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Crude and COVID to Dec 31.jpg


COVID and Oil

COVID-19 caused unprecedented short-term change in our energy system (1). These charts track oil refining rates in California and new COVID cases in its domestic fuels market—California, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon—on a weekly basis since January 2020.  The first COVID-19 lock downs on the West Coast started in the week ending March 20, 2020 (week 12 in the charts).

Data shown in these charts are from the California Energy Commission and Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center:



Statewide crude refining rates fell by 4.1 million barrels per week, or 35 percent, with the preventive spring lockdowns (weeks 12–18 in the crude refining chart above).  Then, as the pandemic raged on and the recovery faltered, refining rebounds reversed twice.  Rebounding crude refining rates fell again as new case rates spiked in summer (weeks 27–30), and fell again, as new case rates stopped declining in autumn and began a worse winter spike (weeks 37–58). A third crude refining rebound stalled in a third COVID surge after week 80, but by December 31, 2021 (week 105), statewide refining rates had repeatedly edged back into their pre-COVID range (yellow in the crude refining chart), which was recorded for the same weeks of 2013–2019.

Changes in gasoline and jet fuel drove changes in total refining rates.  See total statewide production of each major petroleum engine fuel in the fuels refining chart below. 

Fuels and COVID to Dec 31.jpg


Why track this?

To protect our climate and health we must shift from fossil fuels to sustainable alternatives (2).  Petroleum is the most entrenched fossil fuel in California, the dominant  oil refining center in western North America (3).  Statewide refining rates measure global oil flows through the part of the petroleum fuel chain that is anchored by refining here (3). 

And while the emergency action that drove them was unsustainable (4), the refining cuts from this collective action are unprecedented. Tracking what is happening with oil now can inform our starting point to make sustainable transitions from oil for our climate and health (3).  For example, steady distillate-diesel refining during COVID (see fuels refining chart) further reveals the need for solar and wind powered freight and shipping.  See Throwing [bio]fuel on the fire

What caused this?

Pausing personal travel during the pandemic forced refining rate cuts when there was nowhere to sell or store so much refined gasoline and jet fuel.  This causal mechanism reveals some of the ways that our health, economy, and energy system intertwine.  But this mechanism for the refining rate cuts, which themselves are only a side effect of this plague, is not a root cause of the plague which, if removed, could prevent another.

COVID-19 further reveals a larger crisis.  The new virus is being made more deadly by air pollution (5) on top of health care disparities, racism and economic injustice. It may turn out to be an example of the spread of new diseases which, like storms, floods, heat waves and droughts, become more frequent and severe with more climate pollution (2) and habitat destruction (6).  In any case COVID has made the challenge (7) and the opportunity (4) for just transitions (3) to sustainable energy more urgent still.  It is linked to the crisis in our total environment.

Let us learn from this disaster to prevent the next.


(1)  Adam et. al., 2020. Global Energy Review 2020. International Energy Agency: Paris, FR.

(2) Masson-Delmotte et al., 2018. Special Report: Global Warming to 1.5 ºC. IntergovernmentalPanel on Climate Change: Geneva, CH.

(3) Karras, 2020. Decommissioning California Refineries: Climate and Health Paths in an OilState. Communities for a Better Environment: Huntington Park, Oakland, Richmond andWilmington, CA.

(4) McGlade et al., 2020. Sustainable Recovery: World Energy Outlook Special Report.International Energy Agency: Paris, FR.

(5) Wu et al., 2020. A National Study on Long Term Exposure to Air Pollution and COVID-19Mortality in the United States. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA.

(6) Diaz et al., 2019. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPDES):Bonn, DE.

(7) Le Quéré et al., 2020. Temporary Reduction in Daily CO 2 Emissions During the COVID-19Forced Confinement. Nature Climate Change.

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