After hearing five and a half hours of public commentary, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District postponed its scheduled vote Wednesday on whether to require refineries to install technology that would greatly reduce the amount of pollution they emit.
Board chair Cindy Chavez asked the board to reschedule its vote so the panel could have a “thoughtful discussion” of the proposals before it. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on June 16.
The issue before the board involves fluid catalytic cracker units, commonly known as “cat crackers,” which are a major source of industrial pollution. The proposal would require refineries to install technology that reduces particulate emissions from the units by 70 percent, according to the air district.
A district analysis predicts that the new standards would have positive health impacts — particularly for low income communities of color that surround the Bay Area’s refineries and have borne the brunt of their environmental impact. In Richmond, the asthma rate is twice the state average.
The district has calculated that exposure to particulate matter from the Chevron refinery in Richmond increases mortality in the region by up to 10 deaths per year, while the PBF Energy refinery in Martinez adds up to six deaths per year.
The proposed changes to the Chevron plant alone could result in up to $27 million in health cost savings to those living nearby, according to an air district analysis, based on fewer days missed from work, fewer respiratory ailments and other health impacts.
Environmentalists pointed out that the technology has been widely used for years across the country, including in oil-friendly states like Texas.
“It’s hard to believe regulators in Texas 15 years ago valued their constituents’ lives more than Bay Area representatives do,” Jed Holtzman, a senior policy analyst with the environmental organization 350 Bay Area, told the board Wednesday. “So this should not be a complicated decision for you.”
Yet the refineries — backed by allies in organized labor who work at the plants — insisted that the cost to install the technology would be prohibitive, making the plants uncompetitive and leading to massive job losses.
The $800 million cost of implementation would “force us to close the Martinez refinery,” Timothy Paul Davis, PBF Energy Western Region president, wrote to the air district in April. That would put 600 full-time employees out of work, plus another 2,000 members of the local building trades union who work on other projects at the plant, said Kevin Slade of the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry group.
The air district found Davis’ estimate to be grossly inflated, estimating that it would cost just $255 million to make the changes at the PBF Martinez refinery and $241 million for the Chevron refinery in Richmond. The district found that the oil companies could pay for the cost of the upgrades by a one or two-cent per gallon fuel increase. Other speakers Wednesday were skeptical that PBF would shutter a refinery that it just bought in 2019 from Shell Oil for $1 billion.
Dozens of local union members and leaders — among the 198 people who addressed the board Wednesday — said they feared losing their jobs if the technology were mandated.
Andrew Scheiber, a Benicia resident who used to work for a refinery, was among the speakers skeptical that plant workers could find a “just transition” to another line of work should the refineries cut jobs.
“This ‘just transition’ everybody loves to talk about doesn’t exist,” Scheiber said. There are few other kinds of jobs that involve similar skill sets “and when they do come up there are hundreds if not literally thousands of applicants.”
A letter to the board signed by the leaders of six Bay Area building trades unions said: “Union members — your constituents — living and working in the Bay Area depend on these refinery jobs to raise their families well, put food on their tables, put their kids through college, and live a successful and fulfilling life.”
An alternative analysis conducted by UCLA’s Lufkin Center for Innovation found that new technology wouldn’t kill jobs, but rather create thousands more.
The UCLA report, conducted in conjunction with Communities for a Better Environment and the environmental research firm Inclusive Economics, found that installing the wet gas scrubbers would yield “thousands of engineering, construction, and other installation jobs, upwards of 4,600 jobs between the two refineries.”
“Our lungs can’t any longer,” said Zolboo Namkhaidorj, Richmond Youth Organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, after the meeting, urging the air district to approve the cat cracker rule.
“Refineries have mounted a massive misinformation campaign to sink this rule, threatening our communities with false doomsday scenarios,” Namkhaidorj said. “Shame on them, after decades of spewing pollution that has cost local Black, indigenous, and people of color families their health and livelihoods.”
