Stopping the Tar-Sands Invasion

East Bay groups are attempting to prevent the region from playing a major role in a climate disaster.


Greg Karras, senior scientist for CBE, says refinery emissions caps are crucial.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

(page 1 of 4)

In the late afternoon of Aug. 6, 2012, a rupture in a fuel pipe at the Chevron refinery in Richmond released a geyser of hot milky-white vapor that engulfed 19 employees. The workers fled, and two minutes later, the cloud ignited into a torrent of flames that ripped through several buildings. A massive plume of black smoke blew east and northeast, sprinkling residents of Richmond and San Pablo with toxic chemicals and particles. In the weeks that followed, more than 15,000 local residents went to the hospital, mostly with respiratory ailments.

Ninety minutes after the fire began, Chevron spokesperson Heather Kulp attempted to deflect blame for the disaster onto two of the refinery’s most persistent watchdogs: the environmental justice groups Communities for a Better Environment and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. The organizations had jointly won a 2010 lawsuit against Chevron, blocking the refinery’s attempt to develop new infrastructure for handling higher polluting grades of oil. Chevron was in the midst of negotiating with the city of Richmond concerning a scaled-down version of its proposal. In a press conference, the smoke cloud billowing behind her, Kulp blamed the disaster on “environmentalists and the community that have not let us modernize our refinery,” alleging that the company had been forced to operate with aging equipment that consequently burst into flames.

Kulp later retracted her statement, and a U.S. Chemical Safety Board examination ruled that a pivotal factor in the explosion was rapid corrosion of pipe caused by the refinery’s reliance on oil with high sulfur content. Ironically, the same groups that Kulp attempted to scapegoat had warned of this possibility for several years. During their environmental campaigns, they repeatedly pointed out that the refinery’s switch to dirtier crude risked more frequent leaks and spills.

Two months after the Chevron explosion, a coalition of local residents, environmentalists, and representatives of the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5, which represents 80 percent of the employees at three of the five major refineries in the Bay Area, met to discuss their experiences of the fire. “When we told them about how we had been fighting to stop the refinery from bringing in a dirtier, higher-sulfur oil slate, partly on the grounds that it would lead to more explosions, their eyes started to widen,” recalled Greg Karras, senior scientist for Communities for a Better Environment, or CBE.

The conversation quickly became a catharsis for people on both sides of the refinery’s fence line. The refinery union representatives revealed that they, too, had been voicing safety concerns regarding the switch to higher-sulfur oil but that their complaints had also been ignored. “People cried; it was really emotional,” Karras said. “Suddenly, all of these people with diverse backgrounds and experiences realized we’d been fighting the same thing.”

In a recent interview, Mike Smith of USW Local 5 agreed that the collaboration has been “a really important step for people on all sides.”

Now, more than four years later, the coalition that formed in the wake of the refinery fire may be on the verge of a historic breakthrough: the passage of the world’s first facility-wide limits on oil refinery emissions of greenhouse gases and particulate matter. Known as Refinery Rule 12-16, it would prevent the Bay Area’s five major refineries from switching to more polluting crude. It’s scheduled for a vote by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s board of directors on May 17.

Environmentalists say the passage of Rule 12-16 also could have global implications in the fight against climate change. In recent years, Chevron and other oil corporations have pushed to turn the San Francisco Bay Area and West Coast oil refining centers into hubs for refining and shipping Canadian tar sands, a greenhouse gas-belching fuel that requires strip mining and the decimation of northern Alberta’s boreal forest.

But the passage of Rule 12-16 is no sure thing. The Bay Area’s refineries are owned by some of the world’s most powerful and profitable corporations, and they have lobbied hard to stop the emissions caps and to limit the air district’s authority to prevent the dirty oil switch.

In addition, the air district’s executive staffers, who have developed a reputation for being industry-friendly, have openly opposed the emissions caps and instead favored approaches that offer the oil companies greater flexibility in their refining operations.

CBE community organizer Andrés Soto, who grew up downwind from Chevron’s Richmond refinery, says the passage of Rule 12-16 is crucial in the fight against climate change and to rein in toxins and prevent future refinery accidents. He and other environmentalists hope that other refinery regions, including those in Los Angeles and Washington state, will follow the Bay Area’s lead by adopting similar caps, thereby cutting off a West Coast tar-sands invasion at the knees.

“We see the emissions caps as a model that other air districts can and should adopt,” Soto said. “It can also help us send a message to the entire nation: Whatever fantasies the Trump administration has to expand extreme oil production, it will not come into California refineries.”

Because the world’s industrialized nations have postponed reducing fossil-fuel combustion on anything approaching the scale required, the sorts of harrowing scenarios that scientists long ago predicted—the unraveling of the ecological fabric that sustains most life on Earth—is well underway.

Since the turn of the millennium, the planet has burned through global temperature records. Arctic permafrost has disappeared at alarming rates, thereby releasing much more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and fueling a dire feedback loop of potentially ever-greater planetary warming. And in the decades ahead, tens of millions of people in Bangladesh are expected to begin fleeing from low-lying coastal plains because of sea-level rise, precipitated by the melting of the Antarctic glaciers—the harbinger of a refugee crisis on a scale rarely before seen.

Scientists have reached a stark consensus: To avoid climate-caused catastrophes and limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius, virtually all remaining tar sands and Arctic oil, along with much of the world’s known reserves of coal and natural gas, must remain in the ground.

“The problem we face is literally unprecedented in human history,” said Jed Holtzman, a San Francisco-based director of the 350 Bay Area climate group, which has advocated for refinery emissions caps. “Now that what U.S. leadership there was has crumbled, everything we do locally is even more critical.”

Over the past decade, California has become known the world over for its efforts to tackle the climate crisis. State policymakers have established fuel economy and emissions standards for automobiles and embraced renewable energy from the sun and wind. The state also kicked off a cap-and-trade program in 2013, which caps the total amount of carbon emissions in the state while allowing polluters to buy “credits” or “offsets” from carbon-saving projects elsewhere.

But for the past several years, East Bay environmental justice and community groups have been sounding the alarm about a grave new climate threat that California has yet to address: what they call a “West Coast tar-sands invasion.”

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