Dredging the Carquinez to Accommodate Oil 

The Army Corps is deepening shipping channels to allow tankers access. The agency says it will clear the air. Environmentalists don't agree.

click to enlarge The dredging will deepen a 13-mile stretch from San Pablo Bay to the four refineries along the Carquinez Strait.

Photo courtesy USGS

The dredging will deepen a 13-mile stretch from San Pablo Bay to the four refineries along the Carquinez Strait.

The federal government is preparing to deepen the shipping channels that serve four of the Bay Area's five oil refineries. Because the channels are too shallow to accommodate fully loaded modern oil tankers, those ships travel to and from refineries only partly loaded, and sometimes wait for high tides before sailing. By reducing the number and duration of those trips, the project is likely to reduce diesel emissions affecting the already-polluted refinery communities along the Carquinez Strait. But environmentalists view it as a move to subsidize and expand oil production at a time when the future depends on ending the use of fossil fuels. And they predict it will actually increase air pollution by enabling an expansion of refinery production.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is gearing up to start the project, first authorized by Congress in 1965 and funded in 2012. The Army Corps currently maintains a 35-foot-deep shipping channel down the middle of the strait. The plan is to deepen it to 37 or 38 feet along a 13-mile stretch from the Bay to the refineries, three of which lie in northern Contra Costa County and one across the strait in Benicia.

That the project will primarily benefit the oil industry is not disputed. "The channels in the study area primarily serve crude oil imports and refined product exports to and from several oil refineries and two non-petroleum industries," according to the Environment Impact Statement issued by the Army Corps in April. "Petroleum is the big economic driver" of the project, agreed project contact person Stu Townsley. Indeed, the Western States Petroleum Association is one partner in the project.

The Army Corps says deepening the channels will save between $7.6 and $11.3 million a year in shipping costs, savings that could be passed on to consumers. A comment letter on the project from the Center for Biological Diversity, Communities for a Better Environment, the Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations says, "In essence, the public is subsidizing the oil industry to ensure greater profit for private corporations."

However, the Army Corps also argues that the project will provide environmental benefits. Agency economist Caitlin Bryant said her forecast predicts that the same volume of oil will be shipped with or without the project. If the ships involved are fully loaded, it will take fewer vessel trips to handle the same amount of oil, and tankers no longer will have to idle offshore waiting for high tide. Fewer trips and less idling time will mean less diesel pollution.

The project will mainly benefit shipping in a type of vessel called a Panamax. The Army Corps predicts that as the volume of petroleum shipping increases, the number of Panamax "ship calls per year" will increase. But by dredging, they can reduce the size of the increase. The Army Corps projects that the project will result in about 11 percent fewer Panamax trips in the Carquinez Strait in 2023, the first year the project will be completed, 10 percent fewer in 2030, and about 8 percent fewer in 2040, with corresponding decreases in the level of air pollution they contribute to the already-high levels of pollution in refinery communities.

But environmentalists worry that the project will enable greater volumes of oil imports and exports by "debottlenecking" shipping. The environmental groups challenged Bryant's forecast in their letter. They pointed out that Richmond's Chevron refinery, the only one now able to handle fully loaded tankers, is operating at 99.7 percent of capacity, while the other refineries operate at only 91.3 percent. Removing the shipping bottleneck would make it easy for the other refineries to step up production, the groups claim. And they argue that increasing oil production will not only worsen climate change but increase local air pollution, outweighing the benefits of reducing the number of tanker trips.

Critics see the project as part of a larger trend to increase oil shipping and refining in the Bay Area. "The refineries are importing more oil to make products for export, polluting all the way," said Greg Karras of Communities for a Better Environment. Exports from Bay Area oil refineries "have increased in lockstep with the decrease in domestic oil demand," as refineries seek new markets. The Bay Area, Karras said, is becoming "the gas station of the Pacific Rim."

Sunflower Alliance, along with Stand.earth, the Rodeo Citizens Association, the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, Idle No More SF Bay, Communities for a Better Environment, and Crockett Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (CRUDE), have launched a petition campaign against the dredging project. They had already joined together as the Protect the Bay Coalition to fight a proposal by Phillips 66, to increase the amount of oil shipped to and from its Rodeo refinery. "It's troubling that this project, stalled since 1965, is going forward just after P66 requested a permit to triple oil tanker deliveries to its wharf," said Shoshana Wechsler of the Sunflower Alliance. "Is the Army Corps of Engineers trying to facilitate increased tar sands refining at P66?"

Because it's likely that future imports will increasingly come from tar sands, oil spills, which inevitably occur, would be more destructive. Tar sands crude oil is so heavy that it sinks when spilled in a body of water. Unlike lighter oil, it can't be cleaned up by conventional "skimming" methods and remains on the bottom, leaching toxic chemicals. The amount of tar sands crude oil traveling to the west coast of Canada is expected to triple soon. Owners of the planned Trans Mountain Pipeline just announced they're about to re-start construction on the project, after delays caused by protests from indigenous tribes and environmental organizations. When the tar sands crude arrives at the coast, it will be shipped to refineries in the United States — including California — as well as to Asia. Bay Area refineries have already been gearing up to process this heavier, dirtier crude oil.

