Displaced fossil fuel workers struggling as CA shifts to clean energy, study shows

Liz Kreutz Image
ByLiz Kreutz KGO logo
Tuesday, May 16, 2023
Study: Fossil fuel workers struggle as CA shifts to clean energy
As California moves to renewable energy, a new study from the UC Berkeley Labor Center shows the difficult impact it's having on fossil fuel workers.

MARTINEZ, Calif. (KGO) -- As California moves to renewable energy, a new study from the UC Berkeley Labor Center shows the difficult impact it's having on fossil fuel workers.

The report focuses on the Marathon refinery in Martinez that closed during the pandemic. It found that transitioning fossil fuel workers to clean energy jobs has proven easier said than done.

"This was an opportunity, not one we would want but an opportunity to give us sight lines on the coming transition to clean energy," UC Irvine Urban Planning and Public Policy professor Virginia Parks -- who is the lead author of the study -- told ABC7 news of their research. "Learning what are fossil fuels workers are really going to face in the labor market once they no longer have jobs in industries where they've been employed?"

For more than 100 years, the Marathon refinery operated as a petroleum plant. But in 2020, it abruptly closed and 345 of the refinery's permanent workers were laid off.

"It was what I described as a gut punch," Tracy Scott, the president of United Steelworkers Local 5, told ABC7 News. "I think people were stunned that the job that they were hired into, that they were told would be a career that they would retire from, was going away. And so it took them a minute to gain their composure and to start to do the things that were necessary for looking for work."

Parks research surveyed those workers. She says a year after they were laid off, 26% of respondents remained unemployed. And of those who had found new jobs, many said it came at a cost, including much lower wages.

"They took a 24% wage cut. They also found themselves in more hazardous jobs, more stressful jobs, jobs that did not have the same high standard and working conditions they had left at the refinery," Parks said. "And they struggled. They struggled to make ends meet."

Parks said a third of workers that they surveyed took early withdrawals from their retirement. "They had to sell cars, they had to pull their kids from extracurricular activities," she said. "So they landed on their feet, many of them, but at a cost."

The Marathon refinery closure signifies the broader shift to renewable energy in California. Scott said as the state moves away from fossil fuels, refinery workers are being left behind. The Marathon Refinery is now in the process of reopening as a renewable diesel plant. Scott said some of the former employees have been rehired, but that it's just a fraction of those that lost their jobs in 2020. And, he said, for many of the workers three years later is too late.

"The impact in the interim was all of the economic distress that was caused by their layoff," Scott said. "You know, they had three years of not being able to participate in their 401k. They had three years not participating in a pension program... and so their future and stability in retirement has been impacted by that."

Scott is hoping lawmakers take the UC Berkeley Labor Center report seriously, and that change is made to better support fossil fuel workers.

"You're talking about thousands and thousands of jobs, good union jobs, that are going to go away," Scott said. "And the economic development to support the transition to good paying jobs needs to be put into place in order to support that."

One proposal is to give refinery workers certification that allows prospective employers to better understand their skill set.

"Employers do not understand the skill set that refinery workers have, and the workers I interviewed ran into this time and time again," Parks said. "They don't have a certification that spells out what they do and are capable of doing, yet they are highly skilled. But new employers just didn't have a sense of what they could do, so that lack of certification is what you might call a real friction in this transition, and we need policy to grease the wheels and eliminate that friction."

Scott is also hopeful that a proposal from Governor Gavin Newsom to allot $40 million in the 2022-2023 state budget to support displaced oil and gas workers will help the Marathon refinery employees. But he said they're still waiting to learn if those workers will be eligible.

"We're hopeful," he said.

We asked why the support hasn't come sooner.

"I think the cart is firmly before the horse," Scott said. "I think you know a decision was made and now we're looking back to say what can we do to help support them? We're cobbling together solutions that should have been part of the plan in the beginning."

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