The Oil Industry in the Bay Area–Current Problems, Proposed Expansions, and Community Resistance

The communities of the northern Bay Area of California–mostly working class communities of color–have a long dealt with the externalities of local oil refineries.  Now, due to the fracking boom, these companies are set to expand their infrastructure even more. 

The recent explosion in oil reserves in the United States, courtesy of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), has oil multinationals on the move to upgrade, restructure, and expand current facilities to accommodate the growing influx of unconventional oil, like tar sands and shale oil.  New refineries, new export terminals, new storage facilities, new pipelines–all of these types of projects are hovering over various localities, and represent an even stronger hold by the fossil-fuel industry over the options and choices that our broader economy has in terms of energy investments.

This has specific implications for the Bay Area.  The Bay has long been a leading front in the general struggle for a sustainable and equitable society, but the rapid expansion of unconventional oil production means that the organization of resistance, and the advocacy for alternatives, must undergo a proportional acceleration.

Existing Infrastructure, Existing Pollution

There are currently five oil refineries in the Bay Area, run by five different companies:

All of these refineries are located in the north-east of the Bay Area.  Four out of five of the refineries are in Contra Costa County; the exception (the Benicia Refinery, in Solano County) is located right across the waterway from the two refineries in Martinez.  These areas are populated mostly by working-class people of color; both Richmond and Pittsburg, for example, are around 80% non-White.

The environmental track record of these refineries has been less than stellar.  Many who reside in the Bay Area will remember the explosion and resulting fire at the Richmond site that occurred during the summer of 2012.  There was also a similar incident that occurred at the Tesoro’s Martinez site in late 2011, when a power outage caused most of the refinery’s systems to fail.

Accident at the Golden Eagle Refinery, Martinez--2011

Accident at the Golden Eagle Refinery, Martinez–2011

Accident at the Chevron Richmond Refinery--2012

Accident at the Chevron Richmond Refinery–2012

Another view of the 2012 Chevron Richmond Refinery accident

Another view of the 2012 Chevron Richmond Refinery accident

And these are just one-time incidents; even when not exploding or catching on fire, oil refineries present constant and ongoing sources of pollution for local communities–sources which are not always properly quantified.  In 2003, it was found out that Bay Area refineries were emitting 30% more pollutants than previously estimated.  And as two community activists point out, refineries like Chevron’s are unable (or unwilling) to adhere to federal environmental standards :

Since 2006, Chevron has been in “high priority violation” of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air compliance standards, and in 2007, the EPA reported over 900,000 pounds of toxic waste from the refinery. (Choy and Orozco 2009: 43)

But amusingly enough (if you have a thing for black comedy), the Chevron Richmond Refinery is actually one of the cleanest refineries in the Bay, with the second lowest number of air pollution violations in recent years.

Chevron had 95 violations, while the low was 87 violations for the Shell oil refinery in Martinez, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.  Valero in Benicia (Solano County) had 224 violations, Tesoro had 164 and ConocoPhillips had 130 violations, the air district reported.  The violations include technical errors — such as a monitor not working correctly — as well as excessive emissions from the plant.

Chevron is also (relatively) clean when compared to the amount of toxic waste streams of other refineries in Contra Costa County during 2010:

Chevron reported 575,660 pounds, lower than the 1.27 million pounds from Valero in Benicia, 1.2 million pounds from ConocoPhillips, and 692,536 pounds from Shell in Martinez, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s toxic release inventory.  The Tesoro refinery had the smallest amount with 469,669 pounds, according to the federal report.

The high rates of pollution from Bay Area refineries results in dangerously high levels of toxin exposure to local residents.  A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2009 found that “Indoor air in nearly half of Richmond homes exceeded California’s annual ambient air quality standard for PM-2.5, often considered an aggregate measure of air pollution.”  Indoor concentrations of pollutants and toxins were also extremely high when compared to a control case, and concentrations of nickel and vanadium were “among the highest in the state.”  (Brody 2009: 600-609)

And going outside to escape poor indoor conditions accomplishes little; the air quality in Contra Costa County is absurdly low, at 25.3 on a scale of 100 (the average score for the US is 82.8).

