[Check out my new story in East Bay Monthly…]

California is one of the world’s most important political arenas for climate change policy. In contrast to the Trump administration, which has begun to dismantle the federal government’s existing climate change regulations, California officials are plotting out how to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to 1990 levels by 2030 and have established cooperative programs with countries and states throughout the world to reduce atmospheric pollution.

California is also home to a massive oil industry, which has waged a multi-faceted campaign that includes lobbying, arm-twisting, and record levels of election campaign spending to soften state and regional climate programs as much as possible.

In particular, California is a major hub of oil refining (along with a large oil extraction sector). Other than Louisiana and Texas, no US state processes more oil into gasoline, diesel, propane, or other petroleum products. Moreover, California’s oil refining sector actually probably releases more greenhouse gases on a proportionate basis than any other major regional oil refining sector on planet earth.

That’s according to Communities for a Better Environment Senior Scientist Greg Karras, who has studied oil refinery pollution emissions, including for a 2010 article in peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology. I talked to him extensively for my new story in East Bay Monthly called “Stopping a Tar Sands Invasion.”>>

“The liquid fossil fuel spectrum is enormous, but we’re taught to think of it all as ‘petroleum,'” Karras notes. One type of crude oil can have the consistency of olive oil, while another flows like cold molasses. Almost all of what remains in California’s major producing regions, like Kern County (which are in terminal decline, barring some new technological breakthrough), fall into the latter category.

On a proportionate basis, California refineries have a greater heavy oil (ie, the sludgy, molasses-like stuff) refining capacity than those in any other major refinery region.  In fact, if California and Washington were part of a region that split off from the rest of the country, it would have a greater capacity to process heavy crude oils than any other nation in the world except the United States, as data from the Oil and Gas Journal illustrates.

Chevron’s Richmond refinery

Pollution levels from oil processing are a function of the oil’s quality, and high-density oil is the biggest driver of increased emissions, which explains much of why California’s refinery sector’s emissions “intensity” is off the charts, Karras says.

In Karras’ 2010 study, he found that refineries in the West Coast (known by the Energy Information Administration as US “Petroleum Administration Defense District 5”) have the highest carbon emissions intensity of any refining region he studied, and that California refineries have a greater emissions intensity than those elsewhere on the West Coast (namely, in Washington).

The main reason California’s refineries have come to process such a heavy oil slate, as I explore in the East Bay Monthly feature, is a political economy that historically has rewarded uniquely unbridled oil extraction. In the Golden State, oil companies have exhausted the supply of higher-quality, lighter crude proportionately faster than those in other major producing regions across planet earth.

This 1937 photo shows a forest of oil derricks on Long Beach’s Signal Hill.

In the 1920s, California provided 20 to 25 percent of global oil production—a proportion roughly equivalent to that of Saudi Arabia today. The Golden State’s oil industry was centered in the Los Angeles Basin, and the  black gold rush there fueled enormous fortunes and contributed greatly to California’s rise as a global economic powerhouse.

“Oil production propelled Los Angeles into full participation in a global economy,” said Cal State Long Beach history department chair Nancy Quam-Wickham. “The Port of Los Angeles expanded exponentially to handle oil exports, primarily to the eastern U.S. and to Asia, and the Imperial Japanese military owed its capacities to cheap California oil.”

Oil companies could not make gasoline and diesel from denser oils—or get those oils out of the earth—until they invented and deployed new technologies that had not previously existed anywhere else in the world. The most significant mid-20th century California refinery innovations were those involving “cracking”—the breaking up of larger and denser hydrocarbons in heavier oils into smaller, engine fuel-sized ones.

Today, refineries in the U.S. have more total cracking capacity than those in any other country, and refineries on the U.S. West Coast have more total cracking capacity than those in any other country in the world outside the U.S.

Because of West Coast refineries’ unique reliance on heavier oils, the oil industry regards them as ideally suited to process the Canadian tar sands. The Society of Petroleum Engineers in 2009 remarked that the tar sands are “the most promising source for California refineries” to replace dwindling current crude supplies over the long term. Oil refiners themselves have acknowledged as much. In 2013, Valero reported to investors on its “strategy” to refine “cost-advantaged crude oil” and its plan to bring that oil to its Benicia refinery by train, featuring a chart showing tar sands as the most cost-effective oil. The same year, a report by Phillips 66, which has a refinery in Rodeo, stated plans for “moving Canadian crudes down into California.” Tesoro, which operates a refinery in Martinez, made a similar statement in a 2014 investors report. In 2015, the Canadian Association of Oil Producers published plans to send tar sands crude to California via pipeline, boat, and train.

California oil refineries already emit far more greenhouse gases than any other industrial sector in the state, including electrical power plants. Increased tar sands production would drive those emissions dramatically higher.

Canadian tar sands mines.

To paraphrase former NASA scientist James Hanson, it’s game-over for the climate if tar sands production significantly expands.  Overall, roughly two-thirds of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves must remain unburnt to hold temperature increases below dangerous levels, according to a 2015 University College London research publication.  As with much other oil extraction, the tar sands also involve massive ecosystem and cultural destruction, the brunt of which falls on indigenous people.

I’ve reported several times before on the campaign to prevent increased tar sands bitumen from coming into the Bay Area’s five massive oil refineries. A community-worker coalition has attempted to convince the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to adopt the first-ever regional facility-wide cap oil refineries’ greenhouse gas emissions levels.  The BAAQMD’s directors will likely to vote on this proposal in June. For example, read my January 31st story for The Nation. But also check out my new one for East Bay Monthly, which explores all of this in more detail. >>

How California’s Oil Refining Sector Became, Proportionately, the Most Carbon-Intensive in the World