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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).

Future Beyond Fossil Fuels: California’s Just Transition

By staff - Sunrise Movement, May 1, 2020

You may have heard the term ‘Just transition’ floating around, but what does it mean? This webinar will focus on what a just transition means for workers in California, and how the vision of a Green New Deal can guide the much-needed economic recovery from the COVID crisis.

This video features IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus cofounder, Steve Ongerth, speaking on workers, unions, and just transition in Northern California.

Worker Wisdom in a Changing Climate: Al Marshall - SEIU 1021, Oakland Chapter President

Interview and Image by Brooke Anderson - Climate Workers, November 13, 2015, reprinted by permission.

On September 21st, hundreds of people packed the Oakland City Hall to oppose developer Phil Tagami’s proposal to build a coal export terminal in Oakland. Among them were dozens of union members whose locals were opposing coal as anti-union, a major source of carbon emissions, and a risk to public health in working class neighborhoods through which coal trains would pass and deposit toxic coal dust. One of those union members was Al Marshall, SEIU 1021 City of Oakland Chapter President, who told the council that coal dust would only exacerbate his son’s asthma. We later interviewed Al. Here’s his story.

Brooke Anderson, Climate Workers: Thanks for talking to me, Al. You’re a union member. How did you get involved in the union?

Al Marshall, SEIU 1021: I’ve worked as a construction inspector for the City of Oakland for 15 years, and a city employee for 26 years total. One day I showed up to a union meeting, learned that our contract was being violated and that other people were frustrated too. I’ve been involved in the union ever since. I was elected City of Oakland Chapter President two years ago.

BA: So you live in Oakland then?

AM: I used to live in Oakland. But I lost my family home as a result of the furloughs during the financial crisis. My wife was laid off with reinstatement rights up to three years. She was called back with 45 days left, but by that time, the damage had been done. We now live on the other side of the tube in Alameda.

BA: You recently spoke against coal at Oakland City Council. Why do you oppose coal?

AM: My son DeVon is 7. He’s had asthma since he was 1.5 years old. He also has bad allergies. Most nights we have to hook him up to a ventilator to breathe. It’s a 20 minute process, and I lay there with him to help him find a breathing pattern that will calm his cough. As a parent, having a child with asthma is hell. It means many sleepless nights.

Depending on how hot it is and which way the wind is blowing, what’s in the atmosphere triggers my son’s allergies and asthma. So to me, it doesn’t make any sense to transport coal through Oakland. And if we know coal will cause health problems here, why we would send it elsewhere? We are the gatekeeper to the planet. What we do has impacts on the other side of the planet and vice versa. We are all responsible.

BA: At the hearing, we heard the coal lobbyists say we need coal because it will bring jobs.

AM: I find it interesting that all these people are coming out of the woodwork now to say how it important it is to have coal in Oakland to bring jobs. There is enough other things to put on that Army Base to bring good paying jobs to those who need them. We don’t need coal for that. It’s the people who are financially well off who have the money to push coal on the less fortunate neighborhoods. They don’t have to worry about it because they don’t live here. But if they did, they would oppose coal too.

BA: Any last words for the coal industry?

AM: We all have a duty here while we are here on earth. We need to recognize what our calling is and do our best to serve whatever that calling is in the amount of time that we have here. We need to preserve something for those who come after us. It’s called passing the baton, and we have to make sure the baton doesn’t get dropped.

Unprecedented? Unions and community unite to halt plans to build coal export terminal in Oakland, California

By Elena Mora - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 9, 2015

A short but well-organized campaign to stop plans to build a coal export terminal in the Oakland Port resulted in a packed Oakland City Council meeting on September 21, and a vote requiring a public health impact study to guide the Council’s action, up to and including a moratorium on coal.

Screenshot 2015-09-26 10.47.56The campaign, “Coal Free Oakland,” led by the Sierra Club and others, brought together a very broad coalition (more than 80 organizations), with significant union participation, including the Alameda Labor Council, which passed a resolution calling on the city to reject the coal export plan.

Among those coordinating the labor outreach was Climate Workers, a project of Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project.

Labor and climate justice organizer Brooke Anderson, who heads up Climate Workers, called it “hugely significant — precedent setting — that labor came out in this way and opposed coal coming through the neighborhoods where their members live.” Unions signing on to the petition against the coal facility include the California Nurses Association; SEIU 1021 and United Service Workers West; the American Postal Workers Union (Oakland’s largest post office is next to the port); ILWU Local 10, Local 6 and Northern California District Council; UniteHERE Local 2850; the Peralta Federation of Teachers; the Oakland Education Association; UAW Local 2865; the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192; and AFSCME District Council 57.

