solidarity with the striking workers to the April branch meeeting, a disgruntled member (who has since resigned from the organization), sent the following letter to the branch (name deleted for privacy reasons).

Message from a Disgruntled (former) Member:

I’m sorry to say how disappointed I am in the IWW. I’m a relatively new wobbly and although I believe in standing in solidarity with fellow workers it seems at some point lines must be drawn.

As I’ve read through these last emails about the USW Local 5 and the call to action for us to stand with them as they strike, many questions come to mind. The first one is what if fellow climate activists, many of whom are wobblies were to implement a protest blockade to stall production of this refinery in defense of the environment? I wonder if those refinery workers with whom we are picketing would come outside and join our protest line? I also wonder if they would be interested in the invitation to join the 2022 Global Climate Strike that you forwarded to us? In both cases I assume it is reasonable to conclude they would not.

As wobblies, where do we draw the line? What if oil pipeline workers go to strike for hazard pay because a tribal nation, whose land the pipeline is planned to cross blocks safe access to thier jobsite in protest of the poisoning of thier waterways? Would the IWW Environmental Caucus also put a call out to picket with those Union workers? We draw the line when it comes to police unions who’s membership is hellbent on beating and imprisoning people protesting civil injustices. Why are we supporting refinery workers? This makes no sense. Iunderstand that just about every industry is to some degree tainted with These workers primary job is to process and prepare for market the product that’s catapulted us into the current global warming apocalyptic meltdown!

Green Unionism on the Chevron Richmond Refinery Workers Picket Line

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, April 15, 2022

Since Monday, March 21, 2022, the workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, members of the United Steelworkers Local 5 have been on strike and picketing the facility after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage increases. The bosses have responded by bringing in scabs (including managers from other Chevron facilities). The strike has gotten a good deal of media coverage:

However, the capitalist (and progressive) media have mostly missed some important details.

First of all, the striking refinery workers and their elected union leaders continue to emphasize that their issues extend beyond narrow bread and butter issues, such as wages and benefits. A major concern that they continue to articulate is that Chevron continues to try and cut unionized safety jobs and refuses to hire sufficient workers to safely and adequately staff the facility. Workers have complained of 12-hour days and six-day workweeks. All of these deficiencies not only risk the health and safety of the workers, but the surrounding, mostly BIPOC communities as well. Worse still, they have adverse environmental effects, a problem that hasn't been lost on the striking workers. As stated by USW Local 5 representative, B.K White:

“If we had more people and could get a better pay rate, maybe our members wouldn’t feel obligated to come in and work as many as 70 hours a week to make ends meet. We don’t believe that is safe. (that and the use of replacement workers) is at the detriment of the city of Richmond and the environment.”

Even less noticed by the media has been the presence of environmental justice activists (including, but not limited to, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, Extinction Rebellion, Fossil Free California, Richmond Progressive Alliance, Sierra Club, Sunflower Alliance, Sunrise Movement, and 350), various socialist organizations (including DSA in particular), and members from the nearby front-line BIPOC communities, who have joined the pickets in solidarity with the workers, something the workers have also not hesitated to point out. Indeed, in spite of the fact that many environmental justice activists and community members are harshly critical of Chevron's role in turning the city of Richmond into a capital blight infested sacrifice zone, they recognize that the workers are not their enemies nor are the latter responsible for the damage done by the company. On the contrary, many recognize that the unionized workforce is one of the best mitigations against far worse capital blight (it bears mentioning that there has also been a good deal of support and picket line presence from rank and file workers and union officials from many other unions, including the AFSCME, IBEW, IWW, ILWU, SEIU, UFCW, and the Contra Costa County Central Labor Council).

Such seemingly unlikely bonds of solidarity, though delicate and, at times, fragile didn't arise out of thin air, but, in fact, have resulted from years of painstaking grassroots organizing.

Open Letter to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors on Just Transition

By Andreas Soto and Ann Alexander - Communities of a Better Environment and NRDC, November 20, 2020

Candace Anderson, Diane Burgis, John Gioia,
Karen Mitchoff, and Federal D. Glover
Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors
651 Pine Street, Room 107
Martinez, CA 94553

Dear Chair Anderson, Vice-Chair Burgis, and Supervisors Gioia, Mitchoff, and Glover, The undersigned organizations 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. All of this is now at risk in the Contra Costa County oil belt.

As you know, Marathon abruptly announced in August the immediate permanent end to crude processing at its Martinez refinery. Phillips 66 followed suit with notice of the impending partial closure of its San Francisco Refinery Complex facilities in Rodeo, Franklin Canyon, and Arroyo Grande. Both companies proposed switching to significantly downsized production of non-petroleum fuels, which will involve fallowing of large portions of the refineries. Neither announcement identified any explicit commitment to full cleanups of the contaminated industrial sites. Of even more immediate concern, neither company committed to support the wages, health care, or pensions of all whose jobs these facility closures threaten.

These refinery downsizings—which may well be a harbinger of additional closures in the future—will jeopardize not just the livelihoods of the refinery employees, but those of thousands of families in the surrounding communities whose jobs are indirectly dependent upon the existence of the refineries. Refinery downsizing and shutdown also threaten a significant portion of the tax base upon which community government and essential services depend. Ultimately at risk are future prospects for environmentally healthy and economically sustainable development in communities hosting the decommissioned plant sites.

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.

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).

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.

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