Many thanks to Benicia’s Good Neighbor Steering Committee for hosting this important event!
Video by Constance Beutel for the Good Neighbor Steering Committee
The Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee wants to thank all the participating Mayoral and City Council candidates and those who attended the Educational Forum on Air Quality and Refinery issues on October 5, 2020.
The Zoom webinar was recorded, and is now available on Youtube (and viewable below). There are several viewing options, including the full video from start to finish, as well as individual candidate videos highlighting each candidate and their responses to the Good Neighbor Steering Committee questions.
[BenIndy editor: Note that each video begins after a 20-second “title screen” followed by an 8 minute introduction by Marilyn Bardet. After watching those sections once, you may want to jump ahead to the first question at 8:00 or the candidate response, beginning around 8:45. – R.S.]
GNSC Candidates’ Forum, Benicia
Topic: Air Quality and Refinery concerns
Monday, Oct 5th, 2020, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. See Zoom link below…
We, the members of the Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee, cordially invite you to join us for an educational Benicia City Council and Mayoral Candidates’ forum on issues relating to Air Quality and Refinery concerns.
Candidates have been given 9 questions prior to this forum. The candidates will have 3 minutes to respond to each question. The Zoom forum will be recorded and links will be provided to the community for viewing later.
Marilyn Bardet, Mary Frances Kelly Poh, Nancy Lund, Kathy Kerridge and Constance Beutel Good Neighbor Steering Committee (A refinery and community watch dog on community environmental health and safety issues)
By Grant Cooke, Benicia Resident and President Ag Tech Blends, September 24, 2020
I recently warned that Benicia faces a self-induced calamity. If the town doesn’t come to grips with the reality that it’s game over for the oil industry and that the tax revenue from Valero will end, the town’s future will be grim.
I suggested that by mid-century most, of it not, all Bay Area refineries—Valero included—would be shut. It may be sooner, as recently, Governor Gavin Newsom announced an executive order that would phase out gasoline-powered cars and pickups by 2035.
Most likely the big oil companies will do their best to delay this, but the direction is clear, California is turning away from fossil-powered vehicular transportation. Electric and hydrogen powered vehicles will be the norm sooner, instead of later.
The impact on Benicia and the other towns—Martinez, Rodeo, Richmond—will be significant. Unless those towns plan ahead—a troublesome chore for municipal governments—services will be drastically cut.
Secondly, if the refineries lock the gates and walk away, the cities will be stuck with the bill for cleaning up the hazardous waste that has accumulated for decades on the refinery property.
A couple of other points to consider. The first is the horrendous conflagrations that are besetting our state. Anyone who lives in California and doesn’t accept that climate change is real and life-threatening needs to talk to some of the state’s farmers who live that reality daily. Farmers know the weather and they know the ravages they are facing as the climate changes.
Climate change is not complex. It is caused by excess greenhouse gases caused by excess fossil fuel use. School kids can explain it.
The second is further from Benicia, but relevant. Over the last few weeks, a peace accord has been struck between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Now Bahrain has joined and eventually Saudi Arabia and Iraq will also.
This is something I never dreamed I would see—peace in the Middle East. After all the trillions of dollars spent, the tragic deaths and wounded US soldiers, the horrific dismemberments by ISIS, and the millions of civilians who lost their homes, villages or lives; the wars are ending.
The stated reason for the accord is that the moderate nations are sick and tired of the Sunni and Shia extremists and decided that working with Israel with its military might and US backing is the lesser of two evils. These guys are ever pragmatists.
On the other hand, the unstated, but probably more significant reason, is the moderate nations, particularly UAE and Bahrain, have leaders who understand that they have to move away from oil-dependent economies. With a growing population of well-educated, underemployed and potentially restless citizens, change has to happen. The Middle East needs economic diversification with renewable energy, science, modern Western technology, risk capital and innovative thinkers, or the moderate nations are doomed.
This too is Benicia’s dilemma. Basically, the city is a mini petrostate with 45 percent of its tax revenue coming from Valero or related businesses. The city’s problem of dependency on oil tax revenue is the same as the Middle East nations, or Louisiana, or any other municipality that fails to plan for a non-carbon world. At least UAE and Bahrain have come to that realization.
If UAE and Bahrain can think this through, maybe Benicia can. The first step is to resist Valero’s and the union’s PAC to take over the city government in the November election. If the town’s oil interests and supporters control the city, planning for a diversified tax base won’t happen.
Vote for Steve Young and anyone else who is willing to refuse campaign contributions from Valero and the union PAC. That’s a simple step.
The next steps are going to be harder. The first is to bring the problem out in open. Ask Valero for their plans as the oil refinery winds down. What will be the decline in tax revenue? How much have they put aside for environmental cleanup? How many of their folks live in Benicia and what will be the job losses?
Supposedly, Valero says that it will be the “last man standing” or the final oil refinery left in the Bay Area. I doubt it. My bet is that Chevron in Richmond will hold out the longest because their corporate headquarters are in the Bay Area. Valero is a Texas company, which probably means they will be one of the first to shut.
