In protecting good oil and gas jobs, some California trade unions clash with climate activists

Photograph by Kaitlin Duffey

Climate goals can suffer when job quality is pitted against protecting the planet and vulnerable communities.

By Aaron Cantu, Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

It’s been more than six years since lax safety management led to an explosion at ExxonMobil’s oil refinery in Torrance, California. Worse than the accident itself, the blast nearly caused a major humanitarian catastrophe in Los Angeles County’s crowded South Bay: Heavy debris from the explosion narrowly missed hitting alkylation tanks containing hydrofluoric acid (HF), a chemical used to convert crude oil to high octane gasoline.

If released, the acid forms a drifting vapor cloud that can fatally poison and corrode flesh by destroying nerve tissue. There have been three other close calls involving hydrofluoric acid in recent years in Texas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The explosion in California reignited a community push to ban the use and storage of HF at refineries within the South Coast Air Quality Management District. According to a staff presentation to the district’s 13-member governing body, composed of city and county officials, as well as state appointees, two refineries in the South Bay stored a total of 80,000 gallons of HF on site. Even a small leak could endanger nearly 400,000 people living nearby.

ExxonMobil sold the Torrance refinery to PBF Energy the year after the accident. The other refinery using HF is owned by Valero and located in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington. Together they refined nearly 43 million barrels of oil in the first half of 2021; they’re the only two in the state that still use HF.

Although most U.S. refineries no longer use HF, restricting it in Los Angeles turned out to be far from straightforward. Regulators estimated that retrofitting refinery equipment to instead use sulfuric acid, which doesn’t form a deadly vapor cloud, would cost refineries hundreds of millions of dollars. Workers feared that a phaseout would result in the loss of hundreds of jobs if PBF and Valero decided to shut down.

It was a scenario that many HF opponents and even some of the air district’s board members doubted since the refineries were so profitable. One company representative for PBF refused to directly answer at a public meeting a question as to whether the company intended to shut down its refinery.

But somehow, the narrative of a potential shutdown had taken hold, and workers and their unions became a powerful force in defeating the new rules. After years of meetings with residents, workers and environmentalists, board members approved in 2019 a last-minute proposal from the oil companies to self-regulate instead — to the surprise and alarm of many observers.

The critical role that unionized trade workers played in derailing new regulations on HF has not been deeply scrutinized and continues to confound environmental activists, who question why workers would defend the dangerous chemical. But refinery workers and union officials say it was the most rational choice since nobody could offer them assurances that their jobs would be safe.

The episode also reveals a larger political reality: When unions organize workers in the oil and gas industry, they develop a vested interest in protecting those jobs — and can form a serious barrier to environmental justice and climate policy.

It’s a sticky dynamic specific to California politics over the last decade. That’s not to undermine much of the work done by both environmentalists and labor unions to advocate for a transition from fossil fuels. For example, the BlueGreen Alliance, which counts major public sector and service unions as well as trade unions as members, develops policy for a just transition to fight climate change.

In Texas, 121 labor unions, including some that represent workers in the oil and gas industry, voted in July 2021 to support a resolution for a climate jobs program, and the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs is a coalition of local labor unions and environmental groups that works on legislation together, including a recent effort to make sure that a solar project in East Windsor employed local union workers.

But the HF fight in Los Angeles represents a schism that could become more problematic without active efforts by policy makers to invest in a union-powered just transition.

Stung by the HF defeat, local environmentalists took their case to Sacramento. A bill they championed this past spring, SB 342, called for the South Coast air regulator to be expanded by two seats, from 13 to 15. Both would be filled by environmental justice advocates.

The bill’s supporters hoped the change would ensure more equitable measures in the future. The catastrophic potential of an HF leak is just one danger posed by Los Angeles’ six refineries, which are clustered around communities with many people of color like Torrance, Wilmington and Carson.

The facilities are also a major source of environmental pollution, sickening residents by emitting hundreds of tons of lung irritating pollutants like particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides each year, as well as toxins like benzene. This pollution compounds chronic health impacts in a corridor already burdened with combustion emissions from heavy traffic and cargo ships near ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Veronica Perez is a mother who moved to Wilmington 10 years ago from Mexico City, and is raising four children with her husband. She lives 10 minutes from the Valero refinery and near several others, and supported the campaign to ban HF because of the potential for a mass casualty accident in the event of an acid leak.

She also believes refinery pollution is at least partially responsible for her chronic health issues. She developed severe allergies after moving here and suffers from crippling migraine headaches. Two of her children also live with disabilities. Refinery emissions have been correlated with respiratory problems, skin irritations, nausea, eye problems, headaches, birth defects, leukemia and cancers.

It’s not so simple to just move, says Perez. Her husband, a factory worker, is the family’s only source of income as she tends to the children. She believes the refineries must be more accountable to the people living nearby.

She explains, in Spanish, “All of the refineries talk about less pollution but they complain that the equipment costs a lot so they ask for years and years and years to do it. But really, I believe we won’t see it because to them it’s just a matter of money, and that is their interest; their interest isn’t us, the people.”