Bonnie Lockhart of Oakland was one of several speakers Wednesday who questioned seeing the issue as one of workers versus greens.
“Why are we framing this decision as jobs versus the environment, when it’s really health versus corporate profits?” Lockhart asked.
Instead of suggesting that the only way to pay for the cost of the upgrades would be through layoffs or higher gas prices, Lockhart questioned why the discussion wasn’t focused on “the obscene profits” of the fossil fuel companies and the high salaries of its CEOs.
Her suggestion to the oil companies and their top executives: “Don’t buy a yacht this year.”
Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer.
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.”
Drive east along Interstate 80, past the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo, and you can see that the Bay Area remains very much embedded in the fossil fuel economy. And if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has its way, we may well be doubling down on that relationship.
The Corps has a pending proposal, officially dubbed the “San Francisco Bay to Stockton, California Navigation Study,” to dredge a 13-mile stretch of the San Francisco Bay Estuary from San Pablo Bay (just north of Point San Pablo) through the Carquinez Strait to the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. This project would deepen the channel leading to four oil refineries along the shoreline by an average of three feet, allowing for the arrival of a larger class of oil tankers than can currently access these refineries. The Army Corps’ January 2020 Environment Impact Statement (EIS) for the project claims that the total volume of oil shipped will not necessarily increase as a result of the project, but rather claims that the dredging might even result in reduced ship traffic in the Bay by delivering the same amount of oil on fewer (but larger) ships.
This argument has not persuaded Bay Area environmental groups, who last spring submitted comments on the Draft EIS opposing the dredging project. These groups, including San Francisco Baykeeper, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Communities for a Better Environment, and Ocean Conservation Research, are submitting similarly negative comments on the Final EIS, which they say is not much of an improvement over the 2019 draft version. The deadline for public comments has been extended, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, until Tuesday, April 21.
The concerns of these organizations fall in to three basic categories: direct impacts on the local aquatic environment from both the dredging itself and from the increased traffic; direct air quality impacts on local communities from the increase in refinery operations; and above all, concern that increasing the capacity for delivery and production of fossil fuels directly contradicts the state’s mandated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow the impact of climate change.
I. Impacts on Local Aquatic Environment
The Army Corps’ EIS contends that the Bay floor sediments to be disturbed by the dredging do not contain significant levels of toxic materials. But comments by the environmental organizations point out that the Corps appears to be relying on studies done over a decade ago or more, and they list a range of contaminants that could be re-suspended from the settled sediment that are not addressed by the Corps. The groups point out that this narrow body of water connecting the Bay with the Delta is heavily used by endangered fish species, including Delta smelt, longfin smelt, and Chinook salmon, among others, as well as by harbor seals and California sea lion, both protected marine mammal species.
The groups also point out that the EIS only addresses the impact of the dredging itself on the local aquatic environment. By asserting that the deepening of the channel will not, on its own, increase the level of shipping in the channel, the Corps disclaims any responsibility to address the impact of increased oil tanker traffic. However, as the environmental organizations point out, there is little chance that the refineries would not take advantage of this opportunity to increase their operations. In fact, as Ocean Conservation Research points out in its comments, the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo has recently been granted permission by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to double its refining capacity. So it would be naïve to ignore the probability of increased traffic in the Strait, with is attendant increase in disturbance of all kinds (noise, water pollution, possible spills, etc.) and the resulting impact on wildlife populations.
In addition, Ocean Conservation Research’s comment letter points out that in order to accommodate the larger ships of the Panamax class (so-called because they are the maximum size allowed through the Panama Canal), the Phillips refinery has proposed an enlargement and expansion of its wharf facility. Such a project would involve disturbance of sediments full of toxic heavy metals left behind by the Selby Slag, a company that operated a smelter there into the 1970s, extracting ore from waste metals. Because the wharf expansion is considered a separate project, the Corps is not legally required to address it in its EIS — but expansion of the wharf would not be economically viable without the deeper channel.
