Category Archives: Air pollution

Cracking Down on Refinery Emissions – all about “cat crackers”

[See also: Baykeeper notice of intent to sue Amports; Video and photos at Port of Benicia show fossil fuel polluter in the act;  Marilyn Bardet – Petcoke pollution in Benicia, photos going back to 1995]

A “cat cracker” may sound like a child’s snack, but…

Shell refinery in Martinez. Wikimedia Commons
Bay Area Monitor, League of Women Voters Bay Area, by Leslie Stewart, June-July 2021

A “cat cracker” may sound like a child’s snack, but call it by its full name — fluidized catalytic cracking unit — and it is obviously something far different. Cat crackers are a central piece of refinery equipment that turns crude oil into gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel. Regulating this specialized equipment, referred to by the acronym FCCU, recently resulted in unusually high public participation in a significant Bay Area Air Quality Management District decision.

Reducing pollution is challenging for refineries. Crude oil is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, which is why it can be split into other products. In addition, it usually contains varying amounts of sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen and various metals, so refining it generates toxic compounds and particles which must be controlled. Refineries are subject to a multitude of regulations to prevent pollution reaching the environment and affecting the community.

FCCUs are responsible for over 50 percent of the particulate matter from refineries — over 800 tons per year — and 17% of particles 10 microns or less in diameter (PM10) from facilities with Air District permits in the region. The Air District’s Rule 6-5, regulating FCCUs in the Bay Area, was first adopted in 2015, because improved federal testing methods showed “scrubbed” FCCU emissions combining with the atmosphere when released to form more particulates than previously thought.  Particulate matter often doesn’t travel far and therefore has its greatest impact on adjacent, disadvantaged communities. Janet Hashe from Atchison Village near the Chevron refinery told the Air District Board in June, “The effects of air pollution are disproportionate on these communities and have been for decades. . .”

Under a recent state law, the Air District must require the Best Available Retrofit Control Technology for pollution sources at facilities that impact disadvantaged communities.  Rule 6-5 was revised in July in accordance with this law.  It will affect up to three of the region’s five refineries: Chevron, PBF (formerly Shell) and the currently inactive Marathon. Phillips 66 doesn’t use an FCCU at its Bay Area facility, and Valero recently installed a wet gas scrubber which should enable it to comply with the updated regulation.

Rule 6-5 now requires refineries to meet more stringent standards for emissions of sulfur dioxide and ammonia. It also sets a new limit on PM10 to reduce these emissions by over 400 tons/year. An agency staff report advised the Board that to reach that standard, local refineries will probably need to use wet gas scrubbers. This technology is used in other refineries across the country in addition to Valero.

The extensive debate over the draft rule, which started in 2019, also considered a more lenient standard that would allow twice as much PM10. Refineries might be able to meet that lower standard with less expensive electrostatic precipitators. During the multiple workshops and detailed discussion by the agency’s staff and Board subcommittees prior to two lengthy Board hearings, the two alternatives were nicknamed .10 and .20, based on the technical definition of how the PM10 output is measured, with .10 being the most stringent. They were also referred to as the ESP (electrostatic precipitator) and WGS (wet gas scrubber) alternatives.

Refinery in Martinez. Wikimedia Commons.

The more lenient .20 standard was potentially easier to achieve, and would have gone into effect by January 2023, while the adopted .10 standard won’t go into effect until January 2026. Although it will take longer to affect the region’s environmental quality, the long-term impact will be greater. Staff estimates show a yearly health benefit in reduced deaths, respiratory disease and cardiac illness of approximately $26-60 million, while the rejected alternative would have achieved only $17-38 million.

Long-term health benefits were the deciding factor for the district’s Stationary Source and Climate Impacts Committee when it voted to send the .10 alternative to the board as the recommended update to the rule. Health effects were also cited by a majority of the organizations and individuals who supported the more stringent alternative during board hearings. As Sally Tobin from Richmond noted at the six-hour June hearing, “Richmond children are hospitalized for asthma twice as often those in other parts of Contra Costa.” The Sierra Club’s Jacob Klein echoed this, saying, “We are learning more and more about the toxic impacts of particulate matter and the environmental racism associated with these emissions.”

