Stopping the Tar-Sands Invasion

Stopping the Tar-Sands Invasion

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

In the late afternoon of Aug. 6, 2012, a rupture in a fuel pipe at the Chevron refinery in Richmond released a geyser of hot milky-white vapor that engulfed 19 employees. The workers fled, and two minutes later, the cloud ignited into a torrent of flames that ripped through several buildings. A massive plume of black smoke blew east and northeast, sprinkling residents of Richmond and San Pablo with toxic chemicals and particles. In the weeks that followed, more than 15,000 local residents went to the hospital, mostly with respiratory ailments.

Ninety minutes after the fire began, Chevron spokesperson Heather Kulp attempted to deflect blame for the disaster onto two of the refinery’s most persistent watchdogs: the environmental justice groups Communities for a Better Environment and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. The organizations had jointly won a 2010 lawsuit against Chevron, blocking the refinery’s attempt to develop new infrastructure for handling higher polluting grades of oil. Chevron was in the midst of negotiating with the city of Richmond concerning a scaled-down version of its proposal. In a press conference, the smoke cloud billowing behind her, Kulp blamed the disaster on “environmentalists and the community that have not let us modernize our refinery,” alleging that the company had been forced to operate with aging equipment that consequently burst into flames.

Kulp later retracted her statement, and a U.S. Chemical Safety Board examination ruled that a pivotal factor in the explosion was rapid corrosion of pipe caused by the refinery’s reliance on oil with high sulfur content. Ironically, the same groups that Kulp attempted to scapegoat had warned of this possibility for several years. During their environmental campaigns, they repeatedly pointed out that the refinery’s switch to dirtier crude risked more frequent leaks and spills.

Two months after the Chevron explosion, a coalition of local residents, environmentalists, and representatives of the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5, which represents 80 percent of the employees at three of the five major refineries in the Bay Area, met to discuss their experiences of the fire. “When we told them about how we had been fighting to stop the refinery from bringing in a dirtier, higher-sulfur oil slate, partly on the grounds that it would lead to more explosions, their eyes started to widen,” recalled Greg Karras, senior scientist for Communities for a Better Environment, or CBE.

The conversation quickly became a catharsis for people on both sides of the refinery’s fence line. The refinery union representatives revealed that they, too, had been voicing safety concerns regarding the switch to higher-sulfur oil but that their complaints had also been ignored. “People cried; it was really emotional,” Karras said. “Suddenly, all of these people with diverse backgrounds and experiences realized we’d been fighting the same thing.”

In a recent interview, Mike Smith of USW Local 5 agreed that the collaboration has been “a really important step for people on all sides.”

Now, more than four years later, the coalition that formed in the wake of the refinery fire may be on the verge of a historic breakthrough: the passage of the world’s first facility-wide limits on oil refinery emissions of greenhouse gases and particulate matter. Known as Refinery Rule 12-16, it would prevent the Bay Area’s five major refineries from switching to more polluting crude. It’s scheduled for a vote by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s board of directors on May 17.

Environmentalists say the passage of Rule 12-16 also could have global implications in the fight against climate change. In recent years, Chevron and other oil corporations have pushed to turn the San Francisco Bay Area and West Coast oil refining centers into hubs for refining and shipping Canadian tar sands, a greenhouse gas-belching fuel that requires strip mining and the decimation of northern Alberta’s boreal forest.

But the passage of Rule 12-16 is no sure thing. The Bay Area’s refineries are owned by some of the world’s most powerful and profitable corporations, and they have lobbied hard to stop the emissions caps and to limit the air district’s authority to prevent the dirty oil switch.

In addition, the air district’s executive staffers, who have developed a reputation for being industry-friendly, have openly opposed the emissions caps and instead favored approaches that offer the oil companies greater flexibility in their refining operations.

CBE community organizer Andrés Soto, who grew up downwind from Chevron’s Richmond refinery, says the passage of Rule 12-16 is crucial in the fight against climate change and to rein in toxins and prevent future refinery accidents. He and other environmentalists hope that other refinery regions, including those in Los Angeles and Washington state, will follow the Bay Area’s lead by adopting similar caps, thereby cutting off a West Coast tar-sands invasion at the knees.

