In recent years, oil corporations have intensified their push to make the San Francisco Bay Area and other areas of the West Coast into international hubs for refining and shipping of one of the world's most carbon-intensive and polluting fuel sources: the Canadian tar sands.
In April, that long-standing effort spilled into Santa Rosa mailboxes. Constituents of 3rd District supervisor Shirlee Zane received a letter, addressed to Zane herself, from a group called Bay Area Refinery Workers.
"As a member of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District," the letter read, "you'll soon vote on a proposal that will impact our jobs, our refineries and the important work we do refining the cleanest gasoline in the world."
It asked that Zane "please remember that the Bay Area refineries provide more good-paying union jobs than any private sector employer in the region."
Twelve refinery employees provided signatures, but the letter was produced and mailed by an organization called the Committee for Industrial Safety, which is bankrolled by the oil giants Chevron, Shell, Tesoro and Phillips 66. According to state and federal records, each corporation annually provides the group between $100,000 and $200,000 to advocate on their behalf.
The letter's apparent aim was to influence Zane's upcoming vote on a little-known but potentially far-reaching Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) regulation called Refinery Rule 12-16 that's aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emmissions. If enacted, the measure would make the BAAQMD the nation's first regional air district to go beyond state and federal mandates in regulating refinery GHG emissions, the pollutants that fuel global climate change.
Zane is one of the BAAQMD's 24 directors, along with elected officials from nine Bay Area counties extending from Santa Clara in the South Bay to Sonoma and Napa. They will determine the measure's fate at a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting later this year.
Staff members at BAAQMD have proposed four alternative forms of Refinery Rule 12-16. But only one has the support of a coalition of environmental groups and the unions that represent refinery employees: a quantitative limit, or cap, on GHGs.
Processing the tar sands would dramatically increase greenhouse gas pollution at the refineries under the BAAQMD's jurisdiction, and advocates from groups like Oakland's Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), an environmental justice organization, say an emissions cap would turn back what they call the "tar sands invasion" from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Critics warn that without the cap, the oil industry will continue pursuing new tar sands infrastructure on the West Coast at a frenetic pace. "We've seen them come at us at a 10 times faster rate in the last few years," says CBE senior scientist and refinery expert Greg Karras. "Up and down the refinery belt, refineries are retooling for the tar sands and creating infrastructure for export of refined tar sands products overseas."
Experts have warned of the effects of a significantly expanded production of the tar sands—a sticky mixture of sand, clay and bitumen trapped deep beneath Canada's boreal forest. It would lock in dramatic increases in global temperatures and result in devastating impacts to ecosystems and human societies throughout the globe. A 2015 report in the journal Nature found that trillions of dollars' worth of known and extractable coal, oil and gas reserves (including nearly all remaining tar sands and all Arctic oil and gas) should remain in the ground if global temperatures are to be kept under the safety threshold of 2 degrees centigrade that's been agreed to by the world's nations at the Paris climate summit last year.
In an ecologically minded region like the Bay Area, an emissions cap to stop a dramatic increase in regional tar sands production (and tar sands exports from local ports) might seem like a political no-brainer. But staff and some members of BAAQMD say they are concerned that GHG emissions averted in the Bay Area would simply occur somewhere else, since the oil industry would increase production elsewhere. Doing so would render Refinery Rule 12-16 ineffectual in curbing climate pollution because other regions might not be so attentive.
Karras and other advocates believe the opposite is true. The cap offers local elected officials a rare opportunity, they say, to make a significant contribution to heading off the catastrophic impacts of global warming.
The San Francisco Bay Area has been a core oil-refining area for over a century. In 1881, the Pacific Coast Oil Company opened California's first refinery on the island of Alameda. Pacific Coast Oil Company went on to become Chevron, rated by Forbes as the world's 16th wealthiest corporation.
In 2014, the Bay Area's five refineries, including Chevron's flagship Richmond facility, processed an average of 754,000 barrels of oil per day (45.5 percent of California's production total) into gasoline, jet fuel, propane and other products. California, in spite of its reputation as a haven for tree huggers, is the third leading oil producer among U.S. states, much of it exported to surrounding states.
The Bay Area refinery corridor in Contra Costa and Solano counties constitutes the country's second largest oil production center west of Houston. The largest is in Southern California, particularly the south Los Angeles areas of Wilmington and Carson, where the population is over 90 percent Latino, black, and Asian-Pacific Islander. Most people downwind of the Contra Costa and Solano refineries are also people of color.
As with the tar sands, some of California's petroleum sources—including the oil fields in Kern County—are much denser than more conventional, lighter forms of crude. California refineries have developed a unique capacity to refine heavy crudes.
A little over 8 percent of oil produced in the U.S. comes from the tar sands. Due to opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, however, the tar sands industry has been unable to expand its production in the Louisiana–Texas Gulf Coast. Without the pipeline, say industry experts, it's left to the West Coast to provide the infrastructure for the tar sands' specialized production requirements on a large scale.
"The tar sands are potentially very cheap, and a lot of refineries in California are already optimized to process it," says Joshua Axelrod, a policy analyst at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). Axelrod is a tar sands expert who co-authored a 2015 report called "West Coast Tar Sands Invasion."
Oil consumption in Central and Latin America is starting to outstrip production, another factor driving the tar sands industry's West Coast ambitions. California producers could make up the difference via shipments from nearby ports. The 2015 NRDC report concluded that West Coast tar sands refining could increase eightfold—from 100,000 barrels per day in 2013 to 800,000 over the next decade.
One argument in favor of the tar sands, repeated by most leaders of the Republican Party and some Democrats, is that greater tar sands production would wean the U.S. from oil sources in more politically hostile regions. Environmental advocates counter that the oil industry already receives more than $1.5 trillion in government subsidies, according to a 2015 International Monetary Fund study, that should instead be dedicated to low-carbon transportation and renewable energy.