Biofuels and hydrogen proposed at Bay Area refineries – may not be as green as they sound
The Richmond City Council held a study session in late October called “Refinery Transition Briefing.” (Video below.) Senior attorney Ann Alexander from Natural Resources Defense Council and staff researcher Dan Sakaguchi with Communities for a Better Environment examined Chevron’s recent announcement to convert at least a portion of their Richmond refinery to biofuel and hydrogen production. They also discussed the biofuel conversion plans of neighboring refineries in Rodeo, Phillips 66, and Martinez, the already shuttered Marathon refinery.
The study session explained why biofuels and hydrogen may not be as green as they sound, especially when produced at large, aging refineries that are desperate to extend the life and profits of their facilities as the need for fossil fuels ramps down in California.
Why should Benicians care? Three out of the five Bay Area refineries are in the process of converting to biofuel production and Valero’s corporate leadership out of San Antonio is on the record saying the company is “going all in on carbon capture projects and renewable diesel, a fuel produced from animal fats and waste products, such as used cooking oils.” (Houston Chronicle, May 26, 2021)
ALERT AND INVITATION… There aren’t enough french fries and soybeans in the world to feed all of our large Bay Area refineries. And in some cases, the production of hydrogen and biofuels can even increase greenhouse gas emissions. Give this study session a listen to go beyond the greenwashing hype of the fossil fuel industry.
VIDEO: Refinery Transition Briefing Dan Sakaguchi, CBE, and Ann Alexander, NRDC Richmond City Council, 26 Oct 2021
VIDEO GUIDE (Thanks to Constance Beutel for snagging the Richmond video.)
0:00 Dan Sakaguchi, Introduction
1:10 Chevron’s Hydrogen Announcement, reading between the lines
2:24 Hydrogen Basics – Grey, Blue and Green Hydrogen
6:23 Back to Chevron’s Announcement – Grey Hydrogen
9:27 Biofuel Basics
10:27 Ann Alexander, Biofuels at Marathon Martinez & P66 Rodeo
10:43 Driving forces
14:16 Environmental benefit claims
15:00 Environmental and community concerns
18:35 Dan Sakaguchi – Chevron Corporation Biofuels Announcements
A “cat cracker” may sound like a child’s snack, but…
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“This is a huge win for environmental justice communities who have been fighting for this rule for years as a matter of racial, environmental, and climate justice. Despite a widespread misinformation campaign by the refineries and their allies of exaggerated costs that threatened our communities with doomsday scenarios, the Board of Directors made an historic vote today on behalf of disproportionately impacted communities.”
“We look forward to Chevron and PBF doing the right thing and installing wet gas scrubbers that will dramatically clean up their pollution and create numerous jobs in the process, without further delays,”
In hearing testimony before the Air District Board on Wednesday, Benicia Mayor Steve Young urged approval of Rule 6-5. He pointed out that here in Benicia…
“…we have over a decade of experience of the value of the wet gas scrubbers. Valero installed a wet gas scrubber in 2010, and emissions data has shown a significant reduction in the overall emissions of criteria pollutants since it went online. Valero voluntarily addressed the problem of PM 2.5 emissions from their cat cracker by installing the wet gas scrubber. It is past time to do the right thing for clean air in the Bay Area. Please approve Rule 6-5”
After delaying the vote last month, the Air District Board voted this morning in favor of rule 6-5, the rule requiring refineries to clean up their air pollution.
This is a BIG deal and many activists have worked hard to make this happen. It’s been a years’ long coalition effort, but organizing works. The health and environmental justice arguments and dogged appeals to each board member (finally) paid off.
A big special thank you to our folks who stepped up to contact their representatives on the Board, and kudos to the coalition of community groups who put in years of effort. Huge gratitude to Communities for a Better Environment, Sunflower Alliance, APEN, and the health professionals from PSR and Climate Health Now. The headlines (Reuters) are already reading: Northern California requires oil refiners to slash air pollution — in which 350 Bay Area leader, Jan Kirsch, is quoted.
“I was there for the vote. Great victory for all involved. I will send a thank you to John Bauters from my esteemed home of Emeryville” — 350 Bay Area Leader
“The Air District Board’s decision to step up and fulfill the mandate of our regional Air District was necessary to protect lives and the health of our communities, particularly the already-disadvantaged communities in the path of the emissions monsters. We recognize that it took political courage to stand up to the refineries and other fossil fuel interests, who pulled out all the stops with an aggressive disinformation campaign as the decision neared. The community responded to this disinformation campaign robustly and with a focus on justice. That alone is a win for the Bay Area.
The win at the Air District is one that we embrace, and we welcome the eventual improvement in the air around the Bay Area. We are grateful to the large coalition of community organizations and individuals who spent many years collaborating and educating. We remain concerned that these common sense solutions that save lives and money still take so much work to enact, and are committed to continuing the work of improving air quality and phasing out fossil fuels to save lives and climate stability.”
— Nik, 350 Bay Area Staff
A well deserved celebration is in order today (YAY), and don’t forget to thank any/all representatives who voted YES in this historic vote.