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Crude Awakening

A new air district rule might prevent increased Canadian tar sands production at Bay Area refineries



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Growing public opposition has slowed the tar sands' entry into the U.S. in recent years, including the grassroots campaign largely responsible for convincing President Obama last year to veto the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would have carried tar sands crude from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Indigenous people in Western Canada have played a decisive role in delaying two pipelines through British Columbia that would enable large-scale shipments to Washington and California via tanker, barge and train.

In 2013, Valero announced its intention to bring large volumes of tar sands crude oil into Los Angeles and the Bay Area by rail, and applied for permits to the South Coast Air Quality Management District and BAAQMD. The pipeline proposals were already in limbo, so the company saw railway shipments—up to 70,000 barrels a day, according to the company's permit application—as an alternative. Both the Bay Area and Southern California air districts have granted the permits; the Benicia City Council is set to make a ruling on the Bay Area spur of the project sometime this year.

Phillips 66 already receives a small volume of tar sands via an elaborate delivery system that involves a railroad line to Bakersfield, truck deliveries to a pumping station and a pipeline extending between its refineries in Santa Maria and Rodeo, with the latter processing it into jet fuel. The company now proposes new Southern and Northern California rail projects that would bring a far greater quantity of tar sands to each facility.

Other possible projects include a Bakersfield rail hub that would bring tar sands crude to existing California pipelines and rail-to-ship projects in Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

A coalition of environmentalists and refinery employees have opposed the oil industry's push to refine dirtier fuels. The tar sands are a major focus in their efforts, along with Bakken shale oil from North Dakota and other U.S. sources. Among the organizations are the Bay Area chapter of, the Sierra Club, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Richmond Progressive Alliance, CBE and Steelworkers Union Local 5 —which represents 80 percent of the workers at three refineries.

‘You can either move and hope to get away from it, or you can try to fight back and try to help everybody’s lives,’ says Andrés Soto. - BROOKE ANDERSON
  • Brooke Anderson
  • ‘You can either move and hope to get away from it, or you can try to fight back and try to help everybody’s lives,’ says Andrés Soto.

While climate change impacts are a major focus of this opposition, these groups also oppose the threat that increased tar sands refining poses to public health. Oil refineries have imposed an especially large pollution burden on the low-income people and people of color who have been disproportionately forced, by historical and economic circumstance, to live alongside them.

The same combustion processes that release climate pollution also emit toxic effluents that cause cancer and neurological damage, as well as particulate matter that penetrates lungs and clogs arteries, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state and regional air districts have acknowledged.

In a conversation at a restaurant on San Pablo Avenue in southeast Richmond, CBE community organizer Andrés Soto, who has lived downwind of Chevron for most of his life, described his community's struggles with cancer, autoimmune disorders and other health problems, and linked local struggles to eliminate pollution to the broader climate-change fight.

"You can either move and hope to get away from it, or you can try to fight back and try to help everybody's lives," Soto says. "And I'm not just talking about fighting for people in Richmond or Benicia or Martinez. Because of global warming, I'm talking about the whole planet."

This merging of climate change and environmental-justice activism solidified following a 2012 episode when a crack in a steel pipe at Chevron's Richmond refinery caused a fireball to ignite inside the facility. Nineteen workers escaped with their lives. For several hours, the flame was visible throughout the Bay Area. A toxic plume spread over Richmond and San Pablo, and prompted 15,000 residents to seek medical treatment.

In response, the BAAQMD proposed a set of refinery regulations geared toward monitoring refinery emissions and requiring further health studies. By 2014, the BAAQMD board of directors unanimously passed a resolution directing staff to "prepare a strategy to achieve further emissions reductions from petroleum refineries which shall include as a goal a 20 percent reduction in refinery emissions, or as much emissions reductions as are feasible."