However, the .20 limit also had substantial support. A consultant’s report on socioeconomic impacts, prepared as part of the agency’s staff report, concluded that the costs of the .10 limit might result in either employee cutbacks or an increase in gasoline prices, or both. Closures were seen as unlikely, and some public comments suggested that market factors would be the determinant in any decision to shutter a facility. However, refinery workers and their unions agreed with refinery concerns about impacts. Chad Fugate, a third-generation steamfitter, wrote, “We need these refineries to stay open and not run out of town”, while David Akeson was worried that refinery staffing decisions would affect safety, writing, “The recent Chevron fire is still fresh in my mind which was the result of repeat deferral on maintenance due to cost saving.”

District board members were also quite concerned about additional water that would be used in wet gas scrubbers, although reclaimed water and better technology could reduce that impact. Ultimately, they determined that the refinery costs and water usage were substantial unmitigated impacts that were necessary to achieve the benefits of the revised regulation.

Not surprisingly, considering the objections, the Air District has been sued by the two active refineries which will need to upgrade, PBF and Chevron. PBF is already implementing different particulate reduction measures, and maintains that it can’t afford to comply so will shut down. Chevron contests the Air District’s cost-benefit calculations. Both are asking that the rule be set aside; a decision will take several years. Nevertheless, Valero’s improved technology and the switch to refining renewable fuels at Phillips 66, and potentially at Marathon, may indicate the ultimate direction for Bay Area refineries.

Shell hit with $433,000 penalty for emission violations at Martinez refinery

Company cited for 44 infractions between 2017 and 2019

The Shell refinery is seen from Pacheco Boulevard in Martinez, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group Archives)

Mercury News, by Shomik Mukherjee, October 15, 2021

MARTINEZ — Shell Oil has agreed to pay air quality regulators a $433,000 penalty for dozens of environmental violations at the oil refinery it once operated.

The refinery amassed 44 violations between 2017 and 2019, largely for emitting excessive amounts of pollutants that studies have shown to cause long-term health problems.

PBF Energy acquired the refinery from Shell in 2019 for $1 billion.

It’s the second settlement reached in a month involving environmental violations at one of Martinez’s two oil refineries. Marathon Petroleum agreed last month to pay $2 million to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District over violations at its now idled Martinez oil refinery, previously operated by oil company Tesoro.

Earlier this year, the air quality district voted to require refineries to dramatically reduce air pollution by upgrading their technology.

The latest settlement will pay for future inspections and enforcement of environmental regulations, the air quality district said.

“Ensuring that we all have clean air to breathe is the Air District’s top priority,” Jack Broadbent, the district’s executive officer, said in a written a statement. “This settlement is one way we hold Shell Oil accountable for its violations of air quality regulations and continue to safeguard clean air for all Bay Area residents.”

Joanne Fanucchi of Pittsburg, is photographed holding a Peoples’ Climate March sign with the Shell refinery in the background in Martinez, Calif., on Friday, April 21, 2017. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) 

The refinery’s former management was found to have improperly monitored the facility’s flare pilots, which burn gas at low amounts to keep the flare system running correctly.

Once the pilots were extinguished, the refinery began emitting excess amounts of harmful pollutants, including hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, according to the air quality district.

The refinery was also flagged for not correctly sealing its storage tanks, as well as for failing to report violations and keep records up to date.

All the infractions have since been corrected, the air quality district said. An analysis earlier this year by district staff estimated that PBF’s emissions were responsible for six premature deaths each year.

Although East Bay oil refineries historically have employed a lot of people, recent brushes with environmental regulations have thrown their future into question.

PBF Energy, which acquired the Martinez refinery from Shell, warned earlier this year that the costs of cutting emissions by 70% — as required by the air quality district — will force it to shut down the refinery. Chevron, which owns a refinery in Richmond, also pushed back against the mandate.

Meanwhile, the Marathon-owned Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez is no longer in operation. According to Marathon, the refinery is being transitioned into a facility that will produce fuels that emit less carbon than petroleum diesel.

