Stopping a Climate Change and Pollution Nightmare in the East Bay 

Tar sands is the oil industry’s newest threat. Local activists want to put limits on refinery emissions to halt this dense and dangerous crude from coming to the Bay. But are the regional air district and state government on board?

Illustration by Jonathan Buck

George Baker

Illustration by Jonathan Buck

While growing up in San Pablo during the 1960s, Andres Soto would wander to an area of his neighborhood that overlooked Richmond's oil refinery: a colossal system of pipes, towers, and smokestacks perched on a peninsula of low hills rising from the Bay. He could see a pulsating light in the night sky, and also a towering flame streaming from the refinery stacks like a fiery monster. The oil giant, now called Chevron, was burning off unwanted chemicals that accumulate from processing crude petroleum into gasoline and other products — a practice called "flaring." For days afterward, heavy black smoke blanketed Soto's hometown.

Health problems have plagued Soto and his family. His youngest brother succumbed to brain cancer at the age of three. His other brother developed tongue cancer in his thirties, despite having abstained from smoking and heavy drinking. Soto and his two sisters suffer from adult-onset psoriasis, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the skin's surface. The condition also beset their parents.

"Can I prove in a court of law that Chevron caused our health problems?" Soto asked. "Probably not. But I know what we've experienced."

Today, Soto is an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental-justice organization at the forefront of the fight against the California oil industry. Since 2013, oil corporations have intensified a push to bring more polluting fuel sources to the Bay Area and other West Coast oil-production centers, in particular hydro-fracked Bakken shale oil from the Dakotas and Montana, and the Canadian tar sands, a sticky mixture of sand, clay, and bitumen trapped deep beneath Canada's boreal forest.

Numerous experts have cautioned that greenhouse-gas emissions, or GHGs, from expanded tar-sands production would lock in dramatic increases in global temperatures — with devastating impacts to ecosystems and communities both here in the East Bay and globally.

"California has become the biggest and most important battleground in the tar-sands fight," observed CBE senior scientist and longtime refinery expert Greg Karras.

Increased tar-sands production would spike local refineries' emissions of the heat-trapping chemicals that fuel climate change. It also would release greater quantities of pollutants into the predominantly low-income communities of color immediately downwind of the five refineries in Contra Costa and Solano counties. Already, oil processing is the Bay Area's largest industrial source of toxic contamination and lung-penetrating particulate matter, making it a major cause of asthma, cancers, and other maladies.

As a means of preventing a so-called "West Coast tar sands invasion," CBE and a coalition of other local groups have proposed that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District quickly impose quantitative limits, or "caps," on regional refinery emissions of GHG, toxins, and ultra-fine particulate matter.

But officials at BAAQMD and the California Air Resources Board have opposed these blanket caps, saying the plan would simply push GHG emissions to other parts of California. They have even said the caps would interfere with the state's effort to combat global climate change, through its cap-and-trade program — a stance shared by the oil industry.

Soto, Karras, and other advocates assert the opposite. They say the refinery caps are a necessary means to protect local residents and refinery workers, and also to head off the catastrophic impacts of global warming.

The stakes are high. "If the tar sands proceed on the scale the industry intends globally, you can kiss the climate good-bye," Karras said.

A Tar Sands Invasion?

The Bay Area has been a major oil-refining region for more than a century. In 1881, the Pacific Coast Oil Company opened California's first refinery on the island of Alameda. The company went on to become Chevron, rated by Forbes as the world's sixteenth 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, or 45.5 percent of California's total production, into gasoline, jet fuel, propane, and other products. The Golden State, in spite of its reputation as a haven for environmentalism, is the third-leading oil producer in the United States, much of it exported to surrounding states.

Today, a little more than 8 percent of oil produced in this country 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 for several years.

Meanwhile, some of California's main petroleum sources — including the oil fields in Kern County and on Alaska's north slope — are in decline. Similar to the tar sands, many of these existing crudes are uniquely dense. In turn, California refineries have developed a unique technical capacity to process heavier crudes.

Industry experts have said it may be up to the West Coast to provide the refining infrastructure to handle the tar sands' specialized production requirements on a significantly increased scale.

"The tar sands are potentially very cheap, and a lot of refineries in California and Washington are already optimized to process it," explained Joshua Axelrod, a policy analyst at the Natural Resource Defense Council. Axelrod is a tar-sands expert who co-authored a 2015 report called the "West Coast Tar Sands Invasion."

But tar-sands bitumen causes more climate pollution at all stages, from extraction to refining, than virtually any other fuel source. It requires enormous levels of energy to process into usable products. It also leaves behind large quantities of petcoke, the only fossil fuel the Environmental Protection Agency regards as dirtier than coal.


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