Community groups also worry about harm the project could cause to the local marine environment. Even with no increase in the volume of oil shipped, the Army Corps predicts an increase in the use of larger ships. Environmentalists say larger ships go faster, which increases noise in the underwater environment as well as the likelihood of "ship strikes" on marine mammals. An increase in shipping would amplify those problems.

Environmental groups also charge that the Environmental Impact Statement underestimates the harm that would be caused by the dredging itself — both from the initial channel project and the subsequent annual maintenance that will be required. An earlier report from the Army Corps acknowledged that current ship traffic and maintenance dredging already stress the endangered Delta smelt. Noise associated with the dredging would also stress sturgeon, salmon and trout, and marine mammals.

The stirred-up sediment mixes with the water, changing its temperature and chemical makeup in ways that harm fish populations. The Army Corps describes plans to minimize these impacts, including the use of less-damaging dredging equipment and limiting dredging to times of the year when it would cause the least harm to wildlife. The environmental groups say these assurances are not adequate because dredging at the planned times could still harm smelt and salmon, and because the Army Corps says it will use these methods when "practicable" — which environmentalists see as a significant loophole.

And they warn that dredging could stir up heavy metals and other toxic pollutants now settled in the floor of the channel. Townsley of the Army Corps of Engineers responded that the Corps does some routine dredging every year. "The process includes rigorous sediment testing," he said, and "it has not identified challenges with the cleanliness of the dredged material in the channel." The environmentalists say they should also test the water before approving the project.

Environmentalists also raise questions about the recent decision to limit the dredging project to a 13-mile stretch mostly west of Martinez, rather than continuing it to the port of Stockton, as originally envisioned. They suspect that the project stops where it does because going farther inland would worsen an already serious environmental problem: increasing the concentration of salt in the Delta. They say the corps is illegally "piecemealing" the project — doing an environmental study of just one part so as not to acknowledge the harm the full project would cause.

Sea-level rise and diversion of water to Central Valley agriculture are already making Delta water saltier. Large amounts of fresh water are being pumped in to keep the salt level down, but if it continues to increase, it will threaten agriculture and every other aspect of the Delta ecosystem. The Army Corps of Engineers acknowledges that this is a serious issue for the dredging project. It will be a factor in the decision about whether to deepen the shipping channel to 37 feet or 38 feet. Deeper dredging would save the oil industry more money but allow more salt upstream.

The Environmental Impact Statement says planners limited the project to the western section because that's where it's currently needed. Dredging the first 13-mile stretch is "more appropriate for the immediate problems facing existing vessels." The dredging is planned to go just past the eastern-most refinery in Martinez.

Townsley of the Army Corps said the "rescoping was based on a number of factors, not just environmental." A large part of the motivation for the project, he said, is the "national economic interest — why taxpayers in Kansas would find some value in it." He said planners evaluated whether the stretch farther east has "enough maritime commerce to justify" the expense. He said it was "close to being a positive" but was rejected because of "the complexity of the study — other factors."

The Port of Stockton is the official "nonfederal sponsor" of the project because the original plan was to deepen the channel all the way to Stockton. Spokesperson Jeff Wingfield said the port hopes the eastern phase will be completed next. That raises another fear in the environmental community. Stockton doesn't ship petroleum, but it does export coal — and it can't get big ships fully loaded with coal down the Carquinez Strait. Environmental and community groups fighting coal exports in Richmond — and potential coal exports in Oakland — fear shipments of coal will increase if shipping channels are deepened to Stockton.

Finally, project opponents charge that the Army Corps of Engineers has not consulted enough with the community in developing the project. They say an initial community hearing in June was poorly publicized. They also point out that Corps staff members who wrote the Environmental Impact Statement are based in Florida. They say work on the project should be done by local people who know the area and can consult with the community.

Townsley responded that developing the project was "a team effort" in which "local people were well represented." It's Corps policy to "get expertise wherever we can," he said, "but we make sure we have people who understand the local conditions."

The public comment period on the Environmental Impact Statement has officially closed, but project opponents attended an Army Corps of Engineering hearing on a related topic in July and demanded more opportunity for public input on the dredging project. Afterwards spokespeople for the project said that although the official public comment period has closed "the Corps maintains an email address at SFBaytoStockton@usace.army.mil for comments related to this action. Responses to comments received through September 2019 will be included in the Final Report." 

Townsley said the Army Corps "goes through a fairly rigorous process of coordinating with other agencies and collecting comments." All the comments and letters on this project show "exactly the way the system is supposed to work." He added that the Army Corps plans to hold another public hearing on the dredging project, probably in late September or early October. The final report is expected after the first of the year.

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