East Bay Residents Push for Tougher Refinery Regulations

Residents of Bay Area refinery towns greeted a new plan to regulate pollution from oil refineries with suspicion and anger last week. Staff of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District presented their proposed new plan, more than two years in the making, to community meetings in Benicia, Richmond, and Martinez.

“The anger was palatable,” wrote Benicia activist Katherine Black in an email after the first community meeting, in Benicia. “[The public] didn’t understand why there are loopholes in the proposed regulations, why there is currently inadequate air monitoring, why BAAQMD is not being more forceful in dictating rules to refineries, why they bend to industry pressures, and much more.”

Richmond and Martinez residents were no more pleased with the Air District’s proposed plan. “There’s been a community uprising across the refinery belt,” said Greg Karras, senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), who attended all three meetings.

The local Refinery Action Collaborative, including the United Steelworkers Union along with environmental, community, and academic organizations, has been pushing for tough regulations that would require refineries to reduce emissions of toxic chemicals 20 percent by 2020. Last fall, the Air District board directed staffers to develop rules that would prevent refineries from increasing emissions of chemicals that harm people’s health and the climate. The proposed rules would require refineries to conduct detailed reporting on crude oil they process and emissions they release, and to limit the increase of these emissions.

[jump] The “loopholes” Black mentioned are two exemptions from the rule that emissions shouldn’t increase. One exemption is for “greenhouse gases” — chemicals like carbon dioxide and methane that worsen climate change. In addition, refineries will be allowed to increase emissions of harmful chemicals if the increase is caused by an increase in the amount of crude oil they refine.

Karras said the proposed process for controlling emissions adds another big loophole: If a refinery reports that in the past year it has increased the amount of harmful pollutants it spews out, it gets two years after that to figure out how to get emissions back down. If emissions still exceed the limit, the refinery must do an audit, including a cost-benefit analysis, of what it would take to cut pollution to the permitted level.

“Meanwhile,” Karras said, “Bay Area refineries are proposing projects that involve refining tar sands oil [which generates more greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants]. They are making a potential multi-billion dollar commitment to new equipment geared to dirtier oil.” As a result, by two or three years down the road, when their first emissions-reduction plan could be due, a cost-benefit analysis will show that reducing emissions will be extremely costly. “This is reactive, rather than proactive,” Karras said. He argued it would be better to “do the analysis up front before adopting new projects.”

Environmental organizations protesting the proposed rules asked for a moratorium on approvals of new projects until the Air District rules on emissions were “properly revised, adopted and effective.” Instead, the same week as the community meetings, the Air District approved the Phillips 66 Rodeo refinery’s proposal for a new project, which CBE and other community groups say will bring tar sands oil to refineries in the Bay Area and along railroad tracks through bayside communities. Andres Soto of CBE said that approval was “a slap in the face” to environmental and community groups. CBE, along with the Rodeo Citizens Association, sued Contra Costa County for approving the Phillips 66 project with what they say was an inadequate environmental review.

The Phillips 66 project is one that CBE says will lead to refining tar sands oil, despite vigorous denials from Phillips 66 local management. (Phillips 66 CEO Greg Garland has often been quoted saying he plans to increase the use of oil from Canadian tar sands.) “There’s no longer any argument in the scientific community: refining dirtier oil increases emissions,” Karras said.

CBE, the Sierra Club, Idle No More, and other environmental organizations are also demanding that the Air District remove the exemptions that would allow greenhouse gases to increase and allow refineries to increase emission of harmful pollution if they increase the volume of crude oil they refine. The staff will bring the proposed rules to the Air District Board for a vote sometime later in the spring.

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