Decommissioning California Refineries: Climate and Health Paths in an Oil State is required reading for anyone who’s working for a just transition to a renewable, equitable future beyond fossil fuels.
California is the center of oil refining in the western U.S., with nearly half of its refining capacity in the five closely-spaced oil refineries of Contra Costa and Solano counties. In just the last few months in the Bay Area, two of our refineries have responded to COVID-induced demand destruction by abruptly announcing downsizing and radical changes in refinery operations.
Decommissioning California Refineries argues that we can only meet our climate goals by initiating a managed decline of California refining, rather than the chaotic, unmanaged decline suddenly taking place right now. As the report was being prepared, no one could have predicted the sudden appearance of a world-wide pandemic and its drastic impacts on the oil industry. On July 31st, 2020, the Marathon refinery in Martinez announced that it would lay off more than half of its workers starting in October, permanently idling portions of its plant and pivoting towards biofuels (fats and oils) and away from petroleum. A second Contra Costa refinery, Phillips 66, has also announced a turn to “renewable” diesel refining, but the impact on its work force is still unknown. In the prescient words of the report’s author, Greg Karras, before the COVID-19 downturn struck, “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.”
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 also 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.
- 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.
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,” observes Andrés Soto, the Richmond Organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, which sponsored the report’s research.
The report recommends a path of gradual reductions, approximately 4-7% of refining capacity per year, and points out that this will not even immediately affect California oil consumption. Californians already use significantly less refined fuel than the amount produced by the refineries; refinery exports have grown to nearly a third of capacity.
A critical component of the report is addressing the immense challenges of transitioning workers and communities that are financially dependent upon the fossil fuel industry. Steve Garey, a retired oil refinery worker and former United Steel Workers union official and leader in the Blue-Green Alliance, spoke passionately at the report’s press release about bringing workers and communities together to build a new economy. The report offers a detailed roadmap for meeting this urgent goal.