Taking action at Chevron

August 1, 2013

Dan Russell reports on the efforts of residents of Richmond, Calif., along with environmental groups and unions, to challenge corporate polluters and climate change.

JUST UNDER a year ago, a fire and explosion at Chevron's oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., sent a mushroom cloud of toxic smoke drifting across neighboring communities and San Francisco Bay. Some 15,000 people went to hospitals for respiratory problems, and the local commuter rail was shut down for hours.

It was the third explosion since 1999--all attributed to aging infrastructure and negligent practices on the part of Chevron. The pipe responsible for the 2012 fire was tagged for replacement by Chevron's own inspectors as early as 2002.

Chevron's Richmond refinery is also among the single largest greenhouse gas emitters in the state of California, and it has been seeking to expand its operations in order to tap into the Canadian tar sands boom. While earlier efforts have been challenged by community activists and blocked in court, Chevron recently announced a deal with local building and construction trades that they hope will finally get the expansion approved next year. The battle for the future of Richmond will have much wider impacts in the battle for climate and social justice.

Smoke billows from the fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond
Last year's fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif.

Richmond is a glaring example of environmental racism: its population is a majority people of color, including 79 percent of those living within a mile of the refinery. Children in Richmond are hospitalized for asthma at twice the rate of the rest of Contra Costa County.

As the largest employer in the city, Chevron has long dominated city politics. However, Richmonders have fought back, and a coalition of progressive activists has made Richmond the largest city in the country with a Green Party mayor.

AS THE first anniversary of the explosion approaches, Richmond residents have organized a day of action with 350.org, community groups, labor unions and many others. The goal is to send a message to Chevron, but also to the Obama administration, which will shortly decide the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline. Our demands are: A just transition from dirty fossil fuels to union jobs in clean energy; no more life-threatening hazards; no refining of dirty crude; no more corporate tax evasion; no more polluting our democracy; no Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

This weekend's action in Richmond will be only one of a number of mobilizations across the country that are part of the larger struggle against Keystone XL and increasing fossil fuel exploitation. Having crossed the 400 parts per million atmospheric carbon dioxide threshold, more and more people are coming to understand the drastic need to take drastic action to stop the ruling class from leaving us an uninhabitable planet.

Hundreds of people formed symbolic blockades against fossil fuels this weekend from the Columbia River on the Oregon and Washington border to the Brayton Point Power Station in Massachusetts.

Despite a plethora of targets across the country, popular outcry has by far been the greatest against Keystone XL. The pipeline was dubbed by renowned former chief NASA climate scientist James Hansen as a "the fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet." There is an endless list of reasons that we should not be extracting, transporting, refining or burning the Alberta tar sands: the destruction of pristine boreal forests; the pollution of native lands and the violation of their sovereignty; the threat of pipeline spills and leaks; the pollution that successful refining will release into local communities; and the massive increase in greenhouse gases that accompanies the entire process.

Unfortunately, capital only needs one reason to continue with this project: profit. It has found a valuable ally in President Obama.

While Obama's recent speech addressing the environment was a welcome concession to months of protest and direct action, there was little to celebrate in its content. Not only did Obama question in the most Orwellian fashion whether or not a pipeline carrying some of the dirtiest fuel on the planet would increase emissions. He also embraced the "fracking" boom by arguing that it is a "cleaner" transition away from coal and oil; neither of which he has seriously opposed.

We need to drastically reduce--not expand--all fossil fuel development and invest those resources in an immediate and rapid expansion of renewable energy. Given the current priorities of our political and economic elites, this is hard to imagine short of a restructuring of society through a mass revolutionary movement from below. Any steps taken in the right direction will require the determination of activists to organize independently of Obama and the Democrats.

DEVELOPMENTS IN the Bay Area point to one of the ways that this can begin to happen. The labor movement--often thought to be at best aloof to environmental concerns--is placing a greater emphasis on the fight against climate change.

In June, the National Nurses United and California Nurses Association (CNA) sponsored a march across the Golden Gate Bridge in opposition to both austerity and Keystone XL. For the August 3 Summer Heat protest, local unions including the CNA, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, AFSCME Local 3299, UNITE HERE Local 2850, University Professional and Technical Employees/Communication Workers of America Local 1, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and United Auto Workers Local 2865 are forming their own contingent to demonstrate the need for labor to unite with the climate movement--and to help bring more conservative elements in the labor movement in our direction.

This alliance needs to be cemented, deepened and widened. Public-sector unions, who are constantly under attack for being "lazy, overpaid and selfish," have shown an important commitment to their communities and social justice. They can help start a discussion about moving away from a carbon-based economy toward one that is based on clean, safe, union jobs building the massive power and transportation infrastructure that we will need to avert climate disaster.

As 350.org's local labor organizer said at a recent meeting on the challenges facing labor in the Bay Area, "Transition is inevitable; justice is not." We're already locked into a certain amount of climate change, and our ruling class shows no intent to sacrifice their profits to save the planet or protect frontline communities.

It is up to us to build a movement that can fight for a just transition, slow climate change, and begin to heal our communities and planet.

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