As this report was being prepared, no one could have predicted the context in which we are releasing it. California is the center of oil refining in the western U.S., with nearly 50% of its refining capacity in the five closely spaced oil refineries of Contra Costa and Solano counties. As the U.S. attempts, under failed federal leadership, to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, the International Energy Agency reports that any economic recovery that fails to step up to the urgency of addressing climate change will make it impossible to prevent climate catastrophe.
“Starting [a phase-down] sooner allows state climate targets to be met by cutting oil use more gradually, which makes transitions that protect workers and communities possible and climate goals feasible,” said Greg Karras, who authored the report for CBE.
Here are the report’s major conclusions and calls for action:
All paths to a livable climate involve refining much less oil.
Steep reductions in petroleum are necessary to meet our health goals.
Early action to decommission refining capacity is a critical component of the least-impact, most socially just, most feasible path to climate stabilization in California.
A planned, gradual phase-down gives us the time to develop sustainable alternatives for workers and communities economically dependent on oil.
Actions that limit refining in California can cut emissions across the petroleum fuel chain.
We must pair gradual reduction of refinery output with aggressive measures to insure clean mobility for all people.
Facilities such as refineries are major local emission centers for toxic co-pollutants alongside greenhouse gases, especially fine-sized particulate matter or soot (PM2.5). “From Richmond to Wilmington black and brown communities are on the frontlines of a toxic relationship with oil. This is a blueprint for organizing just transitions out of it,” said Andrés Soto, Richmond Organizer at CBE.
A path of gradual reductions, approximately 4-7% of refining capacity per year, will not even immediately affect California oil consumption. Californians already use significantly less refined fuels than produced by the refineries; refinery exports have grown to nearly a third of capacity. “Refineries around here pollute our communities even more by refining more oil to sell even more of their polluting fuels somewhere else, like black lives are invisible” said LaDonna Williams, a community leader who lives in South Vallejo.
A critical component of the report is addressing the challenges of transitioning workers and communities that are financially dependent upon the fossil fuel industry. Steve Garey, a retired oil refinery worker, former United Steel Workers union official and leader in the Blue-Green Alliance, spoke passionately about bringing workers and communities together to build a new economy.
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.”
Union leaders don’t buy that argument.
“As long as there’s a market for the product somewhere, American workers should produce it,” Garey said. For members of his union, cuts in refinery production mean “losing the best job they ever had.” In addition, many workers in construction trades depend on refineries for jobs. And, Garey said, “this is a community-wide issue.”
Refineries contribute a big share of the taxes communities rely on. And there’s what economists call a “multiplier” effect: every high-paying job creates seven to 10 other jobs providing the goods and services that refinery workers can afford to buy.
Start Planning Now
According to the Decommissioning California Refineries report, those very economic facts are the reason why it’s important to start immediately creating ambitious programs for supporting workers and communities in the switch to a clean-energy economy.
Doing that “will take state, local, and county action as well as a national plan,” said Soto of CBE. And, he added, the plan must be based on “justice for workers and the people who have paid the heaviest price of having polluters in their communities.”
Carol Zabin, who heads the Green Economy Program at the UC Labor Center, agreed. It will be necessary to “use a lot of levers of government, from direct public investment to business incentives to training and education infrastructure,” she said.
Ramping up efforts to create good jobs in a clean-energy economy is a goal environmentalists and labor advocates agree on.
“The big problem is that there are not enough other good jobs for people without a college education,” Zabin said.
Hunter, of the Building Trades Council, said his unions have been pushing for public programs that create good jobs while reducing demand for petroleum: building solar and wind energy, massive expansion and electrification of public transit, high-speed rail, housing near transit.
Zabin agreed with Karras that each community needs to “figure out in an intimate local setting” how to shift from economic dependence on refineries. “We have to plan locally with state and federal support,” Karras said.
