August 6, 2012 was, for a while, a beautiful summer day. Richmond’s morning sky was blue, the sun was shining, there were sailboats in the bay. In the afternoon, Isabella Zizi watched as her sister, Zolina, rode their neighbor’s white horse down the block—when suddenly the horse began to buck with agitation, jumping wildly up and down, forcing Zolina off. Confused, Isabella turned to look at her mom—and when she did, the sun disappeared. Richmond’s Chevron oil refinery, so close to the Zizi’s home that they could see it from their living room window, was on fire.
They had drills for this sort of thing, every first Wednesday of the month, but no alarms went off now that it was real. Isabella went inside, closed the windows and doors, and watched as flames billowed at the base of a black plume that jumped upward before steadily stretching across the sky. Outside, her mom and sister drove around the neighborhood, telling people they needed to go indoors, now, and from home, Isabella called 911. When the dispatch answered, they already knew why she was calling. All she could do was shelter in place, and wait.
Three days later, Isabella still had a headache, and Zolina was one of many neighbors having trouble breathing. In total, some 15,000 people sought treatment for respiratory problems in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Most went to Kaiser, where they stood silently in a long line of people with explosion-related symptoms, as though this were normal, as though they were in line to “pick up fast food,” Isabella remembers. Instead, when it was her turn, she saw three doctors in quick succession. The first measured her heart rate and breathing, the next asked about her symptoms, and the third handed her a form and told her to sign it and turn it in. It was from Chevron—an agreement not to sue the oil giant should health problems arise in the future, in exchange for monetary compensation. Isabella did not sign.
Before August 2012—and since then—Richmond’s Chevron plant has had other massive accidents, without facing much accountability. Most recently, an oil spill of 750 gallons in early 2021 prompted a California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) citation—six months after the spill—of just $315. Studies have shown Richmond has higher rates of asthma (one in four children) and cancer than the rest of Contra Costa County, and even the town’s indoor air is filled with toxins. But Chevron—the city’s top employer—continues on, forcing a toxic dependency on its operation.
Like Richmond—low-income, 80 percent people of color, polluted by big oil—there are many others. South LA and Kern County, for instance, are home to some of the biggest oil fields in California. They’re also both majority POC and low income, and have abnormally high rates of cancer and respiratory issues. Across the state, people of color represent 70 percent of the population living within 3,200 feet of an operational oil or gas well. And that’s no coincidence. Developers build and maintain oil plants in “communities of color, in communities with low education…in communities that don’t have a lot of political clout… because they’re [seen as] least likely to resist,” explained Cesar Aguirre, the Oil and Gas Director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network.
But for decades, frontline communities have been resisting: documenting the devastating consequences of oil fields and refineries and organizing for sustainable alternatives. Now, activists from across the state, including Zizi and Aguirre, are demanding that Gov. Newsom halt neighborhood oil drilling completely.
Last September, organizers in LA and Kern County—where oil rigs border people’s yards, playgrounds, and healthcare clinics—celebrated the passage of SB 1137, a bill establishing buffer zones of 3,200 feet between protected community sites and oil drilling. In California, over 25 percent of oil wells are in those buffer zones—in close proximity to schools, hospitals, and homes—so SB 1137 was also a victory in the movement to phase out fossil fuels. The new law took effect this January, but less than a month later it was paused—forced on hold by big oil.
Almost as soon as Gov. Newsom signed off on setbacks, oil companies began a $20 million counter-campaign, complete with fake grassroots organizations with names like ‘Kern Citizens for Energy’ that petitioned outside grocery stores to collect signatures for a referendum on neighborhood oil drilling. Petitioners reportedly lied to voters to persuade them to sign on, telling them that signing would end urban oil drilling, or that it would lower gas prices. “[Big oil] had a lot of petitioners that were saying the complete opposite to get people to sign,” Aguirre said. Organizations like WSPA, the Western States Petroleum Association, which funds Kern Citizens for Energy, “throw a lot of money, [and] fake being residents when really they’re in the best interest of oil companies.” Often, they’ll use oil plant workers as political pawns, too, even as they undermine employee health and safety. (SB 1137, the law big oil campaigned so hard against, included important worker protections).
