Tag Archives: Big Oil

End of big oil and its revenue impact on Benicia

Benicia is a “mini-petrostate” — What’s Next?

(Chris Riley/Times-Herald)
The city of Benicia was given a shelter in place alert and areas south of the Valero Refinery were evacuated after a power outage caused a flare up sending plumes of black smoke across Interstate 680.
By Grant Cooke, Benicia Resident and President Ag Tech Blends, September 24, 2020
Grant Cooke

I recently warned that Benicia faces a self-induced calamity. If the town doesn’t come to grips with the reality that it’s game over for the oil industry and that the tax revenue from Valero will end, the town’s future will be grim.

I suggested that by mid-century most, of it not, all Bay Area refineries—Valero included—would be shut. It may be sooner, as recently, Governor Gavin Newsom announced an executive order that would phase out gasoline-powered cars and pickups by 2035.

Most likely the big oil companies will do their best to delay this, but the direction is clear, California is turning away from fossil-powered vehicular transportation. Electric and hydrogen powered vehicles will be the norm sooner, instead of later.

The impact on Benicia and the other towns—Martinez, Rodeo, Richmond—will be significant. Unless those towns plan ahead—a troublesome chore for municipal governments—services will be drastically cut.

Secondly, if the refineries lock the gates and walk away, the cities will be stuck with the bill for cleaning up the hazardous waste that has accumulated for decades on the refinery property.

A couple of other points to consider. The first is the horrendous conflagrations that are besetting our state. Anyone who lives in California and doesn’t accept that climate change is real and life-threatening needs to talk to some of the state’s farmers who live that reality daily. Farmers know the weather and they know the ravages they are facing as the climate changes.

Climate change is not complex. It is caused by excess greenhouse gases caused by excess fossil fuel use. School kids can explain it.

The second is further from Benicia, but relevant. Over the last few weeks, a peace accord has been struck between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Now Bahrain has joined and eventually Saudi Arabia and Iraq will also.

This is something I never dreamed I would see—peace in the Middle East. After all the trillions of dollars spent, the tragic deaths and wounded US soldiers, the horrific dismemberments by ISIS, and the millions of civilians who lost their homes, villages or lives; the wars are ending.

The stated reason for the accord is that the moderate nations are sick and tired of the Sunni and Shia extremists and decided that working with Israel with its military might and US backing is the lesser of two evils. These guys are ever pragmatists.

On the other hand, the unstated, but probably more significant reason, is the moderate nations, particularly UAE and Bahrain, have leaders who understand that they have to move away from oil-dependent economies. With a growing population of well-educated, underemployed and potentially restless citizens, change has to happen. The Middle East needs economic diversification with renewable energy, science, modern Western technology, risk capital and innovative thinkers, or the moderate nations are doomed.

This too is Benicia’s dilemma. Basically, the city is a mini petrostate with 45 percent of its tax revenue coming from Valero or related businesses. The city’s problem of dependency on oil tax revenue is the same as the Middle East nations, or Louisiana, or any other municipality that fails to plan for a non-carbon world. At least UAE and Bahrain have come to that realization.

If UAE and Bahrain can think this through, maybe Benicia can. The first step is to resist Valero’s and the union’s PAC to take over the city government in the November election. If the town’s oil interests and supporters control the city, planning for a diversified tax base won’t happen.

Vote for Steve Young and anyone else who is willing to refuse campaign contributions from Valero and the union PAC. That’s a simple step.

The next steps are going to be harder. The first is to bring the problem out in open. Ask Valero for their plans as the oil refinery winds down. What will be the decline in tax revenue? How much have they put aside for environmental cleanup? How many of their folks live in Benicia and what will be the job losses?

Supposedly, Valero says that it will be the “last man standing” or the final oil refinery left in the Bay Area. I doubt it. My bet is that Chevron in Richmond will hold out the longest because their corporate headquarters are in the Bay Area. Valero is a Texas company, which probably means they will be one of the first to shut.

The second step is that Benicia has to do what Bahrain is doing, namely diversify the tax revenue by moving from a fossil fuel to a knowledge-based economy. The world is full of examples of cities—Bristol, Vancouver, Melbourne, Singapore, come to mind—that have remade their economies.

There are several examples in the Bay Area—San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Livermore and Pleasanton.

The third step is probably the hardest still. The move to a robust knowledge-based economy with science, technology and innovation to produce wealth should be sub-regional—along the Straits. Benicia is going to have to cooperate with Vallejo.

Wealth is being generated all along 680 and both cities have to adapt quickly, or they will be left behind as Fairfield and Vacaville prosper by growing their knowledge and service-based economies.

Unfortunately, Benicia and Vallejo have flaws and neither has the ability to generate significant change. They do, however, have exceptional geography with beautiful waterfronts and spectacular views. They have more potential than other underdeveloped Bay Area cities, except maybe Richmond.

