Few episodes better illustrate the complicated tensions overshadowing the climate change debate than an oil refinery closure in Pennsylvania last month. At around 4 a.m. on Friday, June 21, a massive fire and explosion rocked the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia. The explosion shook houses and apartment buildings on the other side of the city. The ball of fire could be seen for miles, turning the predawn sky orange. As the fire raged, members of the refinery’s Emergency Response Team overcame every human instinct to bolt from the scene, and instead, they ran toward the fire. They battled the blaze for hours; by 10 a.m. the fire was contained, though still burning.
Like anyone who is familiar with refinery operations, Jim Savage, an operator at PES and a union activist, knew the intense danger that the emergency responders faced. “I’ve always questioned their sanity, but their courage and professionalism has never been in doubt,” Savage posted on his Facebook page. “Those explosions were terrifying and I have no idea how we didn’t have injuries or even worse.”
It took a full day to fully extinguish the fire. And while there were no casualties out of the explosion, the outcome had the potential of becoming far more deadly.
Unit 433, the Alkylation unit where the explosion occurred, uses hydrofluoric acid as part of the refining process. It is by far the most dangerous chemical in the facility — it quickly penetrates human tissue and interferes with the nerve function so burns may initially not feel painful, giving people a false sense of safety. It volatilizes at a relatively low temperature and travels as a dense vapor cloud — PES reports that the chemical supply stored at the South Philadelphia refinery could travel as far as seven miles, putting as many as a million people at risk.
There were as many as 71 tons of the toxic substance at the facility, according to its most recent emergency response plan. But instead of wreaking havoc on the city and endangering the lives of tens of thousands of people, an operator at the refinery’s central control room transferred the hydrofluoric acid that was in process to another container, preventing a mass release of the chemical.
Countless lives were saved as a direct result of the refinery operators and emergency response team. But then, five days later, those workers learned that they were losing their jobs. Philadelphia Energy Solutions announced that it was shutting down refinery operations and laying off nearly all of the workers at the refinery within weeks.
There is a consensus within the scientific community that if we are to have any chance at averting the catastrophic changes in our climate, we need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, carbon emissions from power plants are the single largest source of pollution in the U.S., with coal leading as the worst offender.
If we are to have any chance at averting the catastrophic changes in our climate, we need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels.
Any sort of transition away from the fossil fuel economy will almost certainly be painful for the hundreds of thousands of workers currently employed in the sector. And it’s unlikely that the majority of workers in the fossil fuel industry would enthusiastically embrace such a dramatic change. But the abrupt lay-offs for those who just ran toward — not away from — danger and saved tens of thousands of lives represents one of the worst possible transitions for workers. Those laid-off workers accuse Philadelphia Energy Solutions management of violating the federal regulations by failing to give many of the workers 60-days notice before unceremoniously escorting them out of the refinery, carrying cardboard boxes containing their personal belongings.
Making the blow of abruptly losing their jobs even more painful, local groups immediately celebrated news of the refinery closure. Philly Thrive, a local environmental group that had been organizing against the refinery for years, immediately declared victory, changing the cover photo on its Facebook page to an image with the words “Victory: The largest polluter in Philly is closing.” In much smaller font, they wrote: “Time for a just transition! #GreenNewDeal.”
Philly Thrive later issued a longer written statement on the closure, laying out a more detailed set of demands for remediating the site and ensuring that workers’ pensions and health care were paid. But that statement seemed to fall flat with the 1,000 workers who saw Philly Thrive proudly declaring victory right after they learned that they were losing their jobs.
The term “just transition” was coined by Tony Mazzocchi, a leader in the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (a predecessor of USW Local 10–1). In the early 1990s, as the evidence that carbon in the atmosphere was contributing to climate change, Mazzocchi recognized that although it would be painful for workers, the United States would soon need to transition its economy away from fossil fuels. He proposed significant public investment to support fossil fuel workers who were transitioning out of the fossil fuel industry, arguing that if the federal government could pay for a reserve “superfund” for toxic cleanup, it could also afford to help workers move on to new industries.
In recent decades, the term has gained traction in much of the climate movement and in parts of the labor movement. While many are comfortable with using it as a vague catchphrase, workers facing job loss have found some urgency in becoming much more specific about exactly what a just transition will look like. In the lead up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change talks in Paris, the International Trade Union Confederation published a five-point framework for what a just transition should entail.
In essence, the road map calls for large-scale investment in low-emission energy and technologies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Stakeholders from across the spectrum, from trade unions to fence line communities to employers, are encouraged to participate in the process. It also emphasizes researching the best ways to develop new climate policies and technologies, providing a social safety net for displaced workers, and ensuring that communities aren’t left to bear the economic burden of the transition on their own.
Almost none of these principles were implemented in the shutdown of the South Philadelphia refinery. The shutdown was not preceded by investment in clean energy jobs, or early warning, training, and skills development. Social protections have failed workers in Philadelphia — many were not even given the federally required 60-day notices and payments, and this shutdown comes at a time when the city government is pushing expansion in an east-coast energy hub, not supporting local economic diversification. While environmental activists from organizations like Philly Thrive have issued sweeping demands for comprehensive transition programming, there is little indication that workers at the refinery were meaningfully involved in the crafting of that platform. What’s happening in South Philadelphia sets a foreboding precedent across the country should action on climate change ever be made a true domestic priority.
The refinery closure in South Philadelphia jeopardizes the livelihood and future of more than 1,000 workers and their families. Many of their skills are not immediately transferable to other jobs, and the positions that are available are largely nonunion and pay half of what the refinery workers were earning. There are, however, options available to prevent the situation from getting worse.
A campaign is underway demanding that major PES investors — namely the Carlyle group and Energy Transfer Partners — aren’t able to make off with the $1.25 billion insurance payments the company is poised to collect in the aftermath of the explosion, just to leave workers and the community holding the bag. Workers and the community deserve to be first in line to collect whatever is left over to provide severance, health care, and to clean up the site that has been badly contaminated by over 150 years of oil refining.
Right now there is no superfund for workers, but there is a transition program that can be adopted for these workers. Because the lost production at the South Philadelphia refinery will be replaced with refined gasoline and home heating fuel imports, certain workers at the facility may be eligible for federal Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits, which could provide urgently needed funds to support job retraining and extended unemployment.
Going forward, bold proposals like the Green New Deal start the ball rolling on an incredibly important discussion about building the clean energy infrastructure that we need to have a just transition away from fossil fuels. But workers and communities on the front lines of this transition deserve an opportunity to be a core part of the process. The workers at the South Philadelphia refinery risked their lives and saved thousands of lives last month. They didn’t cause that disaster — they deserve a much more just transition.