Saturday, July 18, 2009

Unions vs. Environmentalists and Manufacturing Jobs

Chevron is one of the largest (if not the largest) employers at its refinery in Richmond, CA, and has been for 107 years. The relationship between Chevron and Richmond is often contentious as the city has grown up around the once-isolated refinery and as more is learned about the effects of pollution on the health of the workers and the residents.

The latest clash, however, is between environmentalists and unions over Chevron's plans to modernize sections of the refinery, allowing it to process heavier grades of oil with higher sulfur content. Currently, Chevron refines Alaskan crude oil; however, the amount coming in is decreasing. In order to keep the refinery going at capacity, Chevron needs to be able to refine oil coming from Saudi Arabia and Asia--which has is heavier and has a higher sulfur content. Per the Contra Costa Times:

"Chevron insists it is seeking to refine only higher sulfur crudes. Because the project also includes installation of new sulfur removal equipment and better pollution controls, sulfur emissions are expected to decline significantly as a result. Environmentalists, however, contend the company also intends to refine heavier crude oil and that this will increase emissions of toxins and other pollutants."

According to the Environmentalists, Chevron's Environmental Impact Report (a three-volume report)was too vague. The Contra Costa Superior Court judge agreed and ordered Chevron cease work.

With a stroke of a pen, one thousand union workers were laid off.

Chevron is appealing the ruling in State Court. Union officials want to get the work restarted as quickly as possible. Environmentalists claim they don't want anyone to lose their jobs, but that the health of local residents is important, too. In a wonderful display of economic cluelessness, they suggested that Chevron continue to pay the laid-off workers while the matter is being negotiated.

Meanwhile, according to the latest article in The Contra Costa Times, the City of Richmond and local non-profits lose out:

"Chevron and the city announced the 19 community groups that would receive $565,000 under the now-defunct community benefits agreement. The amount is about half the $1 million the agreement outlined.

Under that $61 million pact, Chevron was to provide funding over 10 years for city police, job training and other programs, and pay for air quality improvements at its plant. The agreement is contingent on the refinery's construction permits being approved. Because the court ordered permits be set aside, the agreement has ended."

But wait, there's more! Not only are one thousand people now unemployed at a time when unemployment is 11.5% in California, and the delay will necessarily increase construction costs which will eventually impact the price of gasoline at the pump, but the new refinery was also going to have the latest in pollution control technology, including more efficient sulfur scrubbers. There was going to be an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, now defined as a pollutant because of its alleged effect on global warming, but as far as human health is concerned, carbon dioxide is not toxic.

Drew Voros, Business Editor for The Contra Costa Times, wrote about the wider implications of this fight between manufacturing jobs and environmentalists. If frustrated long enough, Chevron will move the refining of the high-sulfur crude to their plant in Southern California. The losers will be the average joes in the Bay Area and the City of Richmond who will not have the money to provide services for their citizens. We'll breathe a little better, but other refineries (Tosco took over the former Union Oil refinery just up I-80 from Chevron) and maufacturers will take a look at what happened and will decide the fight isn't worth it. Who will replace them?

I see this fight as yet another example of college-educated elites doing what they think is "best" for the working class. Not everyone is "book smart": some folks are good with their hands, with spatial relationships, prefer not to work at a desk in an office. We need those people--they fix our cars, repair our broken pipes, refine our oil, keep our water running, generate our electricity, keep our planes in the air. And, yes, manufacturers should not pollute the air. They should have high safety standards and those standards should be enforced--it's in their own best interests to do so, frankly. But, those standards also need to be reasonable. Many environmental groups would love nothing more than to have the refineries and manufacturing plants go away and, frankly, for society to turn back the clock to a time when humans lived in "harmony" with nature. The fact that life was short and often brutal back then doesn't seem to occur to them.