Youth encircle Tagami’s Rotunda building to launch #DeCOALonize Oakland boycott

By staff - No Coal in Oakland, November 21, 2017

“We are the children-
The mighty, mighty children!”

This chant rang out as about 80 people encircled the Rotunda Building, half of them young people, mostly of elementary school age, with placards proclaiming “Boycott the Rotunda,” “Youth vs. Coal,” and “DeCOALonize Oakland.”

“Hey hey ho ho
Dirty coal has got to go.”

The practice picket line was part of the November 21 DeCOALonization action organized by young people, with support from Climate Workers and other groups including No Coal in Oakland. This was a launch of the boycott of the Rotunda Building: asking organizations—particularly social justice nonprofits—to stop using the event venue owned by Phil Tagami and to notify him that they are boycotting this space until he drops his lawsuit aiming to reverse Oakland’s ban on coal.

Speakers included several youth, with messages about the dangers of pollution and—considering that Thanksgiving is approaching—support of Indigenous people. Labor was also represented by a speaker from Unite HERE Local 2850, which organizes hospitality workers. She pointed out that the Rotunda Building uses non-union labor and encouraged groups to find a unionized event space through fairhotel.org.

After picketing, the demonstrators enjoyed a meal that included soup and corn bread prepared by the activist youth. In contrast to the fancy events in the Rotunda, the demonstrators fed community members who came up to the tables clearly in need of good nutrition.

If you want to help contact organizations about the boycott, please e-mail NoCoalInOakland [at] gmail [dot] com.

Photo credit: Sunshine Velasco from Survival Media Agency

Youth and Workers Zombie March Against Coal in Oakland

By staff - Climate Workers, October 30, 2017

HUNDREDS OF YOUTH, WORKERS TO MARCH ON DEVELOPER PHIL TAGAMI’S HOUSE, DEMAND HE DROP LAWSUIT TO BUILD COAL TERMINAL IN OAKLAND; Covered in “Coal Dust,” Unions, Youth Will Hold Halloween Carnival Outside Tagami’s House

CONTACT: Brooke Anderson - 510-846-0766, brooke@climateworkers.org

What: A day before Halloween, high school students and union members from across Oakland will lead a “Zombie March on Coal” to the home of Oakland developer Phil Tagami to protest his attempt to overturn Oakland’s 2016 ban on the storage, handling, and transport of coal through the city. Youth plan to hold a Halloween street carnival outside Tagami’s house to educate about coal’s role in driving both climate and public health crises and to celebrate the resilience and determination of young Oaklanders.

When:  4:30 PM. Monday, October 30, 2017.

Where: Corner of Mandana Blvd. and Carlston Ave. in Oakland, CA.
March will leave at 5PM for Phil Tagami’s house (1012 Ashmount Ave, Oakland).

Visuals: Banners, youth in Halloween costumes, union members and marchers covered in “coal dust,” musicians & band, Halloween street carnival including: coffins and tombstones, face painting, reading circles, games and activities.

Oakland City Council banned coal in June of 2016.Tagami is now suing the city over this decision. At a moment when Oakland has been experiencing extremely poor air quality due to the North Bay fires, those who live and work in the city are saying no to Tagami’s plans to further pollute the air and poison Oaklanders lungs. Young people are refusing to accept dirty air in their city. Tagami promised the terminal would create jobs, but by suing the city over coal, he’s now holding up these jobs from coming to Oakland. The marchers will demand that Tagami drop his lawsuit and make the right choice: a thriving, healthy Oakland.

People will gather a few blocks away from Tagami’s house and march, setting up a youth-led Halloween street carnival. This march and carnival is organized by Climate Workers, and co-sponsored by 20+ youth, labor, and environmental justice organizations in Oakland.

For more information: No Coal in Oakland

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.

People Vs Big Oil, Part I: Washington Victory Over Shell Oil Trains Signals A Turning Tide

By Matt Stannard - Occupy.Com, October 17, 2016

A Bad Month for the Earth-Burners

From Standing Rock Reservation to the Florida Everglades, 2016 has been an unprecedented year in people’s resistance to the fossil fuel economy. October especially has been a banner month: Mass convergence around the indigenous-led Dakota Access Pipeline protests, activists in three states audaciously (and illegally) shutting down three pipeline valve systems, and groups in the state of Washington forcing Shell to abandon a dangerous oil train unloading facility it had proposed in Anacortes in the northwest corner of the state. The earth-burners have had a difficult month.

