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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The 2012 Chevron explosion and fire prompted 15,000 local residents to seek medical care.
So far, opposition by community groups has fended off most of the Bay Area refining industry’s tar sands-oriented proposals even without the emissions caps. But it’s uncertain how much longer these efforts can hold, particularly at a time when the Trump administration plans to eviscerate environmental protections and dramatically boost domestic fossil fuel production.
Karras’ own understanding of the many dangers posed by the refining of heavy crude crystallized during a campaign to protect the Bay Area’s water. During the mid-1980s, scientists had detected a major uptick of selenium concentrations in San Francisco Bay, threatening marine and bird life. California’s oil production at the time had just begun a terminal decline, and so refineries had started to import new crude sources, mainly from the Persian Gulf.
Karras helped deduce that this change in petroleum feedstock had caused a massive increase of selenium in effluent the refineries were dumping into San Francisco Bay. Eventually, he helped win a landmark lawsuit that forced the refineries to greatly reduce the selenium discharges and pay for cleanup. “As far as I know, it was the first time that anyone had focused on oil feedstock quality as the main driver of oil refinery emissions,” he said.
East Bay oil refineries and those throughout the world have imposed an especially large burden on low-income people and people of color who have been disproportionately forced—by historical and economic circumstance—to live alongside them. The same combustion processes that release climate pollution also emit toxins that cause cancer and neurological damage, as well as particulate matter that penetrates lungs and clogs arteries.
The environmental justice movement dates to the early 1980s, when African-American leaders from the civil rights era began calling attention to the triple whammy of race, poverty, and environment, noting how low-income communities of color are overwhelmingly more likely to live near pollution sources than affluent populations. By the time Chevron’s 2012 refinery fire took place, a multiracial, working-class-oriented political movement was already transforming Richmond’s culture and politics. Numerous leaders of this transformation have also led the push to create refinery emissions caps.
CBE’s Soto sees his community’s struggles with cancer, autoimmune disorders, and other health problems as intimately linked to the broader climate-change war. “You can either move and hope to get away from it, or you can try to fight back and try to help everybody’s lives,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about fighting for people in Richmond or Benicia or Martinez. Because of global warming, I’m talking about the whole planet.”
The coalition pushing for the emissions caps includes CBE, the Sunflower Alliance, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the Sierra Club, 350 Bay Area, and the California Nurses Association. The proposal would prevent oil corporations from making the Bay Area a center of tar-sands refining by enforcing a cap based on historic emissions levels.
In 2015, mainly at the prompting of 350 Bay Area, the Sierra Club, and CBE, the air district took several steps to curb greenhouse gases. It has even committed to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions in its jurisdiction by 80 percent by 2050.
But the oil industry has rallied more fiercely against the emissions caps than any of these other proposals. For example, last year, a shadowy group bankrolled by oil companies sent letters to residents throughout the Bay Area, stating, “please remember that the Bay Area refineries provide more good-paying union jobs than any private sector employer in the region.”
Twelve refinery employees signed the letter, but it was produced by an organization called the Committee for Industrial Safety. According to state and federal records, Chevron, Shell, Tesoro, and Phillips 66 annually provide that group between $100,000 and $200,000 to advocate on their behalf.
At several air district meetings, refinery managers have also argued that proposed emissions caps will kill local jobs. And they’ve contended that local caps would simply move heavy crude refining, and the carbon pollution it produces, to other locations—an argument that was initially raised by air district executive staffers. Indeed, the air district staff has been the oil industry’s most effective ally, prompting critics to label it as being too cozy with the industry it regulates.
The powerful California Air Resources Board also dealt the Bay Area’s emissions caps proposal a setback in September 2015, when its executive officer, Richard Corey, wrote in a letter to Jack Broadbent, CEO of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, that the regional caps would undermine the “efficiency” of California’s statewide cap-and-trade system.
Since Corey’s letter, however, California lawmakers have enacted multiple pieces of legislation that go beyond cap-and-trade, most notably last year’s Assembly Bill 197 and its companion Senate Bill 32, which require the state air board to prioritize direct-emissions reductions by industrial emitters, such as refineries.
Still, environmentalists remain concerned about alternative plans being pushed by the Bay Area air district’s executives. First, the executives proposed to establish regional caps on all Bay Area industrial facilities. “We feel that singling out refineries would be less effective than our more comprehensive approach,” air district staff member Eric Stevenson said in an interview.
Environmentalists don’t oppose industrial emissions caps. But they warn that if the air district fails to keep the refinery caps separate, then sweeping regulations of all polluters could take more than 10 years to implement, thereby allowing time for oil companies to move forward with more heavy crude refining.
In addition, three air district executive staff members are now the subjects of a whistleblower complaint alleging that they illegally destroyed air quality and pollution records regarding oil refineries, and subsequently fired two staff members who sought to retain the records. The complaint was first reported by the East Bay Times.
In February, the air district’s executive staff brought forward a new proposal, called Refinery Rule 13-1, which would restrict the “carbon intensity” of the refineries’ petroleum feedstocks. District staff member Greg Nudd said the measure would “prevent refineries from re-tooling to process tar sands crude,” marking the first time that air district staff members had publicly adopted a goal of keeping the tar sands out of local refineries.
Emissions caps proponents view this proposal as a potentially valuable addition to the caps, but they say the caps are a far more effective way to stop a switch to dirtier oil in the near-term. They also argue that Rule 13-1 will be impossible to implement properly, because the air district doesn’t require refineries to disclose how many barrels they process.