Big Oil In Our Backyard: Activism At Home

Trains carrying crude are proposed to come to Benicia.
Crude oil trains are proposed to come to cities like Benicia, putting residents and our Bay at risk. Photo by Daniel Adel

Through personal reflections and historical exposé, I’ve been giving my hometown and the waters of the Carquinez Strait the spotlight since joining Save The Bay in February. A former state capital, not to mention an early contender for Metropolis of the West, Benicia, a sleepy town just shy of 27,000 people, remains hidden from public imagination. Visitors describe the city as quaint and picturesque – a vision that runs counter to the reality that the eastern end of the city fronting Suisun Bay is the site of heavy industry.

While Benicia never became the commercial or political hub its founders envisioned it to be, it is of vital economic importance to the nation as home to one of the Bay Area’s oil refineries. Opposite the bay from the Shell Oil Refinery in Martinez is Valero Refinery, the centerpiece of Benicia’s massive Industrial Park. Both sites, long symbols of our fossil fuel based economy, garnered the attention of locals and environmentalists alike earlier this month.

On Sunday May 17, I joined a Refinery Corridor Healing Walk led by Idle No More SF Bay organizers. We marched 9.5 miles from Martinez to my hometown of Benicia, crossing sights both monstrous and beautiful. What felt like a dream on this most remote side of the Bay was long overdue.

A grassroots movement among indigenous peoples in Canada, Idle No More made headlines for opposing hazardous fossil fuel projects including the building of the Keystone XL pipeline over indigenous land in Alberta. Bay Area activists joined Idle No More last year to create the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition. Working together, the two groups have organized healing walks along the refinery corridor of northeast San Francisco Bay to bring attention to the health risks and dangers that the refineries pose and the crude coming through the communities from the Alberta tar sands and the Bakken oil fields.

Indeed, in recent years, Bay Area refineries have attracted national controversy with expansion projects to increase the amount of crude coming in and being refined. This, in a time when scientists agree that 80% of the world’s fossil fuel reserves should remain underground, unburned, to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

The Valero Benicia Refinery’s expansion project may be the most controversial of all with its crude-by-rail proposal to transport the highly flammable, explosive Bakken oil along the existing Amtrak rail corridor adjacent to the Suisun Bay and marsh. Nevermind that Benicia residents don’t even have access to passenger rail, the crude-by-rail project is being considered as a less costly alternative to crude by ship and pipeline.

Yet, as evidenced by the Lac-Mégantic disaster in Quebec, crude train derailments are increasingly commonplace. Benicia, our waterways — and for that matter, any of countless communities along the rail route — all risk catastrophe with this project. The recent oil spill in Santa Barbara is also a vivid reminder of how oil pipelines, especially those near waterways, can have disastrous effects on our ecosystem. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, “It is the kind of disaster that local officials say could happen in the Bay Area, especially around the oil refineries in Richmond and Martinez, where petroleum is regularly transported between marine terminals and storage facilities along San Francisco Bay and the Carquinez Strait.” As the Executive Director of Audubon California put it, “Time and time again, we’re reminded that the benefits of putting oil so close to our natural treasures are never worth the risk.”

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