Ground-breaking pollution control rules for Bay Area refineries hit with 11th-hour changes
The Chevron refinery in Richmond, is one of five Bay Area refineries that would affected by a rule limiting greenhouse gases. (Contra Costa Times/Mark DuFrene)
SAN FRANCISCO — A first-of-its kind proposal to limit greenhouse gases from Bay Area oil refineries is hitting turbulence over 11th-hour changes that environmentalists say weaken or gut the controls.
As the clock ticks toward a Wednesday morning vote of a 22-member regional air board, top managers at the agency have released a revised proposal with larger limits for how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that five oil refineries will be allowed to emit annually.
Environmentalists said the increase amounts to 24.4 percent annual increase over a proposal discussed by the board a month ago, undermining the effectiveness of a precedent- setting rule and canceling pollution reductions that would have reduced health risks of living near refineries.
“It defeats the purpose of a cap if you make it so large that none of the refineries is ever going to reach it,” said Luis Amezcua, an executive committee member with the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter. “The really important thing is this proposal seems like its going to be the first in the nation or world, and it really sends the wrong message if you don’t have a cap that is effective.”
Top managers at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said the cap will be effective in preventing increases in greenhouse gas emissions if oil companies use dirtier crude oil supplies such as from the Canadian tar sands area.
“We believe the rule is being mischaracterized,” said Jack Broadbent, the air district executive director. “It’s going to ensure things don’t get worse. That’s an important first step in controlling greenhouse gas emissions.”
The air board is scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote on the emissions cap rule at its meeting 9:45 a.m. Wednesday in San Francisco.
The disagreement stems largely from a dispute as to how strictly the limits should be based on greenhouse gas emissions during a base period between 2011 and 2015.
Air district managers contend refineries should get larger limits to cover extra expected pollution from refinery units and equipment that has been approved by the air district and either not built or else built but not operated at full capacity.
Since refineries followed property procedures and got permits for the changes, Broadbent said, it’s appropriate that the air district get them credit for extra emissions. “They followed the rules,” he said.
“The air district is effectively saying the refineries have a vested right to pollute if they have a permit for equipment,” said Greg Karras, a senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment. “They don’t own the air. They don’t have a vested right to pollute.”
Karras accused the district of trying to stifle criticism of the rule revisions by not releasing them until late Friday on a summer afternoon only days before the vote. Last month, district managers made a similar last-minute change days before they decided to drop annual refinery caps for smog and soot-causing pollutants.
District officials denied they tried to limit dissent. They said the rule changes will make the emissions cap rule stronger and better able to withstand an expected legal challenge from the oil industry, which has sued the air district over five other refinery pollution rules adopted over the past two years.
“We went back and developed a rule that meets the spirit and intent of what the board directed,” Broadbent said.
The proposed rule would allow the Chevron refinery in Richmond to emit up to 5.4 million metric tons per year of greenhouse gas emissions, the Phillips 66 refinery to emit up to 3.2 million metric tons a year, Shell in Martinez to emit up to 4.56 million tons; Tesoro north of Concord up to 3.7 million metric tons, and Valero in Benicia to emit 4.4 million tons annually. All told, those annual emissions are 24.4 percent higher than the draft rule the board agreed to last month to bring to a vote on June 21.
Oil companies contend the rule would impose new costs on refineries, possibly limit production, and interfere with the state regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The California Air Resources, board, however, disagreed and said Bay Area limits would complement the state’s efforts to reduce global warming gases.