A record shattering heat wave, killing hundreds across British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington. Massive, uncontrollable wildfires blanketing in smoke the entire West Coast, the sky an eerie, hellish orange as if set in a dystopian science fiction movie. A grieving orca carrying her dead calf for 17 heartrending days, a desperate message from a species struggling to survive in an anthropogenic world.

Table of Contents

It is impossible to meet our climate targets without refinery decommissioning.

Oil refining on Puget Sound is inextricably tied to the history of colonialism.

The refining industry pays surprisingly little in taxes considering its massive profits.

Refinery workers are well compensated and clustered in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

Oil refining supports industrial activity and transportation, which negatively affect the environment and human health. Coming soon.

The refineries supply the fuel from which half our region’s carbon is emitted. Coming soon.

It is indisputable: climate change is here and affecting our lives. Yet we have only barely begun to take the kind of systemic action required to mitigate the worst effects for humanity as a whole, and for all those who call the Pacific Northwest home.

Line graph titled "legislative emissions goals put Cascadia on track for a 67% likelihood of limiting warming to 2.0 degrees.

The science is clear. Decarbonization cannot wait.

As of this writing, the Washington State Legislature has passed a decarbonization goal of 95 percent emissions reductions by 2050. If the decarbonization goal is met, Cascadian demand for oil, the burning of which is responsible for half our region’s carbon emissions, would plummet. And without demand for oil products, the five oil refineries situated on the shores of the Salish Sea, the crown jewels of the Pacific Northwest’s fossil fuel infrastructure, would be obsolete.

In this series, we make two arguments. First, we argue that the refineries should be decommissioned as quickly as possible. The climate math is inexorable. The oil industry must cease, and soon, if we are to have a chance of mitigating climate change.

Beyond the climate mitigation benefits, refinery decommissioning would have significant non-climate benefits, like better air and water quality, improved human health outcomes, and a drastic reduction in environmentally damaging spills and leaks.

Systematically decommissioning oil refineries is a massive undertaking, which to our knowledge has not been attempted anywhere on Earth. The refineries took decades to reach their current size; dismantling them will take time. But oil refineries are a recent addition to the Pacific Northwest in the grand scope of our region’s history. They are not immutable. And through its decarbonization goals, the Legislature has implicitly signed up for this policy.

Second, we argue the Pacific Northwest should have a plan for what will happen during and after the refineries are decommissioned. Making a plan is not a radical idea; the radical idea would be to choose to not plan! After all, the refineries touch almost every aspect of the region’s economy, way of life, and future.

There are myriad questions to consider. What will it mean for refinery workers? What about the communities of Anacortes and Ferndale that play host to these industrial behemoths and that benefit economically from them? Or the tribes upon whose ancestral homelands the refineries sit? What will happen to the coastal land they occupy? How much will decommissioning cost? Who will pay? And much more.

The best time to have had this conversation would have been 20 years ago. The second-best time? Now.