Eye on the Amazon

Keep It in the Ground: From Ecuador to California

San Carlos, Ecuador, a community based around petroleum production and suffering one of the highest cancer rates in Ecuador.

Every day, more bad policies and regulations are coming out of Washington, DC. Fortunately, the view is different from California, where Amazon Watch is based. As the #EndAmazonCrude campaigner at Amazon Watch, my current focus is getting brand-name retailers in California to eliminate Amazon oil from their supply chains. At the same time I am keeping an eye on various progressive proposals coming out of California and the Bay Area because Amazon Watch knows how critical they are for the health of local communities, the planet, and the future of the Amazon.

The stories about toxic impacts that we hear from people living near refineries in California echo what our indigenous partners in oil-extracting regions of the Amazon tell us. This is not a coincidence. Their common experiences are two threads of a broader web of destruction that the oil industry continues to weave. In this particular case, these threads are directly connected by the pipelines and oil tankers that transport crude oil from the Amazon rainforest to California refineries.

Last year, about 10% of the oil processed by California refineries came from the Amazon basin. This represents about half of the oil exported from the region. In other words, California refineries are collectively the largest consumers of Amazon oil in the world.

I recently jumped into a long-term campaign to cap oil refinery emissions in the Bay Area to make the connection between the California refineries and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and to stand in solidarity with refinery communities demanding that their neighborhoods suffer no further increases in pollution.

Last Wednesday, I joined community members and representatives from local environmental justice groups – including Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Sunflower Alliance and 350 Bay Area – and allies like the Sierra Club – in attending a Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) meeting to advocate for a strong cap on oil refinery greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the Bay Area. These groups, led by CBE, had designed and proposed the regulation to BAAQMD, and fought doggedly when the District told them for many years that such a plan was impossible.

These refineries release a whole slew of toxins into the neighborhoods where they are located and often – as in the case of the local Chevron and Phillips 66 refineries – they are sited in low-income communities of color, which perpetuates environmental injustice. The oil and gas industry is driven to increase their profit margin, not to protect the health of residents, workers, or the planet. Refineries will try to expand until doing so becomes politically and economically impossible. The proposal to cap refinery emissions was created to protect public health by keeping increasingly dirty crude out of Bay Area refineries. At Wednesday's meeting, health experts, community members, lawyers, and activists detailed the rationale for caps on GHGs – which would also have the effect of limiting toxic co-pollutants, like particulate matter – and the imperative for swift and decisive action.

For their part, oil industry spokespeople argued against emissions caps, falsely touting their environmental responsibility and alleging that capping Bay Area refining capacity would simply push production to less regulated refineries elsewhere. Supporters of the caps reminded BAAQMD board members that California's demand for fossil fuel products will necessarily decrease sharply in order to meet the state's target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by to 40% of 1990 levels by 2030 – and possibly beyond.

The meeting as a whole was tense. The BAAQMD staff had made last-minute changes to the rule, allowing significant wiggle room for certain refineries to actually increase their greenhouse gas pollution by as much as 23% above current operating levels. They also limited the time available for public comment and cut off speakers mid-sentence.

"The perfect should not be the enemy of the good," various BAAQMD board members offered. Chairwoman Liz Kniss remarked that "sausage is difficult, but it does taste good in the end" in an attempt to push a vote in favor of the staff's weakened proposal.

These statements drew eye rolls and anger. Creating a "softer" cap on refinery emissions is not "good". It allows for worse air pollution, more asthma, and faster climate change. It allows oil refineries to increase their greenhouse gas emissions and their production levels irrespective of the damages caused.

The oil industry's hunger for never-ending growth is also fueling the continued expansion of the fossil-fuel frontier in remote corners of the Amazon, North American tar sands mining sites, the Arctic Ocean, the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil and countless other places. We are already fundamentally altering the earth's geography and ecosystems and leaving an irreversible trail of devastation.

California cannot be a climate leader while burning oil extracted from the Amazon rainforest and expanding its oil refineries. California cannot be a social justice leader as long as so many of its residents live, work, and play in areas with significant air pollution.

Imposing a hard cap on the quantity of greenhouse gases Bay Area oil refineries can emit is by no means a panacea to the global climate crisis. Nonetheless, it is extremely important as an acknowledgment that the impacts of the the oil and gas industry – human rights violations, deforestation, air pollution and irreparable harm to Mother Earth – cannot be allowed to grow further.

After hours of public comment, the board opted to table the weakened proposal until a future meeting, citing procedural issues. Community advocates let out a collective sigh of both relief and frustration. On one hand, we had more time to push it to adopt stronger greenhouse gas caps. On the other hand, we still did not have an immediate backstop against further fossil fuel expansion and destruction.

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