Chevron's Richmond refinery
Chevron’s Richmond refinery

For those concerned about climate change, all eyes are on California as it braces for the Trump era, particularly in the wake of Governor Jerry Brown’s fiery speech to the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco two weeks ago. Within the United States, California might be virtually alone when it comes to enacting and implementing policies to achieve deep greenhouse gas reductions in the next four years.

It is far from guaranteed that these policies will be progressive or adequate, however, partly because Brown himself remains deeply committed to big business-oriented GHG reduction strategies, activists say. Here are two stories that provide background: one and two.

In May, a group of 24 San Francisco Bay Area elected officeholders have a unique opportunity to help set climate policy in a stronger direction. They are scheduled to vote on whether to adopt the world’s first-ever restrictions on overall oil refinery greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, thus preventing increased regional processing of dirtier oils such as Canadian tar sands and Arctic crude.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s (BAAQMD) directors will vote on Refinery Rule 12-16, which would cap GHG emissions by the five massive oil refineries in Contra Costa and Solano counties. It would also cap emissions of particulate matter, which cause far more incidences of serious respiratory problems than any other regional pollutant.

“Despite what we’ve all been told about how well we’re protecting our environment, there are no limits on refinery-wide emissions in the Bay Area or anywhere else,” says Greg Karras, a senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and a leading refinery expert. CBE is part of a coalition of groups advocating for the caps.

The largest Bay Area newspapers, news web sites, and network TV stations have almost entirely ignored the caps proposal. I described it in articles I wrote earlier this year, here and here.

In this case, size matters. In 2014, the Bay Area’s refineries, such as Chevron’s flagship Richmond facility, processed an average of 754,000 barrels of oil per day into gasoline, jet fuel, propane and other products – 45.5 percent of California’s overall total. The Golden State, in spite of its reputation as a haven for environmentalists, is the third leading oil refiner among U.S. States, and exports much of that refined product exported to surrounding states.

Throughout most of the world, including the US, power plants are the largest “stationary” greenhouse gas emitters.  Not in California.  Oil refineries are the Golden State’s biggest stationary polluters.

“California is the largest oil refining center on the Pacific Coast of the Americas,” Karras says. “For the oil industry’s purposes, that makes it the biggest gas station for a quarter of the globe.”

The particulars of California history and geology likewise matter here. 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 petroleum sources are uniquely dense. In turn, California refineries have developed a unique technical capacity to process these heavier — more polluting — crudes.

A Canadian oil sands district
A Canadian oil sands district (photo courtesy of National Geographic)

Industry experts warn that the West Coast could become the largest refining market for the tar sands, which cause more climate pollution at all stages — from extraction to refining — than virtually any other fuel source.

“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, in a conversation with me earlier this year. Axelrod is a tar-sands expert who co-authored a 2015 report called the “West Coast Tar Sands Invasion.”

The tar sands also leave behind large quantities of petcoke, the only fossil fuel the Environmental Protection Agency regards as dirtier than coal, and contain high concentrations of toxic metals, chemicals, and sulfur, which corrodes pipes and could lead to more refinery explosions such as that in Richmond in 2012, local residents fear.

Tar sands extraction has also wrought devastating impacts on Canadian aboriginal people, who have suffered dramatic health impacts and thoroughgoing destruction of ancestral lands.

The Standing Rock struggle didn’t emerge in a vacuum. Indigenous people have been leading a large and spirited struggle against tar sands extraction and transmission for several years. An aim of the Bay Area emissions caps is to give their struggle a major assist, proponents say.

For its part, the oil industry has been fighting hard against the caps, and in unprecedented ways, as I partially overviewed in my previous stories.

In a statement to me last year, the Western States Petroleum Association’s Catherine Reheis-Boyd stated that a local refinery emissions cap would not achieve any net climate benefits, since it would push the emissions to some other region.

Refinery expert and CBE senior scientist Greg Karras (photo courtesy of Brooke Anderson)

To process the tar sands on a large scale, California refineries will still need to commit enormous capital to the construction of new equipment, which will have estimated lifespans of 30-50 years. California would become “locked in” as a hub of tar sands refining for decades if such equipment is permitted and constructed, Karras notes. But the refinery emissions caps would prevent that.

“California, including the Bay Area, is the place where the most advanced part of the oil industry is attempting to make the most extreme and sudden switch in oil supplies that will be permanent for the purposes of climate protection,” he says.

A 2015 report in the journal Nature found that trillions of dollars’ worth of known and extractable coal, oil, and gas reserves — including nearly all remaining tar sands and all Arctic oil and gas — must remain in the ground if global temperatures are to be kept under the safety threshold of 2 degrees centigrade, agreed to by the world’s nations.

“This is the crossroads,” Karras says. “It’s either the stoplight or the cliff.”

The fact that city councilmembers and county supervisors in the San Francisco Bay Area get to vote on whether to erect such a stoplight remains mostly unknown, even within the Bay Area, due to a lack of reporting on it.

I will continue to report on this story in the months to come. Stay tuned to this web site or sign up for my mailing list for announcements.

Historical footnote: The reasons California’s refineries are better equipped for the technical challenge of processing the tar sands than those elsewhere are historically rooted. The early-20th century saw a black gold rush centered in the Los Angeles Basin. From 1905-1930, LA’s oil district was the world’s biggest petroleum producer, supplying as much as 30 percent of the world’s oil.

Scholar Nancy Quam-Wickham has written excellent historical analyses of LA’s forgotten oil boom.

Due to the rampant overproduction that marked this previous era, the lighter and “sweeter” crude (to use an industry term) that came to the surface more willingly is long gone. Southern California producers are now extracting the hardest-to-mine, lowest-quality and most polluting stuff, using extreme methods such as hydro-fracking and well acidization.

In turn, California refineries have adapted their equipment and technical capacities to process bottom-of-the-barrel oil feedstock.

First-Ever Overall Limit on Oil Refinery Climate Pollution? The Bay Area Could Adopt It