Air District debates public health vs. Big Oil profits – delays decision on refinery pollution controls

Bay Area air quality board delays vote on anti-pollution rules

San Francisco Chronicle, by Joe Garofoli, June 2, 2021
The Shell refinery on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Martinez, Calif. At Shell refinery in Martinez, “some equipment was temporarily affected by the quake” on Monday, according to a spokesman. Paul Kuroda/Special to The Chronicle

After hearing five and a half hours of public commentary, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District postponed its scheduled vote Wednesday on whether to require refineries to install technology that would greatly reduce the amount of pollution they emit.

Board chair Cindy Chavez asked the board to reschedule its vote so the panel could have a “thoughtful discussion” of the proposals before it. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on June 16.

The issue before the board involves fluid catalytic cracker units, commonly known as “cat crackers,” which are a major source of industrial pollution. The proposal would require refineries to install technology that reduces particulate emissions from the units by 70 percent, according to the air district.

A district analysis predicts that the new standards would have positive health impacts — particularly for low income communities of color that surround the Bay Area’s refineries and have borne the brunt of their environmental impact. In Richmond, the asthma rate is twice the state average.

The district has calculated that exposure to particulate matter from the Chevron refinery in Richmond increases mortality in the region by up to 10 deaths per year, while the PBF Energy refinery in Martinez adds up to six deaths per year.

The proposed changes to the Chevron plant alone could result in up to $27 million in health cost savings to those living nearby, according to an air district analysis, based on fewer days missed from work, fewer respiratory ailments and other health impacts.

Environmentalists pointed out that the technology has been widely used for years across the country, including in oil-friendly states like Texas.

“It’s hard to believe regulators in Texas 15 years ago valued their constituents’ lives more than Bay Area representatives do,” Jed Holtzman, a senior policy analyst with the environmental organization 350 Bay Area, told the board Wednesday. “So this should not be a complicated decision for you.”

Yet the refineries — backed by allies in organized labor who work at the plants — insisted that the cost to install the technology would be prohibitive, making the plants uncompetitive and leading to massive job losses.

The $800 million cost of implementation would “force us to close the Martinez refinery,” Timothy Paul Davis, PBF Energy Western Region president, wrote to the air district in April. That would put 600 full-time employees out of work, plus another 2,000 members of the local building trades union who work on other projects at the plant, said Kevin Slade of the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry group.

The air district found Davis’ estimate to be grossly inflated, estimating that it would cost just $255 million to make the changes at the PBF Martinez refinery and $241 million for the Chevron refinery in Richmond. The district found that the oil companies could pay for the cost of the upgrades by a one or two-cent per gallon fuel increase. Other speakers Wednesday were skeptical that PBF would shutter a refinery that it just bought in 2019 from Shell Oil for $1 billion.

Dozens of local union members and leaders — among the 198 people who addressed the board Wednesday — said they feared losing their jobs if the technology were mandated.

Andrew Scheiber, a Benicia resident who used to work for a refinery, was among the speakers skeptical that plant workers could find a “just transition” to another line of work should the refineries cut jobs.

“This ‘just transition’ everybody loves to talk about doesn’t exist,” Scheiber said. There are few other kinds of jobs that involve similar skill sets “and when they do come up there are hundreds if not literally thousands of applicants.”

A letter to the board signed by the leaders of six Bay Area building trades unions said: “Union members — your constituents — living and working in the Bay Area depend on these refinery jobs to raise their families well, put food on their tables, put their kids through college, and live a successful and fulfilling life.”

An alternative analysis conducted by UCLA’s Lufkin Center for Innovation found that new technology wouldn’t kill jobs, but rather create thousands more.

The UCLA report, conducted in conjunction with Communities for a Better Environment and the environmental research firm Inclusive Economics, found that installing the wet gas scrubbers would yield “thousands of engineering, construction, and other installation jobs, upwards of 4,600 jobs between the two refineries.”

“Our lungs can’t any longer,” said Zolboo Namkhaidorj, Richmond Youth Organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, after the meeting, urging the air district to approve the cat cracker rule.

