During his State of the State address last week, California Governor Jerry Brown defiantly declared, “We cannot fall back and give in to the climate deniers.” Just hours after President Trump announced his intention to resume construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, Brown declared, “The science is clear,” and said there is much California can and will do on its own to combat the climate crisis.
A coalition of climate-justice advocates and labor groups in the Bay Area have a proposal that they say is a prime example of how California can do this. In spite of its reputation as a haven for environmentalism, California is home to the third-largest oil-refining sector in the United States, which exports a considerable amount of gasoline, jet fuel, propane, and other fossil-fuel products to surrounding states. Oil processing is already California’s largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases, but things could get even worse in the coming years: The state’s refineries have developed a greater technical capacity to convert lower-quality, denser oil into engine fuels than those in other parts of North America, meaning they’re at the leading edge of the oil industry’s long-term pivot towards refining dirtier-burning sources, including the tar sands—something California’s existing climate policies may do little to prevent.
In response, a coalition of groups, including Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the Sierra Club, 350 Bay Area, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the California Nurses Association, and numerous others, are pushing to make the San Francisco Bay Area the first place in the world to place limits on oil refineries’ overall greenhouse-gas (GHG) and particulate-matter emissions. The proposal would prevent oil corporations from making the Bay Area a center of tar-sands refining by enforcing a cap based on historic emissions levels.
But not everyone agrees on this approach. Staff members with the Bay Area Quality Management District (BAAQMD), whose board of directors will vote on the proposal in May, oppose the emissions cap. They say it’ll simply push GHG emissions into other areas of the country and might even interfere with California’s effort to combat climate change through its cap-and-trade program, a stance shared by the oil industry. For his part, Governor Jerry Brown has yet to weigh in on the Bay Area caps. With less than four months until the vote, emissions cap proponents are doing everything they can do ensure the proposal’s passage.
* * *
On a weekday morning this past June, CBE Senior Scientist Greg Karras was among dozens of people who signed up to speak about the emissions cap at a BAAQMD meeting inside a plush office tower near San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront. The idea for a cap on oil refinery emissions was born from an incident some 15 miles and a world away from San Francisco’s financial district. In 2012, an explosion and fire at Chevron’s massive refinery complex in Richmond—an industrial East Bay city predominantly composed of low-income and working-class people of color—endangered 19 workers and sent 15,000 neighbors to local hospitals with respiratory ailments. Within months, a coalition of environmental-justice, environmental, and labor groups had organized to oppose the oil companies’ push to refine cheaper, dirtier crudes.