I asked Rebecca Ponzio, Oil Campaign Director at the Washington Environmental Council, what it took to accomplish that last goal: How does a group of citizens stop one of the most powerful, frequently vile and ruthless companies from doing something as routine as unloading rail-transported crude oil?

“We sued,” she answered, and through the lawsuit, WEC, Earthjustice, and other groups “won the ability for a more thorough and comprehensive environmental review.” That Environmental Impact Statement in turn concluded: “The proposed project would result in an increased probability of rail accidents that could result in a release of oil to the environment and a subsequent fire or explosion... [that] could have unavoidable significant impacts.”

The EIS wasn’t bullshitting about that. Oil train transport is disastrous, and companies lie about their safety records. Shockingly, trains racing at unsafe speeds with volatile, difficult-to-contain oil is incredibly dangerous. Accident risk is extremely high. Magnitude of impact of such an accident is also extremely high.

“This review process created the space to really evaluate the impacts of the project and to engage the public on how this project would impact them – from Spokane, the Columbia River Gorge, through Vancouver and the entire Puget Sound," Ponzio said. And upon the release of the draft EIS, Shell pulled the project. “Once the public had the chance to engage and evaluate this project for themselves, the level of risk became clear and the opposition only grew in a way that couldn’t be ignored."

Puget Sound refinery officials claimed the decision was purely market-driven, but the subtext was clear: Activists had forced a scientific review, and the review cast the project in the worst possible light. Fighting back worked this time.

A Message to the Membership of ILWU Local 10

By Derrick H Muhammad - ILWU Local 10, August 4

Brothers and Sisters: Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is death. Ignorance can never carry the union to where it needs to go. Ignorance will cause the union to stumble.

Speaking with intelligence and exemplifying knowledge of the issues on behalf of working class and marginalized people is a noble thing. It is a union thing. It is what our predecessors did. Study the history of Harry Bridges, Bill Chester, Leroy King and Cleophas Williams just to name a few. In addition to being longshoremen and warehousemen these men were profound thinkers. Everything these men did had political ramifications. It is unwise to think otherwise.

Make no mistake about it. Local 10’s voice carries weight in the community and in City Hall. It is our responsibility to all of those who came before us and to the generations of laborers’ yet to come to preserve what we have inherited and to make progress. Please don’t let anyone tell you anything different.

The question of the building of a marine terminal at the old Oakland Army Base and the question of coal exports from the same terminal are two distinct issues. In 2012, Local 10 and many others from labor, spoke in favor of the building of this marine terminal. Subsequently, the approval of the building of the marine terminal was given the green light by the City of Oakland. So even though coal exports are banned, the marine terminal project is supported and should still go forward.

Lastly, much respect and gratitude to all the B Men who responded to their union's call.

In Solidarity,

Derrick H. Muhammad
ILWU Local 10, Secretary-Treasurer

No Coal in Oakland: a Report on the Campaign

By Margaret Rossoff - No Coal in Oakland, August 2016; image by Brooke Anderson

Many activists have expressed interest in an account of how the No Coal in Oakland campaign was organized.  This article is a response, but is not a history.  It is structured thematically rather than chronologically, and the many amazing activists and organizers are not identified by name.  Some of our initiatives came from organizations and some came from individual activists, but this account does not attempt to credit them, as every idea became a shared project.  Unlike just about every document during the campaign, this is not a collectively written piece.  It was significantly improved by careful readings by several people, for which I am very grateful, but I am responsible for all errors and omissions.  I expect—and hope–others will be writing their own accounts from a variety of perspectives.

I have included many links for documents referred to in this account.  For general background about the campaign, go to NoCoalinOakland.info.  A guide to acronyms is at the end of the article.

Margaret Rossoff
margaretmft@gmail.com

Strategy

No Coal in Oakland’s campaign was focused on persuading the members of the Oakland City Council to ban storage and handling of coal at a bulk export marine terminal to be built on City-owned land.  This would effectively prevent the transport of coal through Oakland and other cities along the rail lines as well as the shipment of coal overseas.

  • Our campaign to get the council members to vote for the ban had several components.  The primary ones were:
  • Direct lobbying with council members.
  • Outreach to Oakland residents, including particularly West Oakland residents and participants in community groups.  This was intended both to influence elected officials through popular opposition, and because we saw our campaign as part of building the larger movement for environmental justice and to contain climate disruption.
  • Insuring that evidence of the dangers of coal was adequately documented and presented to the council, including rebutting misleading claims by the developers.
  • Exploring other routes that might also lead to keeping coal out of Oakland.

This article focuses primarily on the first two aspects of our campaign. 

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