Now that President Barack Obama has blocked construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Bay Area has emerged as a new battleground in the struggle to keep dirty tar sands oil in the ground — a goal that scientists say is critical to avoiding a climate change catastrophe. In fact, even before the defeat of the Keystone XL, Canadian oil investors — desperate to get their landlocked crude to market — were already planning an "invasion" of tar sands oil to the West Coast, according to a report issued last spring by the Natural Resources Defense Council. And local environmentalists are concerned that this invasion will occur at refineries in the Bay Area, including three in the East Bay: the Chevron refinery in Richmond, the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo, and the Tesoro refinery in Martinez. Environmentalists are also worried about the Valero refinery in Benicia.
A coalition of community, labor, and environmental groups is hoping to block the invasion by convincing local regulators to establish strict regulations on pollution from these oil refineries. But staffers for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which is in charge of enacting such regulations, have instead put forward proposed rules for regulating refinery emissions that the coalition says are far too weak and time-consuming, and thus would in effect give the tar sands invasion a greenlight in the region.
The stakes are enormous. Refining oil from tar sands, compared to conventional crude oil, not only produces three times the amount of "greenhouse gases" that cause climate change but also much more of the pollution that makes refinery neighbors sick.
If the Bay Area can keep tar sands out, it will form another link in the "thin green line" against extra-dirty fossil fuel — tar sands oil and coal — on the West Coast. In Canada, First Nations indigenous people have so far stalled plans to build two pipelines to carry tar sands oil to the coast. And community protests defeated three projects to ship coal from ports in the state of Washington. Then last month, Canada's new liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau, announced a moratorium on oil shipments from northern British Columbia. In addition, earlier this fall, the City of Portland banned new oil, coal, and gas projects. Plus, East Bay residents have been fighting to keep coal out of Oakland.
Currently, cheap Saudi crude oil that has been flooding the global market is temporarily slowing tar sands sales worldwide. But a June report from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said they are still planning for "a strong and growing demand for Canadian oil in Washington, California, Asia, and Europe."
"Bay Area refineries are closest to being able to handle tar sands crude," said Greg Karras, senior scientist for the Oakland-based Communities for a Better Environment (CBE). That's because the region's refineries are already geared toward refining heavy, dirty California oil, which refineries in Asia are not equipped to process. So, Karras said, the Bay Area could become "the gas station of the Pacific Rim."
Karras contends that the current low price of crude oil is a "blip" and will not hold back the tar sands invasion for long. "When you get to the dregs of any non-renewable resource, the price is more volatile," he noted. Some members of the Refinery Action Collaborative (RAC), the community-labor-environmental coalition fighting pollution from refineries, call their current campaign "Keystone 2.0"
For his part, Jack Broadbent, executive director of the air district, has asserted that the proposed regulations on Bay Area refineries would impose "the most stringent [pollution] reductions we believe are possible" — a claim that environmentalists strongly criticize.
The RAC, the air district, and representatives of the oil industry have been wrangling over the proposed rules for three years. The showdown was supposed to occur next week, on December 16, when the board would finally vote on the plans. But last week, after a contentious hearing lasting more than four hours, the air district decided to postpone the vote.
In that meeting, Karras charged that the proposals would cause "imminent and irreversible harm" by allowing refineries to import tar sands oil.
But Gregory Nudd, air quality program manager, said that while he agreed that the refineries' old sources of crude oil are drying up, he said, "We don't think that necessarily means tar sands. There's North Dakota, Iraq ... it will be based on market conditions at the time."
But a report that CBE submitted last month to the air district cited the Canadian petroleum producers' plans for the West Coast as well as statements from Tesoro, Valero, and Phillips 66 about their intention to use tar sands oil. Chevron owns a 20-percent interest in a major Canadian tar sands project, according to its website.
Eric Stevenson, air district director of technical projects, said in an interview that the proposed rules would be the strictest in the nation — monitoring pollution more closely and requiring refineries to meet more stringent health standards than anywhere else.
But Karras said increased pollution from tar sands oil would slip through these proposed rules. His technical studies of projects at local refineries, he said, show they're already getting ready for tar sands crude. "This capital investment will lock in the infrastructure for tar sands for decades," Karras added. The projects, he said, will be up and running before the process spelled out in the rules is completed.
CBE's comments identified other problems: The regulations rely on refineries' own reports of pollution data, and they exclude emissions from accidents or transporting fuel. In addition, some very harmful contaminants are not currently tracked, including "ultra fine particulate matter" — tiny particles that embed in lungs and organs, causing respiratory and other illnesses. And refineries can exceed limits if fixing the problem would not be "cost-effective."
The RAC submitted its own proposal last March, calling on the air district to cap the amount of pollution at each refinery to what it is producing now. Yet despite repeated requests from air district board members, air district staffers have so far failed to submit a report analyzing this proposal.
Air district managers contend that they don't have the legal authority to impose such caps. Basing caps on average emissions in the last three years, as CBE suggested, is "arbitrary," said Stevenson. "There's nothing that ties it to any air-quality standard." Stevenson said that because refineries usually produce less pollution than their permit allows, a cap at current levels would lower the amount they could emit "without a scientific rationale."
But CBE lawyer Roger Lin countered that "there's no vested right to pollute. A cap based on actual emissions is a simple, cheap, and reasonable solution to the problem of higher emissions from refining lower-quality oil." Andres Soto of CBE added, "Public health focuses on prevention. Our proposal gets at that."
But after the November 30 meeting, the future of Bay Area refinery regulation is unclear. Broadbent convinced the board to postpone a vote, saying, "Staff wants time to further consider what we've heard today," including objections from refinery representatives as well as the community coalition. He estimated that the rule on emissions monitoring would be ready for a vote in the next few months but gave no timeline for the rule on emissions limits.
"Meanwhile there are no refinery-wide limits," said Karras after the meeting. "Are they going to propose to set them by X date or give up on them?"
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