Another Price of Oil

August 24, 2012
Adrienne Alvord
Former contributor

The Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California — one of the largest in the country — had an explosion and serious fire on August 6 that spewed toxic black smoke across the sky. News reports indicate that more than 4,000 area residents sought medical treatment, primarily for respiratory ailments including chest pain and problems breathing, related to the fire.

Almost immediately, the disruption in production at Chevron pushed gas prices up for West Coast consumers, with ripple effects to other nearby states expected.  It was the most recent in a series of fires and explosions that have rocked Bay Area refineries in recent years, not to mention devastating oil spills in the San Francisco Bay.

Smoke darkens the sky above Richmond, CA on San Francisco Bay from the August 6th Chevron refinery fire. (Photo by DH Parks)

The August 6 fire reignites a longstanding debate about Chevron’s plan to upgrade its bayside refinery so it can produce more gasoline and be able to process different grades of crude oil — including heavy, low-quality crudes that are highly polluting. Environmental advocacy groups and many residents of the surrounding community — more than a third live below the federal poverty level — are opposed to Chevron’s plans because of concerns about the persistent problem with pollution from the refinery.

A report commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists last year revealed that California refineries already have the highest carbon emissions intensities in the United States, averaging about 30 percent higher than those on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

Chevron’s expansion plan was approved by the city of Richmond, but later blocked by a judge who said the oil company’s environmental impact report was inadequate. Unfortunately, no single public policy or environmental impact report will reduce the likelihood of similar accidents. The long-term solution to refinery pollution is to dramatically reduce our consumption of oil.

That’s why the UCS “Half the Oil” plan makes so much sense. The best part about the plan to cut the United States’ projected oil use in half over 20 years is that it relies on technologies available today to improve the efficiency of our vehicles, homes, and businesses.

California has a head-start on this progress with solution-oriented policies that reduce petroleum consumption, including using more non-petroleum, low-carbon fuels and more vehicles that use little or no conventional fossil fuel.  Sadly, oil companies are using their huge profits and political clout to fight these rules, both in court and in Sacramento.

By reducing our use of oil and the emissions it creates, we protect ourselves from the most dangerous impacts of climate change while saving money for consumers and businesses. Perhaps most importantly, we can reduce the likelihood of refinery accidents in the future that force tens of thousands of people to “shelter in place” for hours at a time and pose serious threats to public health.