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Yes, in My Backyard: Why Richmond Should Value Its Oil Refinery

Imagine you live nearby a pharmaceutical factory. Decade after decade, it creates wealth and jobs in your area by producing life-saving products. Then, one day, there is a fire at the factory, damaging a component upon which half the output depends. The company puts out the fire soon as possible so that no nearby residents are likely to suffer any long-term health consequences.

Obviously, the appropriate response to such a situation would to be to both investigate the cause of the fire and to let the company fix the damage as soon as possible, so it can get back to its important work.

This also should have been the response of the residents of Richmond, California, to last year’s fire at the local Chevron oil refinery, because oil refineries are no less valuable than pharmaceutical factories. In fact, they produce the amazingly versatile materials of which pharmaceuticals–and thousands of other crucial products–are made.

Oil refineries transform oil, an essentially useless natural substance made largely of dead plants, into fuel and synthetic materials–into the fuel that drives a firetruck to your home, into the hose that allows the firefighter to save your home, into the flame-retardant jacket that allows the firefighter to survive his dangerous job.

Unfortunately, our educational system does not teach the value of oil refineries. Thus, ever since a fire at Chevron’s Richmond, California, refinery last August, the company has been pilloried by the local community to the point that it has not been allowed, reports the New York Times, “to rebuild a critical unit damaged in a major fire in August. Chevron says it wants to complete repairs this month at the refinery, where production has been cut in half since the fire. Not so fast, the city says.”

Apparently, it would be “so fast” if it only took the five months it has already taken for Chevron to be allowed to rebuild a piece of life-saving equipment. And unfortunately, as the Times article documents, the builders (Chevron) are losing the PR battle to the blockers (the uneducated opposition).

At a recent raucous public hearing, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin stood up to criticize Chevron, leaning on a pair of crutches after knee surgery.

I wonder if the mayor knows that crutches and surgical tools and knee replacements are made from oil. For that matter, I wonder if the New York Times author, Norimitsu Onishi, does. If he does, he certainly doesn’t mention it in the article. All he mentions is the refinery fire “spewing emissions of sulfur dioxide, as the authorities warned Richmond residents to stay indoors.”

Sulfur dioxide is portrayed as some infinitely dangerous substance. But “spewing” sulfur dioxide is the natural product of burning (adding oxygen to) many many natural plant-based substances that contain sulfur, including oil and including wood. It is not deadly unless you get a very, very large dose–otherwise you would be dead from your fireplace.

Claims about the dangers of prolonged exposure to much smaller, sometimes barely detectable, amounts of sulfur dioxide smoke and other gasses are highly speculative, and they also apply to your fireplace. The benefits of oil refining are not speculative–they are certain, and they are measured in decades of added life and comfort per individual. Further, if you care about sulfur dioxide exposure, know that refineries lessen it, by separating sulfur from oil fuels and allowing it to be used for other things–such as, ironically, a leading pesticide in organic agriculture (which is also made possible by oil-powered machinery).

Every society and every city should know what its well-being depends on–and be grateful to the people and institutions that make that possible. I, like most Americans, was not educated in my formal education about how oil refineries make life as I know it possible. I was fortunate enough to learn it when my research led me to study the life of history’s greatest refiner, John D. Rockefeller, and later the rest of the history of how the oil industry revolutionized our lives. As a result, I am grateful that Southern California, where I live, is home to great refineries in Los Angeles and Long Beach. I am happy to have them in my backyard. If you live near a refinery, or near a place considering building a refinery, I think you should be, too. And residents of Richmond, for everyone’s sake, let your refinery get back to work.

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Alex Epstein is Founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, a Principal at MasterResource, and creator of Energy Ethics 101.

7 comments

1 Josh Huntington { 01.04.13 at 2:19 pm }

Great article, Alex. I believe 99% or more of Americans have no idea how important oil is to our everyday lives.

2 Charles Battig, MD { 01.05.13 at 11:17 am }

California fruit growers use sulphur dioxide to preserve dried fruit..peaches, apricots, etc.; it is also used to disinfect wooden barrels used in wine aging…nasty stuff, no?

3 Dick Storm { 01.05.13 at 8:02 pm }

Good article Alex, with 250 million registered fossil fuel powered vehicles on the road and moidern air travel taken for granted, we would expect the Citizens to appreciate the need for refinery’s to power our way of life? Given the relatively recent hurricane Sandy gas lines, certainly people should equate gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel with Freedom to enjoy our lives and power our economy.

4 John Garrett { 01.05.13 at 10:09 pm }

As Mencken correctly observed, the U.S. truly is “a commonwealth of morons.”

5 Betty Plowman { 01.07.13 at 9:36 pm }

This really hit home for me as I grew up in Richmond, at a time we valued the Chevron Refinery (or Standard Oil as we called it then. Our Richmond High School football team proudly were named ‘The Richmond Oilers.” Within two days of the refinery fire, over 14,000 people were lined up for compensation, citing everything from burning eyes to pets who were disturbed by the noise. Sadly, many of the businesses once located in Richmond have now left, due to high crime rates. Some folks will never understand that poverty and unemployment is the biggest killer of all.

6 Captain PLaneT { 01.08.13 at 2:28 am }

Yes that is right Epstein, Frack You!

How many earthquakes and ruined water tables are you clowns going to cause to try to purge every last drop out of Mother Earth. All the while the Sun Shines every day and the Wind Blows every night in the proper locations. You think I would pay you to debate you.

Think again. I would rather burn money in my EPA Certified Wood Stove for Heat than give any to you. I am sure I can get a free venue here at the University of Georgia, if you can muster the courage. Here in Athens where in mid-November I listened to many UGA Professors discuss Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone Article. The verdict We Humans are causing Climate Change! Indeed only 97% of Climatologists are in support of it.

Where are you? In the tiny little 3%, with your paychecks from fossil fules to spout lies. I guess the next thing you will try to tell us is that smoking tobacco is good for us. All of you Climate Deniers are nothing but weaklings who cannot accept reality and feel their bank accounts are threatened. How about this for Army Strong: I was awarded by Georgia’s Clean Air Campaign for keeping 25,000 pounds of pollution out of the air we are all breathing. I did that by driving alone 37 times and in the same period bicycling just over 900 times all in the name of transportation for a reason other than exercise though that was happening. Ohh and just so you know I use Veggie Oil on my Bike Chain.

How do you figure fossil fuels power Teslas? Why don’t you watch the Motor Trend Magazine Editor-in-Chief’s video where he talks about the 2013 Car of the Year: Tesla Model S. If you do you will see in the opening seconds the reflection of Wind Mills in the Tesla’s Paint Job. Indeed some electricity comes from your fossil fuels today, but not tomorrow. Some of us have figured out we can derive energy from the Sun, Wind, and Tide. fossil fuels WERE a Boon, but now those that think there is no other way other than fossil fuels are BUFFOONS!

7 Captain PLaneT { 01.09.13 at 12:14 am }

Hey here is another thought for Epstien, if a village or town was rich and prosperous because a Cocaine Cartel had come to town a few decades earlier and had employed most of the residents, protected them from hardship and threats, and basically made life good for them shouldn’t the people be forever grateful? Indeed at the end of the day one would have to admit Cocaine is bad news for whoever uses it, so taking part and supporting its production is kind of an evil thing to do.

Same thing here friends. There are islands in the Pacific that are only a few feet above seal level. When States like North Carolina outlaw the world sea level rise you know it could be a problem. The only law the ocean follows is gravity. All of our living high on the hog is going to put folks underwater.

Indeed it is time to Reinvent Fire. Nuclear is a really great thing…when it is 89 million miles away!

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