Crude and COVID to Oct 15.jpg

Check back to this page for updates as new data become available from the California Energy Commission and Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.




COVID and Oil

COVID-19 is causing 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).

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 rebound stalled in a third COVID surge (weeks 80–91).  California refineries processed 25 percent less crude oil in the year ending March 19, 2021 than they had in the year before, and 8 percent less crude in the four weeks ending October 15, 2021 than in the same weeks of 2019.

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


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 driving them now is unsustainable (4), the refining rate 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.