Three years after the Chevron fire, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board pinpointed managerial negligence as one cause. But the main factor was the refinery's reliance on oil with high sulfur content, which caused rapid corrosion of the pipe. The tar sands contain even more toxic metals and chemicals than Chevron's existing crude sources, as well as higher concentration of sulfur, the BAAQMD notes, and thus threaten more frequent spills, fires and explosions.

Frustrated by BAAQMD staff members' slow progress, numerous environmental groups demanded last year that the agency impose a refinery-wide numerical cap on particulate matter and greenhouse gases. The tar sands are more carbon-intensive and more toxic to refine than conventional crude. Tar sand bitumen is heavy and takes more energy than conventional crude to refine into usable products. The refining process also leaves behind large quantities of petcoke, the only fossil fuel the EPA regards as dirtier than coal.

The 2015 "Tar Sands Invasion" report noted that tar sands oil production causes about three times the carbon pollution of conventional crude, and that 800,000 barrels per day of the sticky substance—the amount the oil industry is pushing to bring to California in the next decade—equals the annual emissions of 33.7 million vehicles.

Meanwhile, existing BAAQMD regulations have reduced smog, but have failed to reduce emissions of very fine, extremely small particles, which are greatly increased in tar sands refining. Particulate matter is already causing an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 deaths in the Bay Area—it's the region's most lethal pollutant. Refineries are the largest industrial source of GHGs and particulate matter pollution alike, with refined products—namely, gas and diesel burned in vehicles—being the biggest source overall.

Yet BAAQMD staff declined to include the particulate matter emissions-cap proposal as part of Refinery Rule 12-16. Instead, they proposed four possible means of regulating GHG pollution: a refinery-wide emissions cap; limits on GHG emissions from specific pieces of refinery equipment; restricting refinery emissions of methane; and a two-pronged regulatory structure like the one in Washington state that requires refineries either to increase their energy efficiency or reduce GHG emissions by a set amount by 2025.

At a June 1 BAAQMD committee meeting in San Francisco, executive officer Jack Broadbent acknowledged that three of the measures would take years to study and implement. The only option that could happen quickly is a cap.

But Broadbent and other BAAQMD staff members were strongly critical of the cap idea and asserted that they had no legal authority to implement it. Staff member Eric Stevenson said in an interview that the biggest flaw in the emissions-cap proposal is that it would "cause production to go somewhere else to meet the demand in California, so that you don't end up achieving an overall reduction in emissions."

About 50 proponents of an emissions cap attended the meeting and several said the BAAQMD should adopt all four of the proposals. Some noted that the cap would be a first step in meeting the air district's long-range goal of reducing regional GHG emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Refineries are responsible for roughly 15 percent of Bay Area GHGs.

"It's really absurd, in the truest sense of the word, that these folks from communities alongside refineries have to be here to implore you to not allow emissions to be going up in an era of declining emissions, and given what the air district's job is," said Jed Holtzman of 350 Bay Area. "Preventing an increase is part of reducing. If you know you're going the wrong way, then arguing about how fast you're going, or whether you know everything you could about your tires, is not a smart move, and it's not what you're here for."

Greg Karras has also expressed frustration with BAAQMD staff and noted in an interview that their proposals are disconnected from the refineries' tar sands push. "We can cap refinery emissions immediately to prevent a tar sands invasion from increasing them irreversibly and take the first step toward deeper emission cuts later by setting an interim goal for significant partial cuts of 20 percent," he says. "It is unfortunate, to use a polite term, that BAAQMD staff has aligned with the oil industry in fighting us to overturn the board's direction with respect to that critical first step—the emission caps."

The danger in addressing the tar sands threat, he says, is that "the oil industry's push to rebuild for even dirtier tar sands oil could be locked into place for another generation if we fail to act now."

One episode that validates the BAAQMD's authority to impose the cap, proponents say, took place in 2014. California attorney general Kamala Harris joined Richmond residents and environmental organizations in sharply criticizing plans for an expansion of Chevron's Richmond refinery. Harris supported a greenhouse gas cap as a condition of the project's approval.

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