“Refineries have mounted a massive misinformation campaign to sink this rule, threatening our communities with false doomsday scenarios,” Namkhaidorj said. “Shame on them, after decades of spewing pollution that has cost local Black, indigenous, and people of color families their health and livelihoods.”

Bonnie Lockhart of Oakland was one of several speakers Wednesday who questioned seeing the issue as one of workers versus greens.

“Why are we framing this decision as jobs versus the environment, when it’s really health versus corporate profits?” Lockhart asked.

Instead of suggesting that the only way to pay for the cost of the upgrades would be through layoffs or higher gas prices, Lockhart questioned why the discussion wasn’t focused on “the obscene profits” of the fossil fuel companies and the high salaries of its CEOs.

Her suggestion to the oil companies and their top executives: “Don’t buy a yacht this year.”


Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer.

Proposed EPA rule would disadvantage minority communities

[Editor: The excellent article below does not link to the EPA’s proposed new rule.  It can be found here, and note that PUBLIC COMMENTS may be sent on or before July 27, 2020.  Submit your comment here.  – R.S.]

Soot rule thrusts EPA into spotlight on race

E&E News, by Jean Chemnick, June 12, 2020
Louisiana refinery. Photo credit:  John Dooley/Sipa Press/Newscom
A refinery is seen near Venice, La. EPA is changing its cost-benefit analysis to discount the health savings from lower levels of particulate matter and other pollutants. John Dooley/Sipa Press/Newscom

EPA published a proposal in the Federal Register yesterday that critics described as an assault on minority communities coping with the public health legacy of structural racism.

The agency’s plan would mandate changes to the way future rules under the Clean Air Act would weigh the costs and benefits of climate and air pollution regulations.

It’s the first time EPA has attempted such a rulemaking, and critics say the goal is to saddle future administrations with an inflexible set of cost-benefit methodologies that discount benefits from cutting pollutants while stressing cost to industry.

The rule would also bar EPA from giving special consideration to individual communities that bear the brunt of environmental risks — frequently populations of color.

“The rule won’t take into account any benefit that can’t be monetized and quantified, including important things like the effect, say, of a mercury rule on tribal communities that rely on fish and wildlife that are contaminated with mercury or the effect of particulate matter on communities of color and disadvantaged folks who live near the power plants that are being controlled,” said Ann Weeks, legal director of the Clean Air Task Force.

The Obama EPA did give special weight to the benefits that would accrue to specific communities when assessing whether a rule was cost-effective, she said. But this proposal seeks to make that impossible.

“You basically are tying your own hands, if you’re the agency, by saying this is the way you have to do things,” she said.

EPA describes the draft rule as an effort to improve transparency by demanding a strict accounting of costs and benefits for all economically significant air quality and climate change rulemakings promulgated under the landmark environmental law.

But it raises questions about whether a future administration could count so-called co-benefits when drafting regulations. Co-benefits are reductions in pollutants that aren’t the rule’s primary target but that yield public health benefits that EPA has traditionally counted.

Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former energy lawyer, has long sought to sideline co-benefits, which industry sees as justifying rules whose costs outweigh true environmental benefits.

The co-benefit that has packed the greatest punch in past Clean Air Act rulemakings is fine particulate matter, or soot. Epidemiological studies are chock-full of data linking these tiny particles to pulmonary, respiratory and neurological ailments and death.

So demonstrating that a rule would reduce particulate matter adds to its value — a fact that even the Trump EPA used last year to show that its Affordable Clean Energy rule for power plant carbon dioxide was worth its costs.

‘History of racism’

The proposal comes as communities of color are experiencing some of the worst impacts of the coronavirus, while protests over racism and police brutality continue in cities across the country.

There’s evidence that elevated exposure to soot from highways, industrial facilities and incinerators that have for decades been built in predominantly black, Latino and Asian American communities are disproportionately harming the health of their residents.