With sufficient referendum signatures gathered, safety buffer zones were placed on hold until elections in 2024, when voters will decide whether SB 1137 should remain law. But in the meantime, activists remind us that Newsom has the power to stop neighborhood oil drilling as a public health protection measure. To do so would not be unprecedented— the governor himself has previously identified neighborhood oil drilling as a threat to public health, and of the U.S. states with the largest oil production, California is the only one without established setbacks.
Last month, the Last Chance Alliance, a coalition of hundreds of environmental groups, led a statewide Big Oil Resistance Tour to demand Newsom implement buffer zones immediately. On May 12, Oakland, the tour’s penultimate stop, welcomed Zizi, Aguirre, and frontline organizers from across California to amplify their demands and visions for climate justice.
For Isabella, Chevron’s explosion “was a reawakening…[a] realization that I don’t want to sit and feel like I can’t do anything. I don’t ever want to be in that position where my voice, my presence, and my community are helpless.” So in 2014, two years after graduating high school, Zizi began organizing with Idle No More SF Bay, a grassroots group of Indigenous grandmothers who met in the evenings in their living rooms to plan direct actions against oil pollution. Isabella, who is Northern Cheyenne, Arikara, and Muskogee Creek, became their “baby grandma”—the youngest who stayed the longest.
That same year, Idle No More led its first refinery corridor healing walk, part of the way from Pittsburg to Martinez. Over the next three years, the group walked, incrementally, the 50 miles from refinery to refinery—Martinez to Benicia, Rodeo, and then Richmond—pausing to pray and listen to the water, to tell stories and learn from their surroundings. “[It] was a very important time…to take on that leadership,” Zizi said. “It took a lot of hard work to let our Indigenous voices be heard in the climate justice movement—[it] still [takes a lot of work] to this day.”
In 2017, Zizi and a group of Native environmental activists attended the UN’s Climate Summit in Bonn, Germany. There, they protested at a talk by then-governor Jerry Brown, demanding that he end fracking in California. In response to their chants to “keep it in the ground,” Brown said, “let’s put you in the ground.” He later claimed it was a joke, but Indigenous communities—frontline communities—knew it wasn’t. “That was definitely not a joke,” Zizi told Democracy Now! “Slowly we are being put into the ground. [Oil drilling and refining] is directly impacting our health. They’re commodifying our air. Our right to breathe—and that is slowly killing us. We have these autoimmune diseases, these cancers, these birth defects.”
In Richmond, big oil’s devastating consequences are a constant reality, visible in Chevron’s smoke and in neighbors’ sicknesses. Young people have had their formative years shaped by the plant’s disasters; elders have seen the harms of big oil all their lives. That collective understanding has shaped the Richmond Our Power Coalition, a vibrant local ecosystem of resistance strategies spanning from Idle No More’s healing walks to Urban Tilth’s sustainable farming and food distribution.
In many ways, the Richmond Our Power Coalition is the essence of the sustainable practices that the city so desperately needs. It’s an equity project, a counterpoint to Chevron’s pollution, a seed of hope and imagination. It’s the beginning of a just transition away from fossil fuels, and a reminder that as we demand Chevron shut down, we can also begin to create the communities we want to live in.
At the end of this month, on June 29, The Last Chance Alliance and protesters across California will lead a statewide action to end dependence on fossil fuels. Their demands for Gov. Newsom are simple, and yet life saving. Stop approving new oil and gas permits. End neighborhood drilling with 3,200 foot health buffers. Phase out fossil fuel production.
As you read this, big oil is slowly killing the frontline communities that surround its fields and refineries, putting its workers at risk, and fueling an already extreme climate crisis. To divest from fossil fuels—and shut down oil plants—is to value lives, and this planet, more than profit.