But neither can develop a robust new economy by themselves. They don’t have the resources or the willingness to overcome the differences that serious change requires.

There are no easy answers for remaking a city’s economy. It takes vision, hard work and a united citizenry with common goals and a willingness to change. Cities are like alcoholics; they usually don’t change their behavior until they reach rock bottom, or their livers give out.

The cities I mentioned that were able to remake their economies had remarkable good luck when a new company suddenly boomed—like Pleasanton with People Soft—or a brilliant and powerful leader like Willie Brown in San Francisco, who could wrench the existing power structure into action.

It is particularly hard for a small town like Benicia that has prospered along with a single industry and has a city council with decent folks but split agendas. Heaven knows there are small company towns—like Benicia—throughout the Rust Belt that are dead or dying because they waited until the gates were locked and the pink slips issued. Look what happened to Detroit.

The Bay Area is maybe the world’s center for science, technology, innovation and risk capital. It is an unparalleled combination that is being copied in China and on a smaller scale in Boston and Copenhagen. The mixture creates wealth like mountain snow creates mighty rivers. Despite the trillion-dollar successes of Apple, Google, Facebook and Sales Force, this era of magnificent knowledge-based companies is just starting. There are untold new wonders to be developed and decades to run.

It would be a pity if Benicia fails to participate.

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Grant Cooke is a Benicia resident and co-author of two books:
By Woodrow Clark II and Grant Cooke, published by Elsevier and available at Amazon:
Grant Cooke
President, AgTech Blends
https://agtechblends.com

As Oil Giant Goes Bankrupt, California Governor Urged to Hold Industry Responsible for Well Cleanups

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— As one of California’s largest oil producers enters bankruptcy, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club today urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to prevent California Resources Corporation and other troubled oil companies from shirking legal obligations to clean up their wells and prevent pollution. CRC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Wednesday.

Today’s letter calls on the governor to intervene in CRC’s bankruptcy proceedings to ensure the company sets aside enough money for well cleanup. CRC and its affiliates operate approximately 18,700 wells in California, which could cost more than $1 billion to properly plug, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Of these, 7,826 are already “idle,” which means they’ve produced little to no oil in the past two years.

“Bankruptcy proceedings like these endanger California because oil companies like CRC can weaponize them to dump their environmental cleanup costs on the public,” said Kassie Siegel, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Given the huge number of wells at stake, the Newsom administration should intervene quickly to protect the public from those costs and our environment from pollution. More big oil bankruptcies are coming, and Gov. Newsom has a responsibility to be ready.”

“CRC’s bankruptcy is likely just the first of many as the oil industry inevitably declines in California. Gov. Newsom has the tools to protect the public from Big Oil, but so far he hasn’t used them,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California. “It’s critical that Gov. Newsom ensure that failing oil companies are held accountable for cleaning up their own mess, rather than leaving taxpayers and workers to pay the price.”

Although oil companies are required to pay for the cost of properly plugging and abandoning wells, they have not set aside nearly the amount required for remediation. Statewide, the California Council on Science and Technology estimates that cleaning up California’s approximately 107,000 oil and gas wells would cost over $9.2 billion, yet the bonds that are supposed to cover these costs total only about $107 million.

Today’s letter also urges Gov. Newsom to take proactive steps to protect the public and the environment in anticipation of a likely wave of future oil and gas bankruptcies. These steps include:

  • Increasing and accelerating well plugging and abandonment requirements to reduce air and water pollution and create jobs.
  • Increasing bond requirements to ensure that oil and gas companies set aside enough financial resources to cover the full costs of remediation even if they become insolvent.
  • Ensuring that the oil and gas industry as a whole – not taxpayers –funds the remediation of truly “orphaned” wells, by increasing the administrative fee on well owners as needed.
  • Avoiding the accrual of additional well cleanup costs by halting approvals and permits for new oil and gas activity, including new wells and fracking permits.
  • Taking steps to ensure that oil and gas companies satisfy their obligations to workers by honoring their pension and healthcare commitments.

Despite the dire outlook for the company, Newsom has continued to issue CRC new permits to drill wells. State oil regulators have issued CRC and its affiliates permits to drill nearly 300 new wells so far this year, including 27 new permits in just the first week of July, all without conducting environmental review required by law. Newsom has approved this expansion of drilling operations despite CRC’s long record of violating safety and environmental regulations.

“As other companies flirt with insolvency, the governor should accelerate well remediation by solvent operators, increase bonding levels on existing wells, and stop digging the hole deeper by handing out new drilling permits,” said Siegel. “Forcing companies to clean up their own messes would create jobs, keep the public safe from unattended wells and make sure polluters are the ones paying for cleanup.”

