Oct 17, 2016
A power outage in the South Bay area near Los Angeles left more than 100,000 people without power in the morning hours of October 11, just when many people were getting up and preparing to go to work or school.
The outage also caused a large refinery, which supplies about 20 per cent of the gasoline used in California, to lose power completely for 20 minutes – enough to force the refinery to do a flare-off (that is, burn large amounts of natural gas and oil derivatives quickly to stabilize its systems), and shut down.
Did the flare-off pose the risk of a big disaster – such as a large fire in a heavily populated area? Did it cause dangerous levels of air pollution?
Company and public officials say it did not, but their actions suggest otherwise. The city of Torrance announced a “shelter in place” – that is, it ordered people to stay home, shut doors and windows and turn off air conditioners for their safety – and Torrance schools cancelled all classes for the day.
The Coalition for Clean Air reported that fine-particle pollution levels increased significantly, and the regional air quality agency had received 15 complaints by mid-morning. Morning rush-hour traffic got congested even more than it normally does; and wholesale gas prices went up, threatening a price increase at the pump in coming days.
All this could have been avoided if the electric company in the area, SoCal Edison, had met some very basic safety standards. The flare-off, for example, could have been prevented if Edison had provided the refinery with backup power generation.
Officials of the company that operates the refinery, PBF Energy, blame Edison. But refinery officials are not free of blame either. This refinery, which was operated until last summer by Exxon Mobil, one of the biggest companies in the world with 22 billion dollars profit in 2015 alone, has a long record of accidents, explosions and safety violations. Like other oil companies, Exxon did not upgrade this aging facility for decades in the name of “cutting costs” for more profit.
Electricity and oil – two vital resources that we all depend on for our daily lives, are in the hands of private companies, whose sole motivation is profit. It’s how the capitalist system works – and it’s a recipe for disaster.