OPINION: A Commonsense Rule to Promote Clean Air and Boost California’s East Bay Area Economic Recovery 

Jun 1, 2021
12:27 PM

A May 27, 2021 photo of flaring from Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond, CA. (Photo by Denny Khamphanthong)

By Eduardo Martinez

RICHMOND, California — What if I told you we soon have a rare opportunity to cut the leading cause of all pollution-related death in the Bay Area? Tiny yet toxic PM2.5 pollution particles senselessly kill 2,000 to 3,000 Bay Area residents annually.

On June 2, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) must resist fierce oil industry pressure and slash PM2.5 pollution by adopting the so-called “cat cracker rule.” It will be up to BAAQMD board members to either stand with Big Oil or stand with our communities.

For many years, California has been cruising toward 100 percent clean energy. As a Richmond city councilmember, it’s my obligation to demand the Chevron oil refinery here clean up its act. It’s also on me to welcome the clean jobs that will replace Chevron once the corporation inevitably shutters its refinery here.

Contra Costa County has some of the largest oil refineries in the world. For years, advocates have urged stronger oversight of refineries like Chevron and PBF to curb the relentless pollution these facilities spew into our neighborhoods. I stand with them in their call to transition to a healthier, future-proof economy that doesn’t make our loved ones sick. Living in the shadow of massive refineries, breathing in some of the most polluted air in the country, we also represent the frontlines in the global climate change fight.

Just last Thursday, there was a flaring incident at the refinery, sending plumes of smoke into the air and put residents on edge.

There must be a change.

The cat cracker rule relates to cat cracker refinery units, the single largest stationary source of dangerous PM2.5 particles that trigger a number of deadly heart and lung impacts for residents here. Worse yet, there’s a strong link between exposure to these particles and COVID mortality rates, and this toxic pollution falls hardest on Black and Latino residents in our community. Unlike COVID, we can’t get vaccinated to protect ourselves against Big Oil. That’s why residents here depend on agencies like BAAQMD to stand up for our right to breathe clean air.

When it comes to the cat cracker rule, the oil industry is running scared. They could adapt and embrace clean energy and its proven job creation potential —for the benefit of all Californians— but instead, they are digging in their heels to delay the inevitable. Who can forget when our skies turned orange last year due to raging wildfires fueled by a changing climate? Last year’s brutal collision of COVID and wildfires was a painful illustration that we need to chart a healthier course.

We know we can’t go back to how things were pre-pandemic. But the Western States Petroleum Association opposes the cat cracker rule and is using their massive war chest to lobby for weaker air quality standards

Truth be told, Richmond is caught in a toxic relationship with Chevron. Chevron’s pollution causes 5.1 to 11.6 premature deaths each year, with total health impacts of upwards of $100 million each year. BAAQMD research also shows the plume from cat cracker units is most concentrated in Richmond and Martinez yet extends down to Oakland, up to Vallejo, and east to Pittsburg, meaning an estimated one million Bay Area residents breathe in their pollution. This is a regional problem.

As COVID recovery progresses, the air district must implement a strong cat cracker rule, which would curb pollution from these units by almost three-quarters by tapping existing technology already used with most cat cracker units nationwide. For the Chevron refinery alone, this would generate $12 to $27 million in annual community health benefits.

This is a no-brainer. Join me in calling on the air district to adopt the most stringent cat cracker rule at their June 2 meeting.


Eduardo Martinez is a member of the City Council in Richmond, CA.