Stopping the Tar-Sands Invasion

East Bay groups are attempting to prevent the region from playing a major role in a climate disaster.


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Photo by Pat Mazzera

Andrés Soto grew up downwind from the Chevron refinery in Richmond.

The production of Canadian tar sands wreaks havoc on the environment in myriad ways. It involves devastating the boreal forest: one of the world’s most important sponges of carbon dioxide. The extraction and conversion of tar sands—a sludgy deposit of sand, clay, water, and sticky black bitumen—into usable fuel is also an energy- and water-intensive endeavor that includes strip mining giant swaths of land, thus releasing a considerable quantity of greenhouse gases while exacting a devastating toll on the region’s water quality and on indigenous people.

Refining tar sands also leaves behind dirtier byproducts, such as petcoke, that contribute mightily to the climate crisis. Petcoke is the only fossil fuel that pollutes the climate with greater intensity than coal. California’s refineries already export their petcoke en masse to Asian markets, especially China, which burn it in power plants.

Environmentalists say California is pivotal in stopping the tar-sands invasion because it’s currently home to the nation’s third largest oil-refining sector and is already a world leader in refining dirtier crude. California’s main petroleum sources, including Southern California and Alaskan north-slope oil fields, have been running out, and the remaining available California crudes are uniquely dense—much like tar sands. Consequently, West Coast refineries have developed a greater capacity to convert denser oils into fuels than those anywhere else in the world. The West Coast, in short, may provide oil corporations with the best new major market opportunity for refining tar sands in the near future.

“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 who coauthored a 2015 report called the “West Coast Tar Sands Invasion.”

Between 1990 and 2014, the refineries in Contra Costa and Solano counties saw their collective carbon dioxide emissions rise at a rate equivalent to 3.4 million metric tons per year, and the increase continued even after the inception of cap-and-trade. And, in a 2016 letter to the air district, CBE’s Karras estimated that refineries’ onsite greenhouse gas emissions could double by 2050 if they maximize their switch to heavier oil sources, including tar sands.

Environmentalists say that without Rule 12-16, California’s cap-and-trade program and the state’s low-carbon fuel standard may do little on their own to restrict the refining of dirtier oils in the Bay Area. “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,” Karras noted.

In his January State of the State speech, Gov. Jerry Brown referred to California as “The Great Exception” due to its combination of enormous economic prosperity and comparatively progressive policies regarding immigration, climate change, the minimum wage, and more. But this narrative, according to the writings of UC Berkeley geography professor emeritus Richard Walker, obscures the fact that California’s road to riches was historically based on “an extraordinarily rapid rate of discovery and plunder of natural resources,” including a long history of unbridled oil production.

The state’s black gold rush began in 1892 with the discovery of the first Los Angeles oil field. By the 1920s, California provided 20 to 25 percent of global oil production—a proportion equivalent to that of Saudi Arabia today. The Golden State’s oil industry was centered in the Los Angeles Basin, and the oil boom 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.”

During this period, both the LA Basin and the Bay Area developed into major refining centers. Standard Oil of California’s flagship refinery opened in Richmond in 1903 and immediately became reliant on imports of Southern California crude. Standard Oil of California went on to become Chevron, currently the world’s 10th largest corporation. Chevron’s worldwide headquarters was on San Francisco’s Market Street until 2001, when it moved to San Ramon.

California’s frenzied rate of oil production, however, exhausted its supply of higher-quality, lighter crude. 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. California producers also pioneered the now-common technique known as “enhanced oil recovery,” which involves injecting steam to loosen the denser and more viscous oil in underground deposits, and thus get it to flow more readily.

CBE’s Karras, who is one of just a handful of U.S.-based oil refinery experts who isn’t affiliated with the oil industry, noted that refineries in California and Washington state have a proportionate capacity to “crack” more than twice as much oil, on average, than refineries worldwide. Based on data from the US Oil and Gas Journal, 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 “crack” heavy crude oils than any other nation in the world—except the United States.

One reason California’s unique heavy oil refining capacity is not widely known is that the public is not accustomed to thinking about differences in crude oil quality, Karras explained. “The liquid fossil fuel spectrum is enormous, but we’re taught to think of it all as ‘petroleum,’” he said. One type of crude oil can have the consistency of olive oil, he noted, while another flows like cold molasses. Almost all of what remains in California’s major producing regions, like Kern County, fall into the latter category.

Pollution levels from oil processing are a function of the oil’s quality, and high-density oil is the biggest driver of increased emissions. As Karras demonstrated in a 2010 peer-reviewed study for the journal Environmental Science and Technology, California’s refineries emit proportionately greater quantities of greenhouse gases than many other refineries worldwide—a fact that runs counter to the state’s reputation as a laboratory for climate innovation.

California refineries’ capacity to “crack” heavy oil prompted the Society of Petroleum Engineers in 2009 to remark that the Canadian 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.

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