Impacts on Local Public Health

The proximity of Bay Area refineries to residential areas means that for thousands of people, environmental externalities are a fact of daily life–rather than an abstraction that such issues are often reduced to in green activist spaces.  Sandy Saetuern, a South-East Asian refugee and resident of Richmond, describes the experience of going to school within a mile of the Chevron refinery:

“At school, along with earthquake drills, we were practicing chemical explosion drills.  I remember once coming out and the playground was enveloped in smoke. The smell was really awful, a strong, sort of gassy smell, and you couldn’t see a couple of feet in front of you. We were all coughing.”

As one might expect, incidents like this–as well as the more constant and structural release of toxins and pollutants–results in disproportionate health outcomes for locals.  For instance, there is a persistently high rate of asthma for residents of the East Bay:

Exposure to pollution has long been a concern for families across the Bay Area, from the waterfront industries in Oakland and Pittsburg to the oil refineries in Benicia and Martinez to the clogged freeways that traverse the South Bay and Peninsula. In Alameda County, the asthma hospitalization rate — 20.3 stays for every 10,000 children — is nearly twice the state average and the third-highest in California, next to rates in Imperial and Fresno counties. Some Oakland neighborhoods sent children to the hospital two or three times as often as that.

You can find similar problems with asthma when looking at specific areas like Richmond:

…Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) conducted a health survey of 440 adults and 282 children from Richmond and found that 46 percent of the adults and 17 percent of the children surveyed suffered from asthma.  The longer a person lived in Richmond, the greater the likelihood that they would suffer from asthma. (Choy and Orozco 2009: 43)

The chemicals that are routinely released from petrochemical facilities also tend to be carcinogenic, and there have been many studies that have attempted to investigate links between cancer rates and geographical proximity to oil facilities.  One such study was conducted 30 years ago, and studied lung cancer rates among White males in Contra Costa County; it found that rates of cancer in industrial areas were some 40% higher than rates in non-industrial areas.  Another study around the same time period also found elevated rates of other types of cancer, such as stomach, prostate, and kidney.  And while these are old studies, the continuation of pollution from Bay Area refineries over the past 30 years should be enough to at least hypothesize that high rates of cancer have persisted.

Indeed, the lack of modern studies on Bay Area refineries and their effects on public health should be a rallying cry in and of itself.  The chemicals that are released routinely, and end up in people’s homes (as found by research like the 2009 article in the American Journal of Public Health), are consistently linked to health problems ranging from asthma to chronic bronchitis to cancer.  The fact that there aren’t consistent efforts to study and document these effects, especially in the context of future plans to expand existing petrochemical facilities, constitutes structural neglect for the communities who bear the brunt of industrial externalities.

Expansion Plans 

It is bad enough that the communities in the northern Bay Area have to deal with the presently existing fossil-fuel infrastructure.  However, the recent boom in the North American oil industry–brought on by technological innovations in oil extraction such as hydraulic fracking–is putting even more pressure on these already marginalized communities as fossil-fuel corporations are now attempting to expand their operations and invest in even more capacity to process new and dirtier forms of oil.  Some of the impending expansion plans are listed below:

  • Chevron Richmond Refinery, Richmond: Chevron has plans to invest $1B into its Richmond refinery, in an effort to upgrade the site to be able to process high-sulfur crude oil.  Chevron officials claim that emissions from the site will not be increased; almost everybody else has serious doubts about this claim.
  • Benicia Refinery, Benicia: Valero is attempting to build up capacity to import oil by rail, which will likely be dominated by tar sand imports.
  • WesPac Energy, Pittsburg: Wespac, an energy infrastructure company, wants to expand its existing oil terminal and storage site to deal with the expected increase in the transportation and refinement capacity of Bay Area oil infrastructure.

And in general, as Contra Costa Times reports, the expansion plans are heavily cruxed on increased development of the aforementioned tar sands being exploited in Canada:

Phillips 66 in Rodeo already brings in trains filled with tar sands crude, and Chevron Richmond refines it. Shell in Martinez receives processed tar sands oil in the form of synthetic crude. Tesoro Golden Eagle in Avon, near Martinez, wants to bring in the heavy crude — which is refined from an unconventional petroleum deposit that has the texture and smell of tar mixed with sand — by rail. And Benicia’s Valero refinery hopes to bring in 70,000 barrels a day of North American crude by rail and spend $30 million to increase its infrastructure to handle it, according to investment reports, environmental studies and company profiles.

