As soon as we learned about the Chevron oil spill in Richmond last week, the Baykeeper team leapt into action. Within half an hour of the report, our field investigator launched our drone Osprey into the air, well before many of the response agencies had even arrived to the scene. The rest of our program staff watched the live stream remotely to survey the mess and assess the damage. Sadly, we didn’t like what we saw. Oil had spread beyond the little yellow containment boom Chevron had deployed, and oil was already reaching Keller Beach and sensitive eelgrass habitat nearby.
Then the media calls started flooding in, and one reporter asked if we were making too big a deal out of what was being reported as a small spill. It was suspected to be about 300 gallons of light diesel at that point. And relatively speaking, even the now confirmed 700 gallons is small when compared to a disaster like the Cosco Busan spill of 53,000 gallons that closed fifty beaches and killed thousands of birds—let alone the Standard Oil tanker collision that spilled 800,000 gallons into San Francisco Bay fifty years ago.
I offered him a different perspective: Oil doesn't belong in our Bay, or in our neighborhoods, period. Even the smallest amounts of oil can impact habitat, shorebirds, and fish—and, like this "small" Chevron spill, produce fumes that make people feel dizzy and nauseous.
It's Baykeeper’s job to raise the alarm, especially when polluters – who know better – try to downplay the harm they’ve inflicted on the Bay and our communities. We've trusted the Bay Area’s five oil refineries to be decent corporate neighbors for nearly a century, and with every “accident,” they erode that trust. There's no reason we should accept even the smallest oil spill that fouls our water and air.
Spills will happen, and pipes will fail—Chevon knows this, too. That’s why the company should have been better prepared for a pipe leak or other system failure. Instead, Chevron’s initial response last Tuesday demonstrated they can't adequately respond to even a small leak. And that doesn’t bode well for the next time a bigger spill happens, perhaps involving a heavier fuel. Chevron’s apparent negligence and deferred maintenance is also indicative of a bigger issue facing the Bay Area: refineries are fast becoming a bad investment, because the demand for dirty fossil fuels has been declining for years.
That’s why industry watchdogs like Baykeeper and local communities are partnering to call for a just transition. Companies like Chevron need to move towards a clean energy economy and away from the dirty fuels that poison our Bay, hurt our communities, and accelerate climate change. Phillips 66 recently announced plans to convert its Rodeo refinery into a biofuels operation. Shell Oil issued a statement last week that it will be investing heavily in solar power, hydrogen, and biofuels.
And in addition to transitioning to cleaner, greener energy, refineries have the responsibility to prepare workers and communities for inevitable—and foreseeable—change. A healthy economy and a clean environment can co-exist if the transition is fair, meaning it trains refinery workers for new opportunities, prepares cities for different economic realities, protects the environment from outdated infrastructure, and prioritizes the health of frontline communities.
The Bay Area is used to taking on seemingly insurmountable challenges to make change. It's in our nature to insist on justice and fair play. We’ll continue to raise the alarm and hold polluters accountable—and together, we can create a Bay Area that’s free of dirty oil and healthier for everyone.