BP Oil Refinery Explosion: Texas City, Texas

By Erin Soden, SFSU, 2017

March 23rd, 2005 marked yet another environmental injustice for Texas City, Texas: an oil spill which ended with 15 deaths and 170 injured [1]. As the third largest refinery in the U.S, this explosion was particularly damaging due to most of the 15 deaths being nonessential personnel that were in the wrong place at the wrong time [2]. Government and media investigations followed, along with many legal proceedings to compensate for the lives lost [3]. I will show how the energy injustices of this site arose through the fossil fuel companies that generate environmental racism and sacrifice zones.

Damage control: mass amounts of water works to stop the explosion.

However, this did not stop the refinery from closing until 2012, where BP eventually sold the Texas City plant to Marathon Petroleum Co [4]. Home to multiple refineries and power plants, Texas City gets its nickname “Toxic City” . Extending over almost two miles over Texas City, this BP oil refinery is the third largest oil refinery in the United States [5].

Once one power plant was built, fossil fuel companies jumped at the opportunity to build more [6]. This is how a sacrifice zone is born. Not only is Texas City a sacrifice zone, but also a site of energy injustice and environmental racism. The location of almost all power plants are in predominantly minority neighborhoods(7) [7]. According to Statistical Atlas, 40% of Hispanics live in the streets around the power plants compared to only 29% of Caucasians living within the same area (8) [8].

It is both an energy injustice site and an environmental problem. Spills like this cause air and land pollution and are becoming a threat to public health and safety. These spills are harming public health so much that citizens are dying: the government does not seem concerned and neither do the citizens of Texas City [9].

This energy injustice arose because it became a sacrifice zone for the United States. The same way areas have been written off for environmental degradation in the past, the government has written off Texas City because the fossil fuel industry persuades the nation to do so. In Texas City, the government chose to sacrifice the city for the national interest of fossil fuel production [10].

Fossil fuels in the United States is seen as a higher power ,making it acceptable to exploit both the land and the people around the land to make a profit out of it [11]. The government relies on this energy sector for both making money and fueling the economy [12]. Texas City is a sacrifice zone seen as an opportunity for economic gain, used and abused for the fossil fuel agenda. With an industry so powerful, oil refineries and other fossil fuel power plants are able to write off this large area of land because more fossil fuel production means more energy, more jobs, and more fuel into the economy. This presents the oil refineries as progress, which is seen by mostly neoliberals as a great thing (13) [13]. With a nation so focused on endless economic growth on a clearly finite planet, progress is seen as increased fossil fuel production (14) [14].

clean up of oil spill
The aftermath: workers attempt to clean up after the oil disaster.

It is not just the land being sacrificed, but the people that live in the town and their health too. They are most likely bearing all the costs of the fossil fuel production and not seeing any of the benefits. It is apparent Texas City is seen as a sacrifice zone, but there is little they can do about it. The fossil fuel industry is too powerful for the citizens to protest this, regardless of how many oil spills killing sprees occur [15].

When posed with the question of what comes first: the economy or the planet, as long as regions like Texas City still pour money into the economy from fossil fuel production, the answer will always be the economy (16) [16]. Both the environmental destruction and the energy injustice that allow sacrifice zones to exist will continue to be an environmental problem.


[1] Schorn, D. (2006). The Explosion at Texas City. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-explosion-at-texas-city/4/ 

[2] Malewitz, J, Collette, M, Olsen, L. (2015). Anatomy of Disaster. Retrieved from https://apps.texastribune.org/blood-lessons/disaster/

[3] Malewitz et al. (2015).

[4] Malewitz et al. (2015).

[5] Schorn. (2006).

[6] Pruett, D. (2016). We’re all in the Sacrifice Zone Now. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/were-all-in-the-sacrifice-zone-now_b_9823482.html

[7] US Census Bureau. (2015). Race and Ethnicity in Texas. Retrieved from https://statisticalatlas.com/place/Texas/Texas-City/Race-and-Ethnicity 

[8] US Census Bureau. (2015).

[9]Malewitz et al. (2015)

[10]Scott. (2010). Hillbillies and Coal Miners.

[11]Scott. (2010).

[12]Clark, D. (2013). Why Can’t We Quit Fossil Fuels? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/apr/17/why-cant-we-give-up-fossil-fuels

[13] Klein, Naomi. (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster.

[14] Higgs, Kerryn. (2014). Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

[15] Klein. (2014).

[16] Higgs. (2014).


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