Life after refineries: South Philly shows us a way

By Nathalie Christian, October 18, 2023

Refinery towns like Benicia have a lot to consider in the years ahead as we as a global society take bigger and more aggressive steps toward phasing-down – and phasing-out – fossil fuels, but the most pressing questions boil down to one central, throbbing toothache: what comes after?

What comes after refineries, especially for refinery towns?

You’ve probably seen a lot of gloomy speculation, opportunistically amplified by special-interest groups with the most to lose (we’re looking at you, Big Oil lobbyists!), but peer closer, deeper, and you will see there is plenty of room for optimism.

NBC10-Philadelphia recently broadcasted a report by anchor Karen Hua that described the city’s vision for the future of a space once blighted by a powerful polluter, a refinery operated by Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) that exploded in 2019, launching thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into Philly’s air after years of rampant emissions violations.

While the refinery that had been there before employed 1,000 workers, the new business center that is featured to take its place is slated to create 28,000 union construction jobs before settling down to a projected 19,000 new, permanent jobs for Philadelphia residents.

While tempting, comparing those 28,000 temporary and 19,000 permanent jobs to the 1,000 jobs provided by the demolished plant, dusting our hands off, and announcing, “Well, that’s settled!” is wrongheaded along the lines of apples-and-oranges math. That comparison, while heartwarming, just doesn’t show the whole picture.

Job growth and tax base expansion are certainly fabulous goals, but they do not together contrive the most important lens we need to view South Philly’s transition away from a refinery operation as its primary taxable industry.

Instead, we should view South Philly’s transition through a wider lens, one that demonstrates exciting dividends for a city that was forced to address the big question of ‘what comes after?’ years before it thought it was ready to do so: substantially reduced air pollution and greatly diminished threat of human and environmental harm, in support of a safer, healthier and more economically prosperous – and economically diverse, meaning beholden to no single industry or business for its growth and sustenance – community. (That’s the hope I have for Philly, anyway.)

Sure, a giant industrial logistics complex like that which is being built in South Philly is unlikely to appeal to Benicians as we look to our shared future after refineries, whether that future is 10 or 100 years ahead of us.

But the message of hope remains. There are many opportunities for a post-refinery town in a post-refinery world. Rather than clutching our weathered pearls in fear of losing the patronage of a corporate overlord with dubious motives, Benicia officials and residents could embrace the future and start diving for new pearls, to strand onto new necklaces that will certainly make much better heirlooms for our kids than what we have now.

Despite the doom-and-gloom forecasts perpetuated by naysayers who are deeply invested in delaying the inevitable phase-down or -out of the fossil fuels industry, there is always room for optimism in towns and communities like Benicia.

Check out the video below to learn more, and we’ve provided a transcript for you below if you prefer reading.

P.S. By the way, PES, the company that operated the South Philly plant that exploded in 2019, apparently avoided clean air compliance and paying Philadelphia and Pennsylvania millions in back taxes through strategic bankruptcy proceedings. And of course, the ground the new center will be built on is still riddled with dangerous toxins.

Here’s a transcript of the broadcast:

NBC10 PHIL.: Thirteen-hundred acres of South Philly that was once an oil refinery is being completely transformed and that could make way for new businesses. It’s a project that will also create nearly 50,000 jobs. NBC 10’s Karen Hua joins us from the Bellwether District with a look at how the oil refinery that caught fire several years ago is now getting a new start. 

At approximately 4 am on Friday June 21, 2019, there was a release of vapor in the PES refinery alkylation unit. The vapor found an ignition source, causing a fire and multiple explosions. | Image: US Chemical Safety Board.

NBC10 / KAREN HUA: This groundbreaking means a clean slate. These 1,300 acres sits under the Passyank Ave. Bridge in South Philly. The Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery was here for decades, until June 2019, when the whole facility caught fire, something nearby residences long feared would happen. 

Officials ultimately demolished the oil refinery leaving this space vacant, but now this land is being transformed.

SEN. ANTHONY WILLIAMS (D-PA): As long as I’ve lived, this site has been the number-one polluter of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the East Coast. It is now no longer the number-one polluter, but it has actually reduced emissions.

NBC10 / HUA: Reducing Philly’s emissions by 16%, and it’s a project to create 19,000 permanent jobs and nearly 28,000 union construction jobs.

PHIL. CITY COUNCILMAN KENYATTA JOHNSON: So this is a project that will allow us to erase the stigma of being the number-one big city filled with poverty, to be the number-one city that’s filled with economic growth and development. 

NBC10/ HUA: With thousands of people employed, the hope is this will organically solve one of the root causes of violence.

PHIL. MAYOR JIM KENNEY (D):  What it means is public safety. It means a young man or woman can earn $60, 70, 80,000 to be able to raise their families, sustain their families, have some dignity in their lives, and don’t ever have to pick up a gun for any reason whatsoever again. 

NBC10/HUA: The goal is also to attract businesses and e-commerce to Philly.

PA GOV. JOSH SHAPIRO (D): Think about the uniqueness of the location, connected to downtown, our universities, Philadelphia International Airport, and just a couple-hours’ drive from 25% of the American population.

For companies that want to get their products to market, I can’t think of a better place to be then right here at the Bellweather district.

Learn more about the Philly Bellwether District’s new complex here.