February 22, 2021

By Christopher Douglass

Last September, Governor Newsom signed an executive order banning the sales of new gas-powered cars starting in 2035. About 2 million new cars are sold every year in California, so transitioning those sales to entirely electric vehicles is a step forward. However, while California has been praised for leading the way on renewable energy the state continues to invest in heavily polluting fossil fuel operations. 

Drilling for oil and natural gas remains prevalent throughout the state. California is one of America’s largest crude oil producers, which is the dirtiest oil in the United States. A 2014 NRDC analysis found 14 percent of the state’s population live within a mile of at least one existing well. Even more concerning is that over 350,000 Californians live within 600 feet of an unplugged oil or gas well. The risks to human health from oil operations do not end with extraction. 

One of the problems with oil operations is that they continue to be dangerous and polluting at every step of the process. Oil refineries are particularly harmful to local residents. They produce an airborne toxic soup of carcinogens, neurotoxins, and hazardous metals, including benzene, hydrogen cyanide,  particulate matter, and lead among others. These toxins can cause cancer, birth defects, neurological damage, chronic bronchitis, and trouble breathing. 

A recent study from Harvard University, in collaboration with three English universities, found that one in five premature deaths can be attributed to fossil fuel air pollution. According to this new research, over 350,000 people in the United States died in 2018 from fossil fuel air pollution prematurely – numbers three times higher than previously suggested by other studies. That’s around 34,000 in California.

“Right now we are in the midst of the worst health and economic crisis of our lives. It is clear that there is a path to recovery of both crises and as leaders we must take bold steps. From today’s headlines, we know about the Chevron spill in San Francisco Bay and the study that pollution from the antiquated fossil fuel industry is taking millions of lives every year as well as destroying our only home,” said Carmen Ramirez, Supervisor, Ventura County, District 5, Elected Officials to Protect America-CA Leadership Council. We are called upon to take urgent action to transition to a clean energy future. I am relieved that we have national, state and local leaders who are working to save us from this existential threat. I ask all who care about the future of our children and their children to join in these efforts.” 

The consequences of confined oil refinement has once again resulted in tragic outcomes, with up to 750 gallons of low sulfur diesel fuel mixed with water spilling from the Chevron Richmond refinery into the San Francisco Bay, as Supervisor Ramirez referenced. The February 10th spill was detected when a sheen was observed around 2:30 p.m. The Bay Area Air Quality incident report reveals that the leak was not closed until 5:00pm when it was “clamped shut as a means of temporary repair.” Spills and accidents are not new to this facility. On August 6, 2012, a fire broke out in one of the facility’s towers and spread to at least three units used to cool water. The toxic smoke resulted in 15,000 nearby residents requiring medical treatment and a $5 million settlement with the city. 

“Environmental justice is a matter of survival — California oil is among the dirtiest crude in the entire world producing more pollutants and destructive gas than any other, three quarters of fracking wells in California are within 600 meters of groundwater sources; this threatens our water supply,” said Director Jovanka Beckles, Richmond AC Transit, Ward 1, former two-term Richmond City Councilmember and Elected Officials to Protect America – California Leadership Council Member.

Even while California is attempting to wean automakers off the combustion engine and reduce its emissions, the state is conversely increasing its imports of dirty crude and tar sands oil. 57 percent of California’s crude oil is coming from abroad and a majority of these international crude imports are from the middle east. 

Yet, domestic demand for finished petroleum products has been falling since 2010. So why are California refineries importing more crude and producing more finished petroleum?

In short, because oil companies can make a profit. The fuel arrives at California refineries in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Bakersfield area as dirty crude or tar sands oil. The refining process releases toxic chemicals into the air and poisons local communities. The refineries take the finished product (gasoline, diesel, or valuable jet fuel) and export it to Asian, Latin American and Oceanic nations and domestically to the south and north west regions. The Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) report found that “between 2013 and 2017, California refineries increased both their crude oil imports and their refined fuel exports by roughly similar amounts.”

While US demand for petroleum products is declining, the same cannot be said for the nations importing California’s refined oil. Collectively 24 Asian, Latin American and Oceanic countries imported 1.11 billion barrels of oil products from the U.S. in 2017—354 percent more than in 2007. 

If this rate of exports continues its trajectory there is a real danger of California becoming the “Pacific Rim’s gas station” as refineries reap the benefits from poisoning local communities to export refined fuels. This pattern is not unique to crude oil, tar sands oil refinement has increased as well. 

“With the news that oil refineries are increasing production rates in California, I call upon our state leaders to work to limit emissions from refineries. Pollution from the refineries negatively impacts Californian communities, with a disproportionate share of the burden felt by communities of color and low income communities,” said Monica Brown, District 2 Solano County Supervisor. “I urge our leaders to work to provide relief to the communities most impacted by pollution.” 

The National Resource Defense Council warned back in 2015 that California’s oil refineries were already processing 1.9 million barrels of tar sands crude oil per day and have the capacity to process much larger volumes of heavy tar sands crude. Worryingly, this trend appears to be occurring with Phillips 66 applying to increase its permit to 27,000 barrels per day, bringing it up to almost 10 million barrels per year

Based on analysis by the Borealis Centre, the amount of tar sands refined in California could grow by 650,000 bpd by 2040. If this occurs, communities like Richmond, Martinez, Rodeo, Benecia, Wilmington, and Long Beach will be forced to confront the harmful effects of increased tar sands refining.Every day, people living in these communities suffer from dirty air pollution while living under the threat of a probable spill. These refineries are primarily located in communities of color furthering systemic racism and environmental injustice.