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COVID and Oil

Our collective response to COVID-19 is causing unprecedented short-term change in our energy system (1).  These charts track statewide oil refining rates in California before and after its March 19, 2020 shelter in place order.  The charts compare weekly refining rates in 2020 with the minimum rates in the same week of the year over the previous decade.  The March 19 order came at the end of week 12 in the charts.

By the first week of May this year (week 19 in the CRUDE REFINING chart above), 33 percent of the crude capacity refiners had used in that week every year for a decade was idled.  Then, as personal travel began to bounce back, statewide gasoline refining rates began to bounce back, reaching the same-week minimum for gasoline from the previous decade in the week ending July 3, 2020 (week 27 in the GASOLINE REFINING chart).  But as the pandemic continued and the recovery faltered refining rates dipped again (both charts).  By July 31 (week 31) Marathon reported closing its 161,000 barrel-per-day Martinez refinery (2).  By August 13 (week 33), Phillips 66 announced plans to close parts of its 120,000 b/d San Francisco Refinery and turn the rest of it into a huge biofuels refinery (9).  On September 10 (week 37), as statewide refining rates began to bounce back again, Marathon described plans for its Martinez plant to become another huge biofuels refinery (10).  (The big plans raise big questions: see Biofuels: Burning food?)

Why track this?

To protect our climate and health we must shift from fossil fuels to sustainable alternatives (3).  Petroleum is the most entrenched fossil fuel in California, the dominant  oil refining center in western North America (4).  Statewide refining rates measure global oil flows through the part of the petroleum fuel chain that is anchored by refining here (4). 

And while the emergency action driving them now is unsustainable (5), 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 (4).

What caused this?

Pausing personal travel during the pandemic forced refining rate cuts when there was nowhere to sell or store so much refined 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 (6) 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 (3) and habitat destruction (7).  In any case COVID has made the challenge (8) and the opportunity (5) for just transitions (4) 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) Goldberg, 2020. Shutdown of Marathon's Martinez Refinery Prompts Calls for 'Just Transition' for Oil Workers.  August 3, 2020. KQED: San Francisco, CA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(9) Brelsford, 2020. Phillips 66 plans reconfiguring Rodeo refinery into renewable fuels plant. August 13, 2020. Oil & Gas Journal.

(10) Marathon Petroleum Corp., Martinez Renewable Fuels: California Environmental Quality Act–Project Description; lead agency: Contra Costa County.  September 10, 2020.

© 2020 Greg Karras, G Karras Consulting