This story was updated December 5 to include replies from Stand.Earth on the methodology behind the report, and from Airlines for America on the U.S. aviation industry’s decarbonization promises.
A new report has pinpointed California as the destination for half of the oil drilled in the environmentally fragile Amazon rainforest, just one day after a high court in Ecuador overruled a resource extraction project that violated the constitutional rights of nature.
The shattering chain of custody research by San Francisco-based Stand.earth and Oakland-based Amazon Watch concludes that 89% of the crude oil exported from the Amazon comes from Ecuador, and 66% of it goes to the United States, half of that total to three refineries in Greater Los Angeles. “In California, where the majority of this oil is refined, an average of one in nine gallons of gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel pumped in the state comes from the Amazon rainforest,” the groups write. “In Southern California, the volume goes up to one in seven gallons.”
The report says major oil companies in California sold 1.9 billion gallons/7.2 billion litres of gasoline and diesel from the Amazon rainforest in 2019, with Arco, Chevron, Shell, Phillips 66, and Valero placing as the top five retailers. But “unbranded gas is the largest share of gas sold in the state, illustrating that real change will require state action to reduce gasoline consumption, not just actions by brands,” the report states.
Among the end users:
• Air carriers like American Airlines, Delta, United, Southwest, and Alaska Airlines consumed 123 million gallons of jet fuel at Los Angeles and San Francisco airports in 2020;
• Supermarket and big box chains like Walmart, Costco, Kroger, and Safeway used 43 million gallons of diesel and gasoline to power their fleets;
• Parcel delivery giants Amazon, UPS, and FedEx accounted for another 39 million gallons of diesel;
• The largest private fleet in the U.S., PepsiCo, consumed 4.4 million gallons of diesel.
An ‘Imperative to Act’
“As California is beginning to address its domestic oil industry and the impacts on fenceline communities and spills along its coasts, Indigenous communities in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia, who have also endured the oil industry’s toxic legacy, are calling for an end to the expansion of the oil industry into their territories,” the report states. “The experiences of these impacted communities presage our larger linked fate—that fossil fuel expansion leads to climate disaster that affects all our communities.”
That means California “has an imperative to act to protect the Amazon by eliminating its dependency on Amazon oil as part of a climate-smart strategy to wind down demand for fuel production and create a just transition away from fossil fuels,” the groups add, just a month after the state signed on as an associate member of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance during the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow.
Some of the companies identified in the report were less than pleased with the publicity.
“When it comes to Amazon, this report is not accurate—the authors don’t understand how our business works, used hypothetical figures, and made no effort to fact check,” an Amazon.com spokesperson told The Energy Mix in an email. “Through our commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, Amazon is dedicated to finding sustainable solutions that challenge business as usual in order to protect the planet and prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis.”
“I’m confident that given the size of Amazon.com and their market in California, our estimates are very conservative,” Stand.Earth lead author Angeline Robertson replied in an email to The Mix. “For example, we did not have the time in the project to include their last-mile delivery, their business travel, or estimate the fuel consumption for the large number of subcontractors trucking their goods. Instead, we focused on Amazon Air and their own (small but growing) private medium to heavy duty fleet because that is where we could get reliable estimates of fuel consumption.”
Robertson cited the academic policy brief the research team used to model Amazon Air’s activity, the U.S. National Pipeline Mapping System as its source on pipelines from California refineries to airports, and laid out Stand’s own methods for calculating the proportion of the oil coming from the Amazon rainforest.
“I believe this is a defensible methodology based on detailed research and available data,” she wrote. “It is not a complete picture of their whole consumption of Amazon oil. That would be much larger. However, the point of the research is not to call out Amazon as somehow a unique culprit, but to show that Amazon.com, like literally every other company operating in California, is consuming Amazon oil. They can take this moment to show climate leadership.”
As of Sunday morning, Amazon.com had not replied to a folllow-up question on the volume of fuel it consumed from Ecuador last year. We’ll update this story as the responses roll in.
Three of the airlines identified in the report referred all questions to their industry lobby group, Airlines for America (A4A), whose spokesperson Carter Yang laid out the fuel efficiency improvements the industry achieved between 1978 and 2019 and its quest for an 80% emissions reduction by replacing conventional jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuels. “As part of our commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, A4A and its member airlines have pledged to work in partnership across the aviation industry and with government leaders to make three billion gallons of cost-competitive SAF available for use in 2030,” he wrote.
