Toxic Relationship 

How refineries affect climate change and racial and economic injustice

click to enlarge BURNT: California is the biggest oil-refining center in Western North America according to Greg Karras of Communities for a Better Environment.

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BURNT: California is the biggest oil-refining center in Western North America according to Greg Karras of Communities for a Better Environment.

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.

Prices and Jobs

The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) said in a statement that requiring cuts in refinery production is a bad idea: "We believe we can support our people, our communities, our planet, and our shared prosperity without having to sacrifice one at the expense of the other. However, arbitrarily working to limit refining or production in the state will leave many Californians short of energy, without work and at a greater risk for displacement."

The California State Building Trades Council recently joined in a partnership with WSPA to protect petroleum-industry jobs, although council President Robbie Hunter said he agrees that "dropping output in refineries is necessary. I believe we need to get rid of fossil fuels." His unions have often lobbied for clean-energy programs like the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires electricity providers to use an increasing percentage of renewable energy.

But, like WSPA, Hunter opposes refinery production cuts, fearing an increase in gasoline prices that would, among other things, hurt building-trades workers such as his sons, who "sometimes drive 80 miles a day to job sites." He argued for relying instead on programs to cut demand. "If the need goes down, I'm 100 percent in," he said.

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia represents a district that includes the Richmond Chevron refinery. He also sits on the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. A longtime environmental champion, Gioia said he agrees with the report's authors that "both demand and supply side strategies are necessary" to reduce petroleum use fast enough to meet climate goals. Last year the state legislature authorized studies to come up with strategies to reduce both supply and demand for greenhouse-gas-producing energy.

Gioia pointed to several new CARB regulations to reduce petroleum use, including a recent first-in-the-nation rule that sets a schedule for replacing diesel with electric trucks, as well as a schedule passed last year for switching to electric buses. But he said, "we have to be really thoughtful about the impact [of climate measures] on the hardest-hit communities. It's the lowest-income Californians, communities of color, who are the most impacted by rising fuel costs and don't always have access to public transportation."

Karras responded to these concerns by pointing out that, as demand for petroleum products in California has fallen, refineries have not reduced their output but, instead, started exporting more of their product—now at least 20 percent and rising. So production could be cut by 20 percent or more without reducing the amount available to Californians. And, he added, "It's a pure injustice for Black and Brown people in fence-line communities" to suffer pollution "so refineries can manufacture fuel that Californians don't need, to export our oil dependency to other countries."

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