Statewide, Newsom has issued 1,500 drilling permits for new wells so far this year. He also lifted a moratorium on fracking by authorizing 360 new fracking events over the past few months.

In 2014, CRC was created as a spin-off by Occidental Petroleum and took over Occidental’s California oil and gas wells. Since then, CRC has performed poorly, earning “junk bond” status from ratings agencies. CRC blamed the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn for the bankruptcy, but CRC was at high risk of bankruptcy even before these events, as detailed in a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.


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Gavin Newsom Hands Out Fracking Permits to Connected Driller

While California was convulsed by COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death, the governor gave Big Oil a big gift.

Capital and Main, by Steve Horn,  June 19, 2020

On June 1, in the midst of the turmoil created by the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration quietly issued 12 fracking permits to Aera Energy, a joint venture owned by ExxonMobil and Shell.

Oil drilling in California has faced criticism for its disproportionately negative health impacts on Latino communities and other people of color. The 12 new permits will be for fracking in the Lost Hills Oil Field. The Kern County town of Lost Hills is more than 97 percent Latino, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

The fracking permits are the latest example of California’s oil industry benefiting from regulatory or deregulatory action during the COVID-19 pandemic and came just months after the Newsom administration said it supported taking actions to “manage the decline of oil production and consumption in the state.” Aera, which also received 24 permits from the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) on April 3 during the early days of COVID-19, has well-connected lobbyists in its corner who work for the firm Axiom Advisors.

One of them, Jason Kinney, headed up Newsom’s 2018 transition team and formerly served as a senior advisor to Newsom while he was lieutenant governor. He is also a senior advisor to California’s Senate Democrats. The other, Kevin Schmidt, previously served as policy director for Newsom when the latter was lieutenant governor. Aera paid Axiom $110,000 for its lobbying work in 2019 and, so far in 2020, has paid $30,000, lobbying reports reveal.

Axiom’s lobbying disclosure records show both Kinney and Schmidt listed as lobbyists and Aera as one of the firm’s clients. Kinney’s wife, Mary Gonsalvez Kinney, was also the stylist for Newsom’s wife–Jennifer Siebel Newsom–dating back to their time spent living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kinney and Schmidt did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

Calling the situation “unseemly,” Jamie Court, president for the Los Angeles-based group Consumer Watchdog, wrote via email that “Aera should not be able to buy the influence it apparently has over state oil and gas policy.” Last November, prior to the 24 permits issued in April, Newsom had declared a statewide fracking permit moratorium in response to a scandal involving a regulator for the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). The regulator, who had been tasked with heading oversight issues on issuing permits, was revealed to have stock investments valued up to $100,000 in Aera Energy’s parent company, ExxonMobil. Newsom fired the head of DOGGR at the time, Ken Harris, and eventually renamed the agency CalGEM.

Kinney and Schmidt are not the only two with Newsom ties. Aera CEO Christina Sistrunk sits on the governor’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery, created to craft an economic recovery plan in response to the ongoing COVID-19 economic fallout.

Aera is one of the state’s top drillers and accounts for nearly 25 percent of California’s production, its website claims. Aera landed 490 drilling permits from CalGEM in the first quarter of 2020, according to data collected by FracTracker, and 651 permits in 2019.

Lost Hills

The town of Lost Hills has a population of about 2,500 people and its field ranks sixth in oil produced in the state. The field sits in close proximity to a residential neighborhood just west of Interstate Highway 5, close to both a middle school and public park.

Infrared camera footage from 2014, taken by the advocacy group Earthworks and the Clear Water Fund for a 2015 report they published, showed that the Lost Hills field emits prolific amounts of toxic chemicals into the air, including methane, acetone, dichlorodifluoromethane and acetaldehydes. High levels of isoprene and acetaldehydes can cause cancer, while the other substances can result in serious health damage, including heartbeat irregularities, headaches, nausea, vomiting, throat irritation, coughing and wheezing.

In a survey done for that same report of Lost Hills residents, respondents reported having “thyroid problems (7 percent), diabetes (7 percent), asthma (11 percent) and sinus infections (19 percent).”

“Of all respondents, 92.3 percent reported identifying odors in their homes and community,” it further detailed. “Odors were described as petroleum, burning oil, rotten eggs, chemicals, chlorine or bleach, a sweet smell, sewage, and ammonia. Participants reported that when odors were detected in the air, symptoms included headache (63 percent), nausea/dizziness (37 percent), burning or watery eyes (37 percent), and throat and nose irritation (18.5 percent).”

Methane is a climate change-causing greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A 20-year window falls within the 2030 deadline established by IPCC climate scientists in a 2018 report that concluded that, if bold action is not taken steadily until then, the world could face some of the most severe and irreversible impacts of climate change.

