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

[Originally published at MasterResource.]

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.


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