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Vehicles stop to refuel at the Chevron gas station at the corner of Treat Blvd. and Oak Grove Road in Walnut Creek, Calif. on Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. Gas prices have risen in the past few days after a large fire damaged the No. 4 crude unit at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond earlier this week. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

As the people of Richmond were locked in their homes because of the noxious fumes caused by the Chevron refinery fire, consumers across California and beyond braced for the inevitable backlash at the pump.

Gas prices were on the rise even before the Chevron incident, when the Valero refinery in Benicia shut down after a compressor failed.

Price spikes due to maintenance at refineries in Martinez and Wilmington hit consumers hard earlier this year. The country's dependence on oil, coupled with the industry's refusal to make meaningful investments in alternative fuels, locks us into an ugly energy future.

Volatile, unpredictable fuel price shifts have become standard for Californians. According to a 2010 report by the Center for Resource Solutions, in collaboration with Energy Independence Now and the Environmental Defense Fund, crude oil prices have skyrocketed several times over the years -- each time followed by rapid increases in the price of gasoline.

Recall the furor in June 2008, when California gas prices reached an average of $4.59 per gallon. Our state is particularly vulnerable to sudden spikes, given the high demand for energy that comes from crude oil and natural gas. But because of landmark legislation passed in 2006, California -- more than any other state -- is best positioned to escape the grip of the oil industry.


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California's clean energy and climate law, AB 32, is poised to reduce the state's dependence on fossil fuels.

The same CRS study found that, "as a result of AB 32, for the year 2020, imports to meet California's demand for crude oil will fall by 75 million barrels (an 18 percent decrease) and California's demand for natural gas will fall by 10 percent compared to levels without AB 32 implementation."

That amounts to a reduction of more than $11 billion in California's 2020 import bill -- welcome relief given the state's budget deficit. But even during economic downturns, the oil industry continues to make billions on dirty fossil fuels, so it's no wonder that Big Oil has AB 32 in its cross hairs.

There is a realistic plan to cut California's oil consumption and dependence on unstable and unsafe fuel sources. California's investment in alternative fuels makes citizens less vulnerable to the public health problems caused by incidents like the Chevron fire, as well as protected against price manipulation at the pump.

And California voters continue to demonstrate that they want cleaner, greener energy.

They overwhelmingly defeated the oil industry-sponsored Proposition 23 in 2010, and a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 79 percent of Californians support requiring fuel providers to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels.

Clean, safe, renewable energy is good for California's economy and its citizens' health.

Oil companies already have the technology to produce cleaner fuels, but investment in those technologies is critical.

Companies must act responsibly and make the shift to cleaner technologies, which will pay off both in reduced direct costs for fuel and indirect costs for pollution-related illness.

The Chevron refinery fire is a blatant reminder of what's at stake if we -- the oil industry and consumers alike -- refuse to seize the moment.

Elisa Odabashian is director of the West Coast Office and State Campaigns for Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. Consumers Union works for telecommunications reform, health care reform, food and product safety, financial reform and other consumer issues.