Few things put the wind up a corporation more than when its critics start to unite. Making every issue seem isolated and insignificant is a perpetual tactic to divide and conquer dissenting voices – so showing that each case is symptomatic of a wider problem is a powerful way to disarm them.
We’ve been successful in the past in bringing together impacted communities affected by BP in the tar sands, US Gulf Coast, and West Papua, and affected by Shell in Canada, Nigeria, Rossport and the Arctic.
The next target for transatlantic information sharing was US refining company Valero, which operates mainly around North America, but for one lone refinery in Europe, which happens to be in Pembrokeshire, Wales. While Valero doesn’t dig out tar sands itself, it is a strong supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline, and its purchase of Pembroke refinery in 2011 formed a key part of the company’s plans to import tar sands oil to Europe.
We linked up with Bryan Parras, an environmental justice activist from Houston, Texas, who has been working closely with the people of Manchester, Houston to stand up against Valero’s operations in their community. Valero’s refinery surrounds the community on three out of four sides. The Latino community is considered a textbook example of environmental racism, “a community that corporations believe is disposable and its people insignificant”. It is also surrounded by a trash incinerator, Rhodia chemical plant, Goodyear Tire plant, Texas Petro-Chemical Group plant, Lyondell Basell refinery, Westway liquid storage terminals (massive tanks), a car crushing facility, 17 railway crossings, and a major highway with industrial trucks inundating the community 24 hours a day 365 days a year to and from the Houston Ship Channel.
Unbelievably, things are about to get worse for Manchester. The resident Valero refinery is one of many on the Gulf Coast set to receive tar sands oil with the completion of the Keystone XL (or an equivalent) tar sands pipeline from Alberta. Tar sands oil is much more polluting to refine, and would produce increased carbon dioxide, heavy metals and sulphurs, making the air even more toxic to breathe.
Bryan was keen to make links with communities opposing Valero and tar sands across the pond. He travelled with us to Pembrokeshire to share stories of Valero’s impacts in Manchester, and to learn about the infrastructure along Pembrokeshire’s beautiful rugged coastline. He shared this heartwrenching video, documenting the struggle of people in Manchester to find out what is in the air they breathe.
In Pembrokeshire the picture is very different to Manchester. Although much of the coastline is national park and has been awarded protected status, oil and gas infrastructure has been operating in the area since the 1960s. At the industry’s peak, as many as four refineries plus an oil-fired power plant were operating in the area. Today two refineries, a gas-fired power station, two LNG receiving terminals and a petroleum products storage farm remain.
These days, only three houses and a 14th century church are in close range of Valero’s refinery. In 1992, the rest of the village of Rhoscrowther was bought out by then owner Texaco. But the wider Pembrokeshire community, led by Pembrokeshire Friends of the Earth, is strongly opposed to tar sands, and is working hard to ensure that Valero does not use its Welsh refinery to start importing tar sands-derived fuel from the Gulf Coast. They have been working hard to support the EU Fuel Quality Directive, designed to discourage the import of polluting fuels like tar sands, which has been repeatedly delayed by industry and Canadian lobbyists.
Linking the two communities together is an important step in creating a chain of tar sands resistance all the way from the Indigenous communities in Alberta opposing extraction, to those along the route of the pipeline, to those at its proposed end in the Gulf Coast, to those resisting its expansion into Europe. The message is coming clearer than ever – across the world people will not accept this industry recklessly overriding people’s fundamental rights to clean air and water, and a stable climate.