During the 2016 resistance to Valero’s horrendous attempt to bring crude oil by rail into Benicia, I urged the city council to rethink its dependence on Valero for the bulk of its tax support. I suggested then that we move away from being a “company town” to one that embraced a more knowledge-based economic model with a diversified tax base.
I pointed out that as the world’s industrial nations shift from carbon-driven economies that threatened severe climate disruption and environmental catastrophe to a clean energy driven model, those mega-trend shifts would have significant impact on our little town.
I noted that the era of the Bay Area’s refineries was drawing to a close and that most—including Valero—would be closed before mid-century.
It was not a popular observation, even though at the time there was a rumor that all five Bay Area refineries were for sale, but title couldn’t change hands because the environmental cleanup was prohibitive. Besides, the oil industry’s business model of ever-increasing demand was suspect.
Well, then the nation’s leadership banked a hard right, the Environmental Protection Agency was gutted, the heavy oil interests broke free, and the carbon boys rode tall as the U.S. became a net exporter and one of the world’s major oil producers.
2019 saw the highpoint. Production was up 11 percent to new historic U.S. highs of over 12 million barrels per day. In 2018 Brent Crude’s price was over $70 per barrel. It slipped to $65 per barrel in 2019, but production was at a fever pitch.
And then it all collapsed. The Saudis and the Russians did a circular firing squad, OPEC stumbled, supply burgeoned, the novel coronavirus hit, and the U.S. economy tanked. At this spring’s lows, Brent Crude dropped to about $34 per barrel.
Now that the Saudis and Russians have given up their battle, Brent has budged a bit to $44 per barrel.
With the economic collapse so too has the demand for gasoline. Storage is full, demand is way down, supply is way up.
Valero as a refiner makes money when oil prices slide. As long as supply increases and oil prices drop but demand for gas is constant, money is made, profits are up, bonuses and dividends are paid.
Back in June 2018, Valero was in its glory, and the stock price was a couple of cents under $127 per share. The fall was ugly. By April 2020, it broke down to around $31. It has since rebounded a bit—what the financial folks colorfully describe as a Dead Cat bounce—to the mid-$50s. Most likely, it will turn down again and the dividend will be reduced.
What’s equally as devastating to Valero and the oil industry, is that Covid-19 and the subsequent economic collapse has pushed clean energy forward into the nation’s recovery plans. A huge national infrastructure plan is on the horizon, much of it encompassing renewable energy.
This is the TESLA tsunami with its market cap of $144 billion, and the growing consumer recognition that e-vehicles are better, faster, and cleaner than gas-powered cars. E-vehicles and hybrids are the growing segment of the auto market.
About 13 percent of California’s vehicles are e-vehicles or hybrids, and the percentage is growing with the state’s goal of 5 million zero emission vehicles on the road by 2030.
Pickups and commercial vehicles like trucks and forklifts are turning to electric motors for their increased power and torque. Even in the mining industry, electric, autonomous vehicles are being phased in to reduce costs and improve efficiency.
Eventually, there won’t be any more diesel trucks idling in Oakland’s port, and the incidence of asthma will drop significantly in nearby neighborhoods.
The oil industry needs to look no further for discouraging news than the recent announcement by General Motors, the largest U.S. automaker, that it is converting most of its fleet to electric power. Led by Cadillac, GM intends to have 20 electric nameplates by 2023, including an electric Hummer and a rumored Corvette that will hit 200 mph to compete with the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E.
Further, Southern California’s Hyperion just introduced the XP-1, a mind-blowing mega car powered by hydrogen with a top speed over 220 mph and a range of 1,000 miles on a tank of hydrogen. Europe already has hydrogen-powered buses, and hydrogen fuel cell technology will only hasten the development of carbon-free vehicles.
Finally, and what really should worry Valero and Benicia, is that Phillips 66 just announced that they are converting the Rodeo facility from refining crude oil to a renewable fuels plant using cooking oil and food wastes to produce motor fuels. The conversion should be finished in 2024.
The oil industry is not known for its vision and if Phillips sees that the carbon era is over, most likely it is.
As the world transitions away from carbon energy, the remaining crude-based Bay Area refineries will suffer, and some will lock their gates. The money isn’t there for the environmental cleanup, so the cities—Benicia, Martinez, Pinole, Richmond—will be left without tax revenue and worse, holding the bag for the hazardous waste.
The November election is critical for our nation, and equally important for our town. Some city council candidates are being funded by the oil industry, in a last-ditch effort to cement political power and influence, preserve profits, and probably re-introduce a Crude-by-Rail agenda.
The oil industry and union Political Action Committee, or PAC, has in fact set aside $250,000 this year to steer the 2020 election to their chosen candidates. It would be tragic for Benicia’s if they succeed.
The future for Benicia is not in clinging to the century-long carbon industry that is in decline. Benicia’s future is, or at least should be, in the knowledge-based economy. Science, technology and innovation are the drivers that create wealth and municipal security in the Bay Area. That is where the future is, not in the gas pumps.
Benicia is facing a severe challenge. The carbon-based tax structure that supported its amiable lifestyle with a full range of municipal services is ending.
Allowing a last gasp effort by the oil industry to control the city’s future is a terrible idea. That game is, and should be, over.
I’m voting for and supporting Steve Young for mayor. (And no, Steve has not approved this message.)
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:
President, AgTech Blends