The suburban houses of Rodeo sit on a wind-swept stretch of the Carquinez Strait set against golden hills and the towering bulk of Mount Diablo to the south. Ships pass by the small city every couple minutes, on their way up to the Sacramento Delta or down to San Francisco Bay. On a bright spring day, Rodeo makes for a picturesque slice of vintage Northern California — except for the towering labyrinth of pipes, storage tanks, and smokestacks that line the north edge of town.
The region’s residents have lived with the Phillips 66 refinery, which was built in 1896, for as long as their communities have existed. They endure the refinery’s smoke and noise as it pumps out as much as 140,000 barrels of crude oil per day. They also live with the constant risk of the kind of refinery explosion and fire that sent hundreds of people to hospitals in nearby Richmond in 2012. Despite such risks, people there know little about Phillips 66’s ability to pay for the damages that its operations could cause. Specifically, Phillips 66 says little about the types of insurance it carries to address the many risks of fossil fuel production, ranging from gas flaring episodes to oil storage tank failures. This information is undisclosed on its website, and also, importantly, in its filings with local governments and agencies.
That’s where the Australia-based advocacy group the Sunrise Project and UC Berkeley’s Environmental Law Clinic have spent the past three months digging. The Sunrise Project has already unearthed documents that helped reveal how fossil fuel companies in Europe insure their facilities. It has used that information to hold those companies responsible not just for the safety of these facilities, but also the climate damages that their chief product — oil — causes. The Project retained the Environmental Law Clinic on a pro bono basis to help it replicate that work in the United States.
We first sent California Public Records Act requests to Contra Costa County, where the Phillips 66 refinery sits, as well as to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the California Lands Commission, each of which could plausibly have had the information we sought. We received, however, generic responses that those agencies weren’t required to hold insurance information for the refinery. The clinic received similar responses to public records requests sent to agencies in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, among other jurisdictions, about insurance for their pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure.
Insurance industry experts confirmed to us that local, state and federal governments simply don’t require such disclosure — but they could, if they chose to. What that means for millions of people who live near fossil fuel infrastructure is a huge knowledge gap about whether they’ll ever be made whole in the case of a catastrophic accident.
We believe that people deserve to know whether fossil fuel companies can pay for their mistakes. As it turns out, after two months of digging, we finally were able to obtain Phillips 66’s insurance documents at the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, a branch of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department that protects waterways. The office collects insurance information for fossil fuel infrastructure all over the state, but that fact is little known, even to environmental lawyers who have worked for years in the state.
Learning basic information about a major industrial facility that’s surrounded by hundreds of thousands of homes, like the Rodeo facility is, shouldn’t be so difficult. Local, county and state governments should require such facilities to make their information readily available on their websites, if only to warn potential area homebuyers what they can expect the facilities to pay for in the event of an accident. Disclosure and transparency are pillars of democracy at every level of government. Counties should use their powers over land uses to condition issuance of permits on full disclosure of fossil fuel insurance coverage, and should also require inclusion of this information in Environmental Impact Reports under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Phillips 66 has the duty to be a good neighbor to the residents of Rodeo. If the refinery contaminates this idyllic corner of Northern California, its neighbors need to know that the company can and will clean up its mess.