Shell Oil Refinery, Martinez

By Jin Zhu, SFSU, 2017

In 1914, Shell Oil Company built a refinery in Martinez, CA for its undeveloped land and accessibility to transportation and a body of water to help the refinery process [1].The environment and residents of Martinez suffer as a result of negligence from Shell and, in turn, are bearing the cost of the energy system. They suffer from bad air quality, environmental damages, and other issues caused by the oil refinery[7]. Those who benefit from the refinery include those who use the products Shell produces (gas, diesel, lubricants, plastic, and jet fuel).The case of Shell Oil and the Martinez community is an example of environmental classism,Oil Colonialism, and a sacrifice zone.

Martinez Shell Oil Refinery  in the morning

Environmental Classism
Environmental classism is classification of how environmental amenities are distributed, weather good or bad. The housing market is continuing to expand to other parts of the bay area including Martinez[8]. In the Census of the bay area Martinez is considered a cheaper place to live compared to San Francisco[8]. The ratio of housing cost is rapidly rising and living wage is slowly rising , causing residents of the Bay Area to move to lower cost housing and commuting into work by public transportation or private vehicles[8].With the lure of cheap housing in the Bay Area and public transportation being a pull factor, laborers were drawn to the area for employment without realizing how the environmental factors for the neighborhood will negatively impact their health, environment, and overall quality of living – i.e. poor air quality.

On Monday, the Shell refinery in Martinez had a small fire in the light-oil processing unit. Less than a day later, a sour aroma from the refinery prompted hazardous materials teams to investigate. Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle
Small fire above a processing unit of the Shell Martinez Refinery , giving off pollution and harmful chemicals

Oil Colonialism
Oil Colonialism is taking advantage of an area for resources that can be exploited without giving anything in return. Many incidents occurred in large-scale operations due to the lack of personnel interest and negligence of Shell to maintain and upgrade the refinery [7]. On April 2, 1996, residents witnessed plumes of smoke and flames in the sky, accompanied by loud “BOOM” from an explosion at the refinery that could be seen in Oakland, located 25 miles away[2]. At this point, such occurrences have become an unfortunate norm for Martinez. One resident described it as “nightlife” in Martinez, to park their car, grab a drink, and watch the “fireballs” [2].The residents of Martinez suffer from oil colonialism by being exploited for the land and laborers despite not receiving the benefits from the refinery.Instead they bear the environmental damages and harmful chemicals in their living environment[2].

Image result for martinez shell refinery fire
Very well lit Martinez Shell Refinery at night (Looks like Disneyland)

In addition to resident complaints, the city of Martinez has attempted to sue Shell Oil refinery for compensation and clean up fees, but the situation remains unresolved [3] . American traders who interact with foreign countries control economic processes, and the countries that export crude oil to the refinery are mainly overseas[4].While some argue that the refinery brings in jobs and money for the economy to the local community, the local community gains very little in comparison to the gains of the Shell Company itself.

Additionally, Shell customers often don’t live near where the crude oil is processed, and therefore are unaware of the health or environmental damage caused by the refinery. Oil companies likely use this ignorance to ensure the public does not question the origin of the product.

This method is successful because consumers are hidden from the reality of how these products are made or produced. To be transparent, companies would be forced to uphold moral choices depending on public option towards the mistreatment and cruelty done to people and the environment. This is another example of oil colonialism because the local community is burdened by the negative effects of the refinery and reaps very little benefits[5].

Martinez is considered a sacrifice zone for the shell oil refinery. Sacrifice zones are areas that are deemed to take the brunt of harmful chemicals and are usually surrounding the source of pollution[9] . The local community is not rich in funds, but rich in ecological debt such as health issues and environmental problems [3]. Residents surrounding the Shell refinery suffer from health issues due to incidents such as oil spills and release of chemicals from the refinery process [5].

Even overseas communities suffer from ecological debt due to the mining that destroys habitats and releases harmful chemicals into the air and water. The environmental cost is the largest aspect to consider. Every step of the process emits harmful chemicals that cause environmental issues, and because these steps are veiled to the public or ignored, big companies give the illusion that oil and gas is plentiful, cheap to use, and results in inaction to switch to alternate fuel sources. This also means that big companies can avoid or prolong paying fees & fines that pertain to environmental damages [6].


[1]About Shell Martinez Refinery. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[2]E. Hallissy, K. Fagan (1996). Blast Ignites Fireball at Shell Refinery / No injuries in Martinez explosion. Retrieved from

[3]T. Goldberg (2017). Shell Not Revealing Full List of Gases Released in December Martinez Refinery Flares. Retrieved from

[4]Dallas. (2008). List of Gasoline Companies who DO NOT import oil from the Middle East. Retrieved from

[5]Ferrar, M. K. (2016). Air Pollution in the Bay Area’s Refinery Corridor. Retrieved from

[6]H. K. Lee, (2007). Shell to pay almost $3M fine for Martinez refinery emissions. Retrieved from

[7]Group, B. A. (2016). Martinez: Shell refinery to pay $208,000 for polluting air. Retrieved from

[8]Census Bureau (2017). Martinez, CA. Retrieved from

[9] Bullard, R. D. (2011). Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States. Retrieved from


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