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Refinery Communities Speak Out on Just Transition Reports

Governor Newsom’s executive order mandating all-electric passenger cars and trucks by 2035 got quite a bit of deserved nationwide buzz last fall. What got less notice was that, buried toward the end of the order, were several mandates for action on the supply side of our fossil fuel problem – that is, California’s oil extraction and refining industry.

Salient notes from this Feb 2021 article, regarding California’s plan to phase out oil production:

80 organizations sent a letter today to the EPA, NRDC, Office of Planning and Research, Labor and Workforce development) asking them to conduct a robust public process for each report, and produce documents that genuinely incorporate emerging community concerns.

The letter makes five specific recommendations regarding the substance of the reports, pertinent to the needs of all communities but refinery communities in particular:

  • Wage and benefit support for workers.  The letter points out the need for the Roadmap to focus on how to replace lost wages and benefits, such as health insurance, for not only the refinery workers who lose their jobs, but all the indirectly employed workers who will suffer as well – like the guy at the local deli who makes the sandwiches where the workers have lunch, and the maid at the hotel where visiting contractors and company officials stay, that sort of thing.  It is not enough to just talk about retraining workers, or eventually developing other industries for them to work in – they will need help right away.
  • Focus on community needs.  Although the Roadmap is being drawn up at the state level, it must recognize that a solid transition on the scale necessary for a refinery community needs to be fully community-based – grounded in ideas that arise organically in the community, directed by community leaders, and reflecting the community’s diverse needs and interests.  A top-down just transition strategy will not work.
  • Focus on site cleanup needs.  It is hard to talk about transition and revitalization for a community that’s saddled with an enormous contaminated site in its midst. While the issue of abandoned infrastructure is most relevant to the action plan report, the Roadmap report needs to also consider the need to clean up contaminated refinery (and other) industry sites as part of helping communities find their new economic direction.
  • Close scrutiny of crude to biofuels transitions.  It is important that the action plan report ask the right questions about the announced plans (and others that may emerge) to turn crude oil refineries into biofuel refineries.  A poorly executed biofuels project is not a just transition solution – it risks perpetuating some of the same problems that attend crude refining, and creating new ones.  Our recent comments submitted in the Contra Costa County environmental review process highlights some of the possible unintended consequences that CalEPA and the Natural Resources Agency need to take a good close look at.
  • Ensuring financial support for transition from industry.  In the end, ensuring a just transition means having the funds to pay for it.  And certainly in the case of refinery community transitions, those funds should come substantially from the industry itself, which has for decades burdened vulnerable communities with its presence there.

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