“It’s all deeply ingrained in the history of racism and the history of civil rights,” said Sofia Owen, a staff attorney with Alternatives for Community & Environment, an environmental justice group based in Boston. “The siting of these facilities — where our highways are, where incinerators are, where compressor stations or the bus depots and the train depots are — is communities of color and low-income communities.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists released modeling last year showing that Asian Americans are, on average, exposed to particulate matter concentrations from vehicle tailpipes that are 34% higher compared with other Americans.

They weren’t alone. Soot exposure was 24% higher for African Americans and 23% higher for Latinos. White Americans are exposed to 14% less soot from tailpipes than the average American (Greenwire, June 27, 2019).

“It’s primarily the PM2.5 that is responsible for environmental damage and health damage in communities living near highways,” said Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura, a senior vehicles engineer with UCS, referring to particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. The science advocacy group is now doing similar modeling on proximity to coal-fired power plants by demographic group, she said.

The health impacts of PM2.5 exposure can be severe.

A 2017 study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and other institutions found that incremental increases in soot exposure below the standards set by EPA can result in significantly more deaths among senior citizens. The study found that black people were three times more likely to die from soot exposure than other Americans.

“We know that when you inhale fine particulate matter, they penetrate very deep into your lungs, and they can actually get into your bloodstream, and they initiate a form of inflammation that can cause pneumonia and cardiovascular disease,” said Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the School of Public Health and an author of the 2017 study.

Dominici also co-authored a recent study showing that counties with higher levels of particulate matter experienced more deaths related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (Greenwire, April 7).

There’s a link between particulate matter and acute respiratory distress syndrome, she said, which causes COVID-19-related deaths.

“If you’re living in a county and you’re breathing polluted air for a very long time, even absent COVID, we know that your lungs are inflamed,” Dominici said. “After you contract COVID, your ability to respond to the inflammatory nature of COVID is severely compromised because your lungs already have inflammation.”

The result is worse for black and Latino people who contract COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in April that 33% of those hospitalized with the disease were black, as were nearly a quarter of those who died. Eighteen percent of the U.S. population is black.

While racial minorities are more impacted by high soot levels, they’re also responsible for producing less of it.

A 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that non-Hispanic whites consume the majority of the goods and services responsible for particulate matter. Black and Latino people on average are exposed to 56% and 63% more soot, respectively, than is linked to their consumption.

The same study estimated that soot caused 131,000 premature American deaths in 2015.

“The long tail of this is that particularly black Americans and Latinx communities have been discriminated against in this country, and because of their poverty, they are forced to live in neighborhoods that are less expensive and more polluted,” said Aaron Bernstein, director of the Harvard Chan School’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment.

EPA’s cost-benefit exercises could consider that history of racial injustice when assessing whether a rule is warranted, he noted.

“If you clean up the air, there is a pretty good likelihood that we’re going to benefit people of color more. And should we in fact prioritize those actions because of historical and, frankly, present-day injustices?” he said. “That is a highly contentious arena right now, but it’s hard to ignore, given what’s going on.”

Progress

The gap between soot exposure levels of white and nonwhite Americans has actually been shrinking in recent years.

A paper released in January that used satellite-based measurements to track air quality across the country found that disparities between soot levels in predominantly minority and white areas fell by nearly two-thirds between 2000 and 2015.

Reed Walker, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the authors of the study, said this was partly due to white people moving into cities and minorities heading to the suburbs.

But a much larger part of the story, he said, had to do with the Clean Air Act.

Particulate matter standards set under the law — current ones were implemented in 2005 — require counties that fail to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards to take aggressive action to reach attainment.

“It just so happens that African Americans are overrepresented in these dirty areas,” Walker said, noting that in the last 15 years, counties with large minority populations have reduced particulate matter more than predominantly white counties.

Still, research shows that soot can cause illness and death at levels below federal air quality standards. This year, EPA declined to tighten the standard despite public health advocates’ warnings that an update is long overdue.

And the proposed cost-benefit rule seems to be directed at making tougher rules harder to promulgate in the future.

“Any failure to tighten the standard is going to continue the disproportionate exposures faced by individuals in those communities,” Walker said.

This story also appears today in Climatewire.