“We see the emissions caps as a model that other air districts can and should adopt,” Soto said. “It can also help us send a message to the entire nation: Whatever fantasies the Trump administration has to expand extreme oil production, it will not come into California refineries.”


Because the world’s industrialized nations have postponed reducing fossil-fuel combustion on anything approaching the scale required, the sorts of harrowing scenarios that scientists long ago predicted—the unraveling of the ecological fabric that sustains most life on Earth—is well underway.

Since the turn of the millennium, the planet has burned through global temperature records. Arctic permafrost has disappeared at alarming rates, thereby releasing much more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and fueling a dire feedback loop of potentially ever-greater planetary warming. And in the decades ahead, tens of millions of people in Bangladesh are expected to begin fleeing from low-lying coastal plains because of sea-level rise, precipitated by the melting of the Antarctic glaciers—the harbinger of a refugee crisis on a scale rarely before seen.

Scientists have reached a stark consensus: To avoid climate-caused catastrophes and limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius, virtually all remaining tar sands and Arctic oil, along with much of the world’s known reserves of coal and natural gas, must remain in the ground.

“The problem we face is literally unprecedented in human history,” said Jed Holtzman, a San Francisco-based director of the 350 Bay Area climate group, which has advocated for refinery emissions caps. “Now that what U.S. leadership there was has crumbled, everything we do locally is even more critical.”

Over the past decade, California has become known the world over for its efforts to tackle the climate crisis. State policymakers have established fuel economy and emissions standards for automobiles and embraced renewable energy from the sun and wind. The state also kicked off a cap-and-trade program in 2013, which caps the total amount of carbon emissions in the state while allowing polluters to buy “credits” or “offsets” from carbon-saving projects elsewhere.

But for the past several years, East Bay environmental justice and community groups have been sounding the alarm about a grave new climate threat that California has yet to address: what they call a “West Coast tar-sands invasion.”

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.

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.

The coalition that supports the caps also has shown signs of fraying. At the Feb. 1 air district meeting, United Steelworkers Local 5 California field representative Ron Espinoza announced that the union’s position had “evolved.”

“For now, we urge the board to pump the breaks on [Rule] 12-16 until the concerns of [air district executive staff] have been addressed,” he said.


Ultimately, the 24 county supervisors and city council members who comprise the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board of directors will decide the caps’ fate at their May meeting. The board represents nine counties, ranging from Santa Clara County in the south to Napa and Sonoma counties in the north.

Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, one of the air district board’s most vocal emissions-caps advocates, said the proposal gives local elected officials a rare opportunity to make a significant contribution to counteracting the climate crisis, while also fulfilling the district’s mandate to protect local air quality. “The emissions caps are a prime example of how a Bay Area regional government body can advance a progressive agenda amid the Trump administration’s efforts to take us backward,” said Kaplan, who also helped lead the Oakland City Council’s opposition to a proposed Oakland coal terminal. Kaplan has served as Alameda County’s municipal representative on the air district board since April 2016 and is the first city of Oakland representative on the board since the early ’90s.

One of the air district board’s most influential directors is Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, a fourth-term Democrat who represents the county’s westernmost urban region, including Richmond. He also serves as the Bay Area representative on the California Air Resources Board. He has taken a wait-and-see approach on Rule 12-16. “The main point is that we need to keep the pressure on to keep reducing criteria pollutants, toxic pollutants, and greenhouse gases,” he said in an interview last year. “Whatever the board ends up adopting will be the most far-reaching regulation at a local air district of greenhouse gas emissions, and I think that’s important to acknowledge.”

Contra Costa County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff has expressed skepticism concerning the caps’ effectiveness. “I’m a process-oriented person, and I’m waiting to see the final environmental impact report before I make up my mind,” she said. “But so far, I haven’t been convinced that capping emissions in this one industry alone would be beneficial to the health of people in the Bay Area.”

In the meantime, advocates of the caps have been lining up political support for them, having secured backing from a dozen Bay Area city councils—including those in Richmond, San Pablo, Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville, and Hayward. They’re calling for a big turnout at the May 17 air district board meeting, as well as persistent advocacy leading up to it.

Karras said he’s confident that air district board members will adopt the caps—but only “if the word gets out” about the issue they are voting on.

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