“This is a process that requires community-wide participation,” Soto added. Workers, refinery community residents, and environmental organizations should be involved in the planning, Garey said. They all “need each other as allies – we need the biggest ‘we’ we can get.”
Supervisor Gioia said Contra Costa County should “start now having study sessions and community forums to lay out pathways for this thing that we have to do to save the planet.” He agreed that workers and residents should be part of the planning process and reported that Contra Costa has already adopted “a policy to have a more inclusive planning process—the community has to have a voice.”
“We need strategies to make California the manufacturing center of the new economy,” Gioia added. He pointed to a new factory in Los Angeles County—with good, union jobs—making the electric buses needed for the county’s clean-transportation plan.
But not all investments in clean energy produce good, family-supporting jobs, Zabin said. “We need labor standards on all industries affected by climate policy.” There are none, she pointed out, in California’s program for building electric-vehicle charging stations. And most energy-efficiency projects “have gone low-road.”
When the Air Resources Board was creating standards for energy-efficiency work, she said, the State Building Trades Council pushed for them to include labor standards. Zabin herself submitted two reports calling for the same thing. For environmental programs to build a coalition with labor, she said, “we should put conditions on the $1.5 billion a year we spend on energy efficiency.” But CARB rejected these proposals. “It’s a question of political will,” Zabin said. Government could also create good jobs in other areas, she added, such as rebuilding infrastructure—a green New Deal.
Committing Significant Revenue
But economic development programs are not enough to meet the needs of refinery workers, Garey said. “We need to commit significant revenue, enough to support their income for an appropriate time.” He pointed to a program spelled out in an initiative that narrowly lost in his state of Washington, calling for “income insurance” for up to five years for workers who lost their jobs because of the switch from fossil fuel, as well as health insurance, a path to retirement and support for job retraining.
Building a stronger “social safety net” is necessary, not only for displaced petroleum workers, but for everyone, Karras argues: “The average gig-worker job doesn’t pay enough for rent or mortgage, health care, college.”
Especially in refinery communities like Contra Costa, Gioia said, “we need to look at more robust training programs in our community colleges—opportunities for a new generation to enter trades in a new industry.” At the same time, he added, it might be necessary to “subsidize early retirement for workers late in their career.”
The nonprofit think tank Oil Change International calls for a similar inclusive planning process on the state level, a “Statewide Just Transition Task Force—as has been done in Scotland and in Canada, for example—to facilitate the process of social dialogue and planning between employers, workers, unions, frontline communities and organizations, and local and state agencies.” [The Sky’s the Limit California, p. 10]
Calls for these ambitious programs raise the obvious question of where the money will come from. Oil Change International says the state should charge oil companies a “just transition fee based on the value of their oil production.” Karras suggests a similar principle, which could also be applied on a local or state level: “Make the polluters pay.” He pointed to a federal program that required nuclear power plants to “pay up front into a trust fund to clean up the whole mess—environmental and economic” that they would leave behind when they close.
The important thing—the reason for issuing this report—Karras said, is to “start the conversation. To say, ‘we have to do this,’ and start talking about it. We will have to figure out how.”
It’s a foregone conclusion that as long as the world keeps emitting carbon dioxide, we’ll keep setting records for how much ends up in the atmosphere. But that doesn’t make the recent high water mark of carbon dioxide any easier to swallow.
On Saturday, scientists recorded the first ever carbon dioxide reading above 415 parts per million (ppm) at the Mauna Loa Observatory. They’ve been measuring carbon dioxide levels continuously since 1958 at that location, but ice cores and other data show that it’s not just the highest carbon dioxide has been in 61 years of data. It’s the highest its ever been 800,000 years of data, and that should give us pause about the unsettling planetary experiment we’ve initiated.
Plot atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements and you’ll see they follows a sawtooth pattern over the course of a year. Carbon dioxide dips from summer into early fall as northern hemisphere plants suck it out of the atmosphere, and rises from late fall into spring as plants decompose and release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. This was all going on largely unchanged from year-to-year until humans started using the atmosphere as a dump for carbon dioxide.