Yang’s email did not answer the question about fuel currently sourced from the Amazon rainforest, and he had not replied to a follow-up email as of Sunday morning.
A spokesperson for Delta Airlines cited her company’s “short-term goal” to derive 10% of its fuel supply from SAFs by 2030. She did not reply to a follow-up asking whether Delta planned any restrictions on sourcing biofuel feedstocks from the Amazon or other threatened rainforests, to prevent the airline from just transferring its impact from the oilfields beneath the rainforest to the trees that previously covered the land.
Ecosystems at a Tipping Point
Indigenous leaders and their allies at Stand stressed the severe impacts their communities are facing.
“Oil drilling in our Amazon has brought contamination, disease, deforestation, destruction of our cultures, and the colonization of our territories,” said Waorani leader Nemo Andy Guiquita. “As our ancestors and science now affirm, we must keep fossil fuels in the ground, in accordance with the commitments of the Paris Agreement and at COP 26 in Glasgow.”
“The Amazonian territories and ecosystems that we have lived in harmony with for centuries are under dire threat. We are at a tipping point,” warned Gregorio Mirabal, executive coordinator of the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), in a Stand.earth release. “It’s now or never. We need to ensure protection of 80% of the Amazon rainforest before 2025 or we risk planetary peril. No one knows how to better protect these forests than we do, and the world should support and follow our lead.”
Governor Gavin Newsom “is making strides on curbing oil and gas expansion inside California’s borders, which is important and only one part of the puzzle,” added Stand.earth Executive Director Todd Paglia. “The next step must be to quickly reduce and then eliminate importing oil from the Amazon rainforest and to prioritize eliminating oil now from any supplier that is expanding oil production, something that is completely incompatible with a climate-safe world.”
A ‘Constitutional Obligation’ to Protect Nature
Stand and Amazon Watch say Ecuador President Guillermo Lasso plans to double his country’s oil production. But the decision Wednesday by the Constitutional Court of Ecuador might stand in the way. The magistrates prohibited mining in the Los Cedros Protected Forest on grounds that it violated the country’s constitutional protection for the rights of nature.
The ruling was triggered “by the issuance of mining permits that would harm the biodiversity of the forest, including species at high risk of extinction and fragile ecosystems,” writes the Spokane, Washington-based Center for Democratic and Environmental Resources (CDER). “To enforce the ruling, the Court ruled that the governmental authorizations granted to mining corporations to operate in Los Cedros are revoked.”
The release refers to Article 73 of the Ecuadoran constitution, which requires precautionary and restrictive measures to prevent species extinction. CDER adds that the court applied its ruling to the whole country, not just designated protected areas.
“Article 73 also establishes a duty of the State by indicating imperatively that precautionary and restrictive measures apply. It is not an option, but a constitutional obligation derived from the intrinsic value of nature,” the court ruled. “Indeed, the risk in this case is not necessarily related to human beings… but to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems, or the permanent alteration of natural cycles.”
The case sets a precedent for threatened forests and species beyond the Los Cedros case, with the court stating clearly “that the rights of nature applies across the country of Ecuador, as do all constitutional rights within Ecuador’s constitution,” CDER Executive Director Mari Margil told The Energy Mix in an email.
“It would not be logical to state that the rights of nature, the right to water, and the human right to a healthy and balanced environment are valid only in protected areas,” the ruling stated. “On the contrary, the obligations of protection of these rights apply to public authorities throughout the national territory and must be analyzed in accordance with the Constitution and infra-constitutional regulations to authorize, restrict, or regulate such extractive activities.”
Carlos Mazabanda, Amazon Watch’s Ecuador field coordinator, agreed that the ruling “contains mandatory standards for the government,” at a moment when Ecuador wants to expand oil and mineral extraction “precisely in areas that constitute the best-preserved tropical forests in the country, and that are home to Indigenous peoples.” He added that the court’s concern about “serious and irreversible damage” to nature, water, environment, and health “could have consequences for future oil exploration plans in the Amazon if it is fully complied with,” since “the serious effects that oil activity has had on the environment are widely documented.”
The court decision would have produced a moment of celebration and joy for Canadian filmmaker and environmental visionary Silver Donald Cameron, whose Green Interview series included segments with Ecuadoran economist Alberto Acosta, a former energy and mining minister who led the fight to enshrine the rights of nature in his country’s constitution, and CDER’s Mari Margil.