The second step is that Benicia has to do what Bahrain is doing, namely diversify the tax revenue by moving from a fossil fuel to a knowledge-based economy. The world is full of examples of cities—Bristol, Vancouver, Melbourne, Singapore, come to mind—that have remade their economies.
There are several examples in the Bay Area—San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Livermore and Pleasanton.
The third step is probably the hardest still. The move to a robust knowledge-based economy with science, technology and innovation to produce wealth should be sub-regional—along the Straits. Benicia is going to have to cooperate with Vallejo.
Wealth is being generated all along 680 and both cities have to adapt quickly, or they will be left behind as Fairfield and Vacaville prosper by growing their knowledge and service-based economies.
Unfortunately, Benicia and Vallejo have flaws and neither has the ability to generate significant change. They do, however, have exceptional geography with beautiful waterfronts and spectacular views. They have more potential than other underdeveloped Bay Area cities, except maybe Richmond.
But neither can develop a robust new economy by themselves. They don’t have the resources or the willingness to overcome the differences that serious change requires.
There are no easy answers for remaking a city’s economy. It takes vision, hard work and a united citizenry with common goals and a willingness to change. Cities are like alcoholics; they usually don’t change their behavior until they reach rock bottom, or their livers give out.
The cities I mentioned that were able to remake their economies had remarkable good luck when a new company suddenly boomed—like Pleasanton with People Soft—or a brilliant and powerful leader like Willie Brown in San Francisco, who could wrench the existing power structure into action.
It is particularly hard for a small town like Benicia that has prospered along with a single industry and has a city council with decent folks but split agendas. Heaven knows there are small company towns—like Benicia—throughout the Rust Belt that are dead or dying because they waited until the gates were locked and the pink slips issued. Look what happened to Detroit.
The Bay Area is maybe the world’s center for science, technology, innovation and risk capital. It is an unparalleled combination that is being copied in China and on a smaller scale in Boston and Copenhagen. The mixture creates wealth like mountain snow creates mighty rivers. Despite the trillion-dollar successes of Apple, Google, Facebook and Sales Force, this era of magnificent knowledge-based companies is just starting. There are untold new wonders to be developed and decades to run.
It would be a pity if Benicia fails to participate.
Grant Cooke is a Benicia resident and co-author of two books:
By Woodrow Clark II and Grant Cooke, published by Elsevier and available at Amazon:
Residents of East Bay refinery communities, public officials and environmental organizations had mixed reactions to recent surprise announcements by two Bay Area oil refineries: Phillips 66 said its Rodeo refinery will stop processing petroleum and switch to producing biofuel—made from living plants. It will also close its Rodeo carbon-processing plant. Days later, Marathon announced it would close its Martinez refinery and consider using it to produce biofuel.
“It’s really historic to see 50 percent of the refineries in Contra Costa make a decision to go from processing crude oil to renewable energy,” said Supervisor John Gioia. “It moves us in the right direction, knowing it’s not where we want to end up.” He added that, since the converted refineries will probably employ fewer workers, the county’s big challenge will be “to assist workers to find replacement jobs with equal pay [and create] pre-apprenticeship programs to get local people into jobs.”
Rodeo resident Maureen Brennan said, “I’m 60 percent excited for the community about this new technology and 40 percent worried. I’m happy to have less pollution from the refinery. I’m just suspicious.” She noted that Phillips 66 hasn’t withdrawn permit applications for “two tar-sands-related projects.” Nancy Rieser, another refinery neighbor, was skeptical about the refinery’s mention of “used cooking oil” as a raw material. She said she feared that, instead, rainforests in Brazil and Paraguay would be cleared for “industrial soybean production” to supply the biofuel industry.
And Greg Karras, author of a recent report calling for gradual decommissioning of California refineries, said the move to biofuel is a “strategy to protect oil companies’ stranded assets.” State and federal support for this strategy diverts resources from the real solution: electrification of transportation.
Phillips 66 announced that, starting in 2024, the refinery will become the world’s biggest producer of “renewable diesel, renewable gasoline, and sustainable jet fuel,” reducing the use of fossil fuel. The company said the change will cut carbon dioxide emissions from the refinery by 50 percent, sulfur dioxide by 75 percent and reduce pollution in general. The plant will produce 50,000 barrels of biofuel a day, compared to its current output of 122,000 barrels a day of petroleum products.
In addition, the project’s website, Richmond Renewed, says it “will provide high-paying family-wage jobs with healthcare benefits. Crude oil refinery workers will have the opportunity to transition to produce renewable fuels. Construction jobs for refinery conversion will help the county recover from the COVID-induced recession.”
The Phillips 66 biofuel project—and the possible project at Marathon in Martinez—reflect an oil-industry trend that started before the current economic problems. Many California policies have been promoting a move from fossil-fuel transportation. And environmental activists have been winning battles against planned fossil-fuel expansion. “There’s a lot about this project that’s way less terrible” than previous proposals, said Karras. San Luis Obispo County recently nixed a Phillips 66 plan to bring crude oil by rail from Canada’s tar sands to its Santa Maria refinery. And for years community opponents have stalled two Rodeo refinery proposals they say are also about tar sands: construction of propane and butane storage tanks and expansion of tanker traffic.
For starters, refinery neighbors and environmental organizations are focusing on making sure the county won’t