Bahram Fazeli, director of research and policy at Communities for a Better Environment, which championed SB 342, argued it was necessary to pack the board with more environmental justice advocates because other members had been “captured” by oil interests. Eight of them voted for the oil industry to self-regulate HF alkylation tanks at the two refineries.

“It was a grotesque example of how misaligned board members are when it comes to protecting environmental justice communities,” Fazeli tells Capital & Main.

The concept behind the bill wasn’t new; previous legislation has added environmental justice advocates to air regulator decision-making boards. But the oil industry lobbied heavily against it. Kevin Slagle, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association, argued environmentalists were setting a bad precedent.

“The thinking [is] that when things don’t go your way, we’ll just add more members to [the] board so next time it will, but that cuts both ways — what if the industry said we needed more spots because we didn’t win on an issue?” Slagle tells Capital & Main.

From January through July, oil associations and companies with refineries in Los Angeles spent nearly $6.5 million lobbying the legislature in Sacramento. Most of them lobbied against SB 342. Several business groups and chambers of commerce in L.A. also opposed it.

But at legislative committee hearings, the most vocal opponents of the bill were labor unions, mobilized by the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (referred to simply as the State Building Trades). It’s by far the largest trade union in California, representing 450,000 workers in a wide variety of jobs, and it’s a political powerhouse in Sacramento.

At an April hearing, representatives of several unions submitted comments in opposition to SB 342; a representative for the State Building Trades summed up its position by insisting that one of the new seats instead go to a labor representative.

Under intense opposition, the bill’s author, state Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Los Angeles), pulled it until next year, when it will immediately go to the Senate floor.

“I don’t know what happened, but there was an awakening within the oil industry and the trades sector of labor that became intense,” Gonzalez says. “They showed up in droves, and I received numerous calls from trade groups telling me to drop the bill.”

What happened, one expert says, is that the trade union was trying to preserve an unprecedented victory in unionizing contract workers at one of the refineries that used HF — trying to protect its turf.

According to 2015 figures, about 550 boilermakers, electrical workers, sheet metal workers, ironworkers, pipefitters and others at the Torrance refinery are contracted, meaning they’re employed when the refinery needs large scale maintenance and construction during routine overhaul periods every few years.

They’re affiliated with the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, and they don’t work for PBF but for companies that PBF contracts with. Valero employees are not unionized.

In the 1970s, according to the State Building Trades, refineries in California began using nonunionized contract workers, some from other states, for maintenance and construction work. Following an explosion at Chevron’s Richmond refinery, the State Building Trades lobbied for a law, passed in 2014, mandating that 60% of refinery contractors’ workers graduate from state-certified apprenticeship programs, the vast majority of which are overseen by unions.

For the first time in recent history, California’s most powerful trade union began leaning on refineries to expand its membership — which the oil and gas industry had long opposed but lost the battle in the face of its employees’ overwhelming support.

“That was the first time a skilled and trained workforce standard was created and developed by the Building Trades in a private sector industry,” explains Carol Zabin, director of UC Berkeley’s Labor Center Green Economy Program and a governor’s appointee on the executive council for the California Workforce Development Board.

As the South Coast air regulator considered whether to impose restrictions on HF, the State Building Trades Council secured a Project Labor Agreement at the Torrance refinery — basically a union contract covering temporary workers.

“Over time,” says Zabin, “the skilled and trained workforce standard allowed the Building Trades to have enough leverage with these contractors and these oil companies to get project labor agreements on this work.”

To some environmentalists, oil and gas workers have become a convenient ally for the industry in opposing new regulations. But to suggest they are in cahoots with the oil industry is to insult their “integrity and intelligence,” according to a worker who has been employed at the Torrance refinery for 20 years. The worker did not want their name published for fear of reprisal.

For this employee, who comes from a working-class background and was introduced to the refinery by family, working at the Torrance facility offered a chance to earn a high salary, put down money for a home and secure medical benefits and a pension. The worker was frightened on the day of the explosion but did not agree with how opponents subsequently campaigned against HF, and has a deep distrust of environmentalists’ motives in general.

“I live in Torrance, so what happens when you close down the refinery? You lose all those jobs, and not just refinery jobs but all the contract workers, all the hotels are affected, all the restaurants, all the tax money that goes to schools and all the donations the refinery makes to the community. I think it’s going to be a scary trickle down effect,” the worker tells Capital & Main, echoing a sentiment shared by others at the refinery.

There’s some legitimacy to concerns that environmentalists want to shut down refineries. Communities for a Better Environment commissioned a report suggesting that in order for California to meet its current emissions reductions goals by 2050, the state’s 17 refinerieswould have to retire 4.4%-8.6% of annual oil refining capacity starting now. Waiting longer could mean a more abrupt and painful transition later.

According to state data, the Torrance refinery was among the top stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Other Los Angeles refineries were also major sources of emissions.

California’s energy economy will continue changing in the face of the climate crisis. Key labor unions want to ensure that their workers aren’t left behind in the transition.

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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