Billionaire fights to keep tar-sands oil out of stateBy David R. Baker, April 29, 2015
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has a new mission
— keeping oil from Canada’s tar sands out of California.
Steyer’s NextGen Climate organization released a report Tuesday warning that an “invasion” of tankers and railcars carrying crude from the oil sands could soon hit West Coast refineries, which currently process very little Canadian oil.
Steyer, a major Democratic donor who quit his hedge fund to focus on fighting climate change, has risen to prominence as a vocal opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline extension, which would link the oil sands to American refineries on the Gulf Coast.
But Tuesday’s report, prepared with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a coalition of other environmental groups, notes that the oil industry is pursuing other pipeline routes that would carry tar-sands petroleum to Canada’s Pacific Coast. From there, it could be shipped to refineries in California and Washington. In California, companies have proposed five new terminals for receiving oil shipped by rail — another potential means of entry. California’s policies to fight climate change discourage but don’t prevent the use of oil-sands crude.
“Keystone is not the only way the tar sands threaten our country,” Steyer said Tuesday at an event in Oakland, releasing the report. “The owners of the tar sands are always looking for other routes to the world’s oceans and the world’s markets.”
Steyer and other environmentalists have made blocking Keystone a rallying cry in the fight against global warming, since extracting hydrocarbons from the oil sands releases far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than other forms of oil production. And unlike common oil, the diluted bitumen (a tar-like substance extracted from the sands) sinks in water, making spills from pipelines and tankers difficult to clean.
“It is shockingly toxic, it is extremely nasty and it takes forever to clean up,” Steyer said. “To end the risk from tar-sands oil once and for all, we need to move beyond oil to a clean energy future. Luckily, this is the kind of leadership California excels at.”
The oil industry, and the Canadian government, call the oil sands a reliable source of oil from a friendly ally. And industry representatives often note that California’s dependence on imported oil has grown in recent years, in large part because production in Alaska — once one of California’s biggest suppliers of crude — has dropped.
Steyer has devoted a sizable chunk of his personal fortune, estimated at $1.6 billion, to backing political candidates who support action on climate change and targeting those who don’t, spending $73 million in the last election cycle. He said Tuesday that he has not yet decided whether to pay for an advertising campaign against bringing oil-sands crude to the West Coast.
“I’m not 100 percent sure,” he said. “Exactly how we fight it, I don’t think we’ve determined.”
Crude from the tar sands makes up a tiny fraction of the oil processed in California refineries — less than 3 percent, according to the report. And while the amount of oil shipped into the the Golden State by rail has soared in recent years, most of that petroleum comes from North Dakota and other states where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has produced a glut of crude.
But oil companies have proposed two pipeline projects that would link the oil sands to the Pacific Ocean, both of them traveling through British Columbia. If built, they could lead to an additional 2,000 oil tankers and barges moving up and down the West Coast each year, according to the report. The rail terminal projects proposed in California could raise the amount of oil-sands crude processed in the state each day from the current 50,000 barrels to 650,000 barrels by 2040.
However, that outcome is hardly certain.
A California policy known as the low carbon fuel standard requires oil companies to cut by 10 percent the amount of carbon dioxide associated with each gallon of fuel they sell in the state, reaching that milestone by 2020. In addition, the state’s cap-and-trade system forces refineries to cut their overall greenhouse gas emissions. Neither policy specifically prevents refineries from using oil-sands crude, but both give oil companies a powerful incentive to use other sources of petroleum.
Anthony Swift, one of the report’s authors, said California needs to adopt more stringent emissions targets to keep out crude from the oil sands.
“These policies are a very good start,” said Swift, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need to get more robust targets — for both the low carbon fuel standard and the cap — to signal to the industry that California is not going to be an option for tar-sands refining.”David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.