Additionally, according to Baykeeper Executive Director Sejal Choksi-Chugh, “Baykeeper has concerns about how the project will impact salinity in the Delta. Deepening the shipping channel will push the fresh water/salt water mixing zone (known as the X2) further east, threatening drinking water supplies” for people in Contra Costa County and other Delta communities.
II. Impacts on Local Communities
Again, by asserting that the dredging project will not result in increased refining activity, and therefore only considering the impact of the actual dredging work, the Corps’ EIS does not find any impact on surrounding “environmental justice communities.” These communities, including Richmond, Vallejo, and Martinez, have been subjected to high levels of pollution from decades of industrial activity, and are demographically “majority minority” and low income. The failure of the EIS to contemplate increased levels of air pollution from increased refinery activities belies the refineries’ long record of “accidental” spills, flares, releases, etc. that have caused the area’s residents to periodically “shelter in place” long before the novel coronavirus.
III. The Big Picture
All of these local negative impacts are bad enough. But in their comments, the environmental groups assert that it is essential to step back and look at the much larger picture of what the dredging project implies for the region, the state, and the planet:
“The proposed channel alterations would remove constraints on expanding fossil fuel import and export volumes … The project will likely result in a significant increase in future volumes of crude oil and refined petroleum products shipped through the Bay … Here, the increased volume of oil and coal passing through the deepened channels will lead to greater refining and export activity. These in turn will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, both at the refineries and when the products are combusted. Stated differently, the dredging is ‘a mere step in furtherance of many other steps in the overall development’ of the area’s fossil fuel industry.”
The environmental groups believe that the ultimate plan of the oil companies is to have the Bay Area’s refineries serve as an outlet for oil extracted from the Alberta tar sands, one of the most carbon intensive fuel sources on the planet, given the energy that must be invested to extract it, liquefy it for transport, and ship it. Moreover, the transport of this oil from its source in northern Alberta to the Bay Area is highly problematic, both politically and environmentally. It involves expansion of the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline over First Nation lands of the Salish people in Canada (a project that they are resisting both in the courts and on their land). Then the unrefined oil must be transported by tankers through the Salish Sea, threatening the already depleted Southern Resident population of killer whales. And finally, the tankers must pass through the Golden Gate, where recovering populations of humpback whales and gray whales are also facing increased threats from ship strikes in this busy shipping channel.
All of this leads to the final question of why U.S. taxpayers should fund (at an estimated initial cost of $57 million) a project whose main intended beneficiaries are privately owned oil refineries. Of course, direct taxpayer subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are nothing new, but in an era when we climate change requires us to be reducing our dependence on carbon-intensive fossil fuels, this project would appear to be moving us in the opposite direction.
About the Author
From 2001-2017, David Loeb served as editor and then publisher of Bay Nature magazine, and executive director of the nonprofit Bay Nature Institute. A Bay Area resident since 1973, David moved here after graduating from college in Boston. The decision was largely based on a week spent visiting friends in San Francisco the previous January, which had included a memorable day at Point Reyes National Seashore. In the late 1990s, after many years working for the Guatemala News and Information Bureau in Oakland, David had the opportunity to spend more time hiking and exploring the parks and open spaces of the Bay Area. Increasingly curious about what he was seeing, he began reading natural history books, attending naturalist-led hikes and natural history courses and lectures, and volunteering for several local conservation organizations.
This was rewarding, but he began to feel that the rich natural diversity of the Bay Area deserved a special venue and a dedicated voice for the whole region, to supplement the many publications devoted to one particular place or issue. That’s when the germ of Bay Nature magazine began to take shape. In February 1997, David contacted Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books and News from Native California, with the idea of a magazine focused on nature in the Bay Area, and was delighted with Malcolm’s enthusiastic response. Over the course of many discussions with Malcolm, publishing professionals, potential funders, and local conservation and advocacy groups, the magazine gradually took shape and was launched in January 2001. It is still going strong, with a wider base of support than ever.
Now retired, David contributes to his Bay Nature column “Field Reports.”