Our fight against extreme fossil fuels and the threat of Canadian tar sands flooding into Bay Area refineries has been a long uphill battle, with much of it centered in the airless hearing rooms of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). What happens there will determine whether the Bay Area becomes a major tar sands refining and export hub. This is a highly critical fight because—if anyone needs a reminder—converting crude oil derived from Alberta tar sands (also called bitumen) into useable oils and fuels takes so much additional energy that it is the most greenhouse-gas-intensive fossil fuel around.
Bitumen is a form of petroleum so dense that it has to be mined, rather than drilled, and then diluted with lighter, more flammable and explosive oils so it can be transported as diluted bitumen, or “dilbit.” Heavy tar sands oil starts with greater amounts of toxic heavy metals like nickel and lead, as well as higher levels of corrosive sulfur. (The Chemical Safety Board concluded that high sulfur levels caused the severe corrosion of refinery piping that led to the 2012 Richmond Chevron fire.) Tar sands refining leaves behind enormous poisonous piles of “petcoke,” the only fossil fuel even dirtier than coal. All the energy involved in the extra processing required to turn tar sands into a useful fuel, along with the dangers of storing and transporting it, make it one of the greatest threats to the daily health and safety of our local communities and the long-term protection of our climate.
The public agency dedicated to protecting Bay Area air quality is the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. In the wake of the Chevron fire, BAAQMD proposed a set of refinery regulations that would monitor refinery emissions and require further health studies, but only weakly regulate the effects of rising toxic emissions. In response, a broad coalition including the Sunflower Alliance, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, the California Nurses Association, Sierra Club and 350 Bay Area, demanded real protection in the form of an enforceable, refinery-wide numerical cap on toxic and greenhouse gas emissions. (The Refinery Action Collaborative, including the United Steel Workers, Natural Resources Defense Council, Communities for a Better Environment and others had actually been pushing for such regulation for four years.) Refineries would not be able to increase their use of tar sands oil if they were not allowed to increase these emissions. So these caps, in addition to protecting local communities, would make it impossible to use the Bay Area as a major outlet for tar sands oil.
The initial response of BAAQMD staff was to reject the enforceable limits laid out in the Community-Worker Proposal as “legally indefensible.” They also claimed local caps on greenhouse gas emissions would conflict with California’s statewide greenhouse gas Cap-and-Trade Program. And they brought in the leadership of the California Air Resource Board (CARB) to issue an opinion at BAAQMD hearings, backing them up. We strongly disagreed, and provided extensive documentation proving these claims were wrong.
After over a year of organizing, flooding BAAQMD hearings, and lobbying the elected officials who make up the Air District’s Board of Directors, we thought we might be making actual progress. At last December’s Board of Directors meeting, in response to demands from our community allies on the Board, BAAQMD Executive Director Jack Broadbent committed to having a new emission-regulation rule ready “in the second quarter of 2016.” He also commented: “You’ve heard from . . . the environmental community asking for us to put in a rule that would have numerical caps. We’ve gone on record indicating there are some significant legal challenges on that. Nevertheless we think it makes sense for us to . . . develop a proposal with the input of the environmental community . . . that addresses what their concerns are and goes far enough with regard to capping the facilities that also we believe is legally defensible.” Did that mean he was willing to impose caps? Hard to tell. But it certainly sounded like he was willing to move in that direction. After that meeting, CBE began to meet with BAAQMD staff to discuss the technical details of crafting an option that included our proposed emission caps.
Then at the February Stationary Source meeting, BAAQMD staff abruptly announced it was delaying the promised “second quarter” report until December 2016. In response, CBE invited a broader group of organizations to its meetings with BAAQMD staff to demonstrate common opposition to this delaying tactic, the most recent in a long line of similar maneuvers.
On March 29th, representatives of APEN, CBE, Sunflower Alliance and the Sierra Club held a contentious meeting with BAAQMD leadership. Here we learned that Staff now had a “different understanding” of their commitments, and that BAAQMD had returned to its original insistence that refinery emission caps were “legally indefensible.” Staff members could not present any actual reasoning for this reversal, admitting they had not even bothered to finish analyzing our technical explanations of why these caps would be legal. As we continued to enter deeper into Alice in Wonderland territory, they also completely reversed their earlier opposition to regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Now they wished to make the refinery emissions rules focus solely on greenhouse gas emissions!
Equally amazing was the announcement that they were also dropping their plans to regulate the toxic emissions that have been causing higher rates of lung disease, asthma, heart disease, cancer and other serious health conditions in frontline refinery communities. While BAAQMD regulations have succeeded in greatly reducing health problems such as smog, they have by their own admission been very ineffective in dealing with threats like the emission of very fine, extremely small particles, which are greatly increased in tar sands refining. Particulate matter (or PM2.5, which refers to the size of particles) carries toxic materials very deep into the lungs, where they can be trapped for years causing serious health havoc. Why the sudden retreat from regulating toxics?
In place of our numerical emissions limits, Staff proposed presenting a “concept paper” in May, describing two “alternative” paths. One would set energy efficiency standards for refineries. This would mean they could only emit X amount of greenhouse gas for every ton of crude oil they refine. If refineries didn’t meet these efficiency standards, then regulators would require them to reduce greenhouse gases to a certain level. The second path would be a case-by-case analysis of greenhouse gas emissions reduction for each component of the refinery.
This may sound reasonable, but setting efficiency standards would require the refineries to tell the Air District how many tons of crude oil they are processing (their “throughput”). Most refineries, however, claim this information is a trade secret so they are not required to disclose it. Not only is BAAQMD unwilling to push for more information, but it also refuses to release the throughput data it already has. This means it’s impossible to set standards for increasing efficiency, since there’s no way to know their current efficiency level. It also makes it harder for us to defend the proposed emission limits in our proposal, since we had to rely on limited publicly available data for past refinery throughput levels.
Of course, it is likely that this is the BAAQMD staff’s intent. If it’s impossible to set refinery-wide standards for reducing emissions, BAAQMD could then return to its technocratic comfort zone—analyzing one refinery component at a time and setting one rule at a time—with each rule taking years to develop and implement. This will give refineries all the time they need to turn the Bay Area into the “Gas Station of the Pacific.” Since California’s demand for fossil fuels is declining, fossil fuel companies want to keep up their sales—and their profits—by turning the Bay into an export terminal. So the plan is to convert refineries to handle greater amounts of tar sands and fracked oil, take advantage of the new federal permission to export crude oil, and convert our ports in Oakland and Richmond to coal terminals. The result: we will export our toxic and greenhouse gas burdens overseas. Our communities will live with steadily rising threats of explosive bomb trains, oil and petcoke storage terminals, and ever more toxic transport and refining.
The events of the past year demonstrate that the appointed leadership of the BAAQMD staff has no desire to challenge or restrict these developments. It will take our own people power, an escalation of non-violent action against the refineries and the public agencies that enable them, to prevent this from happening. This means building much stronger, deeper and wider public networks, led by the frontline communities, to drive such a movement forward.
You can join us in this effort in Richmond, on April 21st, at the Richmond “Spare Our Air” forum, the first of a series of organizing meetings in the frontline communities. Only our collective organizing and action can protect the current and future health of our communities, and the planetary climate.