Opinion: Long Beach’s dirty secret
The leaders of Long Beach love to talk about our Green Port. They never discuss the dirty secret about the city’s contribution to global climate change.
Beyond the political rhetoric about sustainability lies the truth: Long Beach is an oil town. It has been so for a century. It will be for decades to come.
From the beach, the city’s tight connection to the fossil fuel economy is obvious.
Just offshore, four cleverly disguised, man-made oil islands hide wells that pump crude 24/7.
On the horizon, a flotilla of oil tankers wait to unload their carbon-rich cargo.
The biggest import to the Port of Long Beach doesn’t come in cargo containers. It arrives on giant oil tankers that converge on Long Beach from Alaska, the Middle East, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, and other far corners of the world.
Long Beach is a key link in the global crude oil pipeline.
In 2018, tankers that docked at the port disgorged 25.8 million metric tons of crude oil. That’s the rough equivalent of 180 million barrels of oil.
That oil is pumped through massive pipelines to area refineries. There it’s turned into the gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and bunker fuel that powers our cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships.
The dirty black residue left at the end of the refining process is petroleum coke. When burned, it produces more greenhouse gas emissions than coal.
Petroleum coke, or “pet coke” for short, is the largest single export from Long Beach. More than 4.1 million metric tons of pet coke was shipped to 15 countries in 2018. About three-quarters of it went to Japan and China.
The extraction, transport, refining, and burning of fossil fuels is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet.
The effects of the global climate crisis can be seen and felt in Long Beach as the sea level rises, the temperature climbs, periods of extreme drought become more common and wildfires more devastating.
The time has come for Long Beach to impose a fee on every barrel of oil that arrives at the port and every metric ton of petroleum coke that’s shipped overseas. The money raised should be spent on projects that address the long-standing environmental injustice the port inflicts on predominantly low-income communities of color in west, central, and north Long Beach.
Those projects could include installing solar panels to cut energy bills, insulating homes and apartments so residents can weather extreme heat, planting shade trees, and establishing training programs for green jobs.
Voters in Long Beach have already shown they support taxing oil production in the city. Last fall, voters approved a ballot measure to boost the city’s oil production tax by 15 cents a barrel. A special oil tax to support police and fire services won approval in 2007.
The discovery of oil on Signal Hill in 1921 put Long Beach on the world oil map.
Almost overnight, a forest of wooden oil derricks sprang up across Long Beach and Signal Hill. The city boomed in the Roaring ’20s as huge amounts of crude were pumped from one of the nation’s largest oil fields.
In February 1962, Long Beach voters gave the green light to “exploration and exploitation of the oil and gas reserves” on state tidelands. A consortium of five major oil companies built the oil islands in the harbor, including one with a Hollywoodesque facade of palm trees and a waterfall.
By 2011, more than 1 billion barrels of oil had been pumped from the tidelands. The state of California has reaped more than $5 billion in oil revenue. The city of Long Beach has received more than $450 million.
Long Beach City Hall depends on tideland oil revenues to pay for beachfront parks and waterfront projects. Oil revenue will help pay for a new Belmont Pool to be built for the Summer Olympics in 2028.
The city has used more than $30 million in tidelands oil money to raise and reinforce seawalls that protect multi-million dollar homes on Naples Island from sea level rise.
There’s no end in sight for the city’s fossil fuel era.
Pumpjack wells rise and fall around the clock. Wells in the Los Cerritos wetlands will be moved to higher ground near the San Gabriel River.
The historic Petroleum Club—a relic of the city’s oil age—has been given new life after a near-death experience with a wrecking ball.
And for the foreseeable future, oil tankers will ply the world’s oceans to deliver their climate-altering cargo to our Green Port.
Jeffrey L. Rabin is a retired Los Angeles Times reporter. He has a master’s degree in Urban Planning from UCLA and is a member of the Post’s Community Editorial Board.
Support our journalism.
Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.