Now, the sawtooth pattern has been set on edge, rising year over year and setting new records each spring. The resulting graph—one of the most iconic data visualizations in science—is known as the Keeling Curve. In February, the world passed the record set last year. And on May 11, carbon dioxide cracked 415 ppm for the first time in human history.
Natural fluctuations like El Niño—marked by a warming of the waters in the eastern tropical Pacific—can speed up the rise but human activities are what have driven carbon dioxide to its new milestone. Sure, it’s just a number. The climate is only slightly more screwed at 415 ppm than it was at 414 ppm. And next year, we’ll rocket past 415 ppm.
But it’s worth taking stock of what it took to get us here and the choices in front of us. The world has known for decades carbon emissions have put it on a path toward dangerous climate change. The greenhouse effect was established long before that. And yet rather than tap the brakes, carbon emissions have sped up. At the start of the Mauna Loa Observatory record, it took 16 years for atmospheric carbon dioxide to rise 15 ppm. It took 6 years to do the same from 2010-2016. It feels like only a few years ago we were worried about crossing the 400 ppm threshold, which wait. We were.
These are the changes we’re seeing now with about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming. Because carbon dioxide sits in the atmosphere for centuries, the climate will warp even further. And with emissions hitting a new peak in 2018, the world isn’t backing away from the brink anytime soon. Instead, we’re racing toward it.
None of which is to say we need to keep running toward catastrophe. The world’s leading scientists have laid out a series of choices we can make to avert it. It’s up to the world and world leaders in particular to look at that map and chart which roads they want to travel.
Carbon pollution from four major tar sands/oil sands mines in northern Alberta is 64% higher than their owners reported using the United Nations’ standard emissions measurement framework, according to a study released this morning in the journal Nature Communications.
“The researchers, mainly from Environment Canada, calculated emissions rates for four major oilsands surface mining operations using air samples collected in 2013 on 17 airplane flights over the area,” CBC reports. The study found gaps from 13 to 123% between reported and actual emissions at the four facilities, a finding that “could have profound consequences for government climate change strategies”.
As for the fossils that submitted the data, “they’re just doing exactly what they’ve been told to do,” said John Liggio, an aerosol chemist at Environment and Climate Change Canada. “They’re not doing anything on purpose.”
But that doesn’t make the research finding any less significant. Accurate numbers on carbon pollution “inform national and international climate policies,” the study states. “Such anthropogenic GHG emission data ultimately underpin carbon pricing and trading policies.”
“The bottom line is we still have more work to do in terms of really determining how much is being emitted,” Liggio told CBC.
The findings of this one study place Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions about 2.3 higher than they were previously believed to be, CBC notes. “If research eventually shows that other oilsands sites are subject to similar underreporting issues, Canada’s overall greenhouse gas emissions could be as much as 6% more than thought—throwing a wrench into the calculations that underpin government emissions strategies.”
On CBC, Liggio explained the standard, “bottom-up” method by which fossils are required to report their production emissions is fraught with uncertainty, factoring in everything from the carbon intensity of the fuels they use to whether plant maintenance activities may have driven a temporary spike in emissions.
With their flyovers, Liggio and his colleagues took “a ‘top-down’ approach involving hundreds of air samples taken during more than 80 hours of flights over four major surface mining operations in northern Alberta: Syncrude Canada’s Mildred Lake facility, Suncor’s Millennium and North Steepbank site, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon mine, and what was then Shell’s Albian Jackpine operation, now majority owned by Canadian Natural,” CBC explains.
“Left out of the study, notably, are emissions from all oilsands operations that use in-situ extraction, pumping steam into the ground to get the petroleum out. About 80% of oilsands reserves, and the majority of current production, require in-situ extraction,” which means “the overall amount of underreported greenhouse gas emissions could be significantly higher.”