Community Resistance and Imminent Struggles

While community activism has garnered some concessions from companies like Chevron in the form of donations to local schools and health centers, the general future outlook for the population of the Bay Area in general appears grim.  As stated before, the rise of unconventional oil production has companies gearing up to expand their infrastructure.  This translates into new pipelines crossing through East Bay communities and ecologies, increased movement of oil and oil products via rail and ship, and increased capacity for refining and storing petroleum products.

The most imminent struggle between communities and carbon is in Pittsburg, a town on the north-eastern side of the Bay.  This town has long hosted oil storage facilities, and “boasts” even higher asthma rates than Richmond; now (as stated above) WesPac Energy is seeking to expand these storage sites even further:

WesPac Energy–Pittsburg LLC (WesPac) will modernize and reactivate the existing marine terminal, oil storage and transfer facilities at the GenOn Pittsburg Generating Station located at 696 West 10th Street.  It will be used to transport and store virgin and partially refined crude oil.  All products will be transferred by pipeline, rail, ship or barge and will be stored in the storage tanks on site.  The crude oil will be shipped to local refineries through existing pipelines. One pipeline is already connected to the facility and the other will require a new pipeline to connect to it, approximately 2,400 feet long.

This increase in carbon infrastructure will put even more pressure on an already burdened community.  From East Bay Express:

“Pittsburg always gets dumped on,” added longtime community activist Jim MacDonald in an interview. He noted that the city already hosts two fossil fuel power plants and a facility to store petroleum coke, a toxic refinery byproduct. In a city with high numbers of low-income residents, many of whom are people of color, MacDonald said his “issue is environmental justice.”

In response to this imminent deepening of carbon infrastructure, residents of Pittsburg have formed the Pittsburg Defense Council (PDC), and have been pouring countless hours into knocking on doors and letting people know about the impending increase in the threat to their public health.  A protest march is set to happen on January 11th, and general strategies are being developed with regards to how to best confront a business-interest-dominated city council which, as of right now, will be more than happy to give WesPac the leeway to build up fossil-fuel infrastructure.  Final decisions for whether the project will be approved will be made early 2014, and so this is a critical time period in which pressure has to be applied to prevent the project from coming through.

At first glance, this may seem like an isolated struggle against the degradation of public health and local ecology by a small local community.  But in reality, the Pittsburg front is a struggle that parallels the struggles that emerging all along the West coast of Anglo-America. From British Columbia to Seattle to the Bay Area to Los Angles, fossil fuel companies are cheerfully planning the roll-out of more carbon infrastructure–never mind the impact on local communities, or the global implications of the continued production and consumption of fossil-fuels.

These interconnections have been recognized by communities, and has translated into the formation of coalitions like The Sunflower Alliance, whose goals is to coordinate and build solidarity between the various anti-carbon community groups in Northern California.  This logic of solidarity and grassroots networking is also espoused by Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental justice-oriented group that works with residents across California who are fighting to protect the public health.

If Pittsburg wins its struggle, then Richmond is in an even better position to prevent the expansion of Chevron’s refinery.  And if both Pittsburg and Richmond triumph, then the proposed import/export terminals for other sites will also be on weaker footing.  And in general, the more success the Bay Area has in preventing the consolidation of the fossil-fuel industry, then the more success that other regions up and down the West Coast will have–and vice versa.  And on the broader field, these strategies to undermine the fossil fuel industry and prevent its further deployment are essential if we are to move toward a sustainable, zero-carbon future, and reverse the ongoing global ecological crisis.

This is why it is crucial that people across the Bay Area–and indeed, California–rally in support of the people of Pittsburg, and against Wespac.  A victory for Pittsburg is a victory for the Bay Area, and a victory for the Bay Area is a victory for California–and so on!

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7 Responses to The Oil Industry in the Bay Area–Current Problems, Proposed Expansions, and Community Resistance

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