Setbacks

The new Lost Hills permits came as CalGEM completed its pre-rulemaking public hearings, on June 2, for regulations pertaining to distancing setbacks of oil wells from homes, schools, health clinics and public parks.

The rulemaking process also came as a direct result of the Newsom administration’s November fracking moratorium announcement, found within that same directive.

Last January, two months after the directive, new CalGEM head Uduak-Joe Ntuk, Newsom’s legislative affairs secretary Anthony Williams and Department of Conservation director David Shabazian all attended and spoke at a pro-industry hearing convened by the Kern County Board of Supervisors. They held the hearing in direct response to Newsom’s November announcement. Aera CEO Sistrunk spoke at that hearing and the company promoted it on its website.

The lobbying disclosure records also show Kinney and Schmidt’s firm represents Marathon Petroleum, which advocated against legislation that would mandate CalGEM to implement a setbacks rule by July 1, 2022. That bill, AB 345, had previously mandated that a setback rule be put into place by 2020.

But after receiving lobbying pressure from the Common Ground Alliance— which has united major labor groups with the oil industry, and which was incorporated by an attorney whose clients include Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP America and Western States Petroleum Association—Assembly Appropriations Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) made it a two-year bill during the 2019 legislative session. The “two-year” option for state legislators extends the lifeline of a bill for potential amendments and passage into the second year of every two-year legislative session. Gonzalez told Capital & Main the bill received two-year status due to its high implementation cost.

Aera’s parent company, ExxonMobil, has given Gonzalez $5,500 in campaign contributions since her first run for the Assembly in 2013. Aera also gave a $35,000 contribution to the California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation during the first quarter of 2020, its lobbying disclosure form shows. Gonzalez is the chairwoman of the California Legislative Latino Caucus and the foundation is its nonprofit wing. And both Aera and the Common Ground Alliance share the same attorney, Steven Lucas, incorporation documents and disclosure forms show.

“The Governor has been clear about the need to strengthen oversight of oil and gas extraction in California and to update regulations to protect public health and safety for communities near oil and gas operations,” Vicky Waters, Newsom’s press secretary, told Capital & Main in an emailed statement. “CalGEM has launched a rulemaking process to develop stronger regulations and will consider the best available science and data to inform new protective requirements.”

Waters did not respond to questions about Axiom Advisors and its personnel ties to Gov. Newsom.

“An Afterthought”

The permits handed to Aera coincide with the Newsom administration granting the industry a suite of regulatory relaxation measures during the COVID-19 era. These include a delay in implementing management plans for idle oil wells and cutting the hiring of 128 analysts, engineers and geologists to bolster the state’s regulatory efforts on oil wells—even though the industry was legally obligated to pay for it.

These measures came after San Francisco public radio station KQED reported that the oil industry’s top trade associations, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) and California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), requested that CalGEM take such actions.

Aera’s general counsel, Lynne Carrithers, sits on the board for CIPA, while the company is also a WSPA dues-paying member.

In response to a question about the cancellation of hiring of 128 regulators, Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation—which oversees CalGEM—said by email that the “Administration had to revisit many proposals in the January budget as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fiscal challenges it created.”

“Significantly expanding a fee-based program in this time of belt-tightening would not be appropriate,” Schilling continued, speaking to the oil industry’s current financial travails. “However, CalGEM is committed to continuing its critical core enforcement and regulatory work with its current resources. Furthermore, all regulations remain in effect and operators are still accountable for meeting them.”

Schilling added that, with regards to the connections with Axiom Advisors, the administration works with “a variety of stakeholders on policy issues and budget decisions,” calling the latest budget proposal “consistent with Administration priorities.”

But Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network who lives near Lost Hills in Bakersfield, sees the situation differently.

“The Lost Hills community is already surrounded by extraction and the Newsom administration and CalGEM continue to show that they intend to put the environment and frontline communities as an afterthought,” he said, advocating for the passage of AB 345. “These actions show us that Californians can’t depend on empty political promises to protect public health.”

Letter to Congress: Stop Coronavirus Handout to Big Oil

Center for Biological Diversity, April 23, 2020

Give Pandemic Relief to People, Not Polluters

The Center For Biological Diversity and about 300 other groups sent a letter to Congress on Monday demanding that federal relief money aimed at relieving the effects of the COVID-19 crisis be directed to people directly affected by it, not fossil fuel corporations.

The fossil fuel industry, said the letter, should be excluded from receiving loans in the next COVID-19 aid package. New bills should ensure that affected workers in that industry are provided with assistance and labor protections for weathering a job transition.

“It’s a moral outrage for fossil fuel executives to try to cash in while workers and communities suffer through a pandemic,” said the Center’s Ben Goloff, a climate campaigner. “Congress needs to protect people, not a handful of profiteering polluters.”

Tell Congress to direct taxpayer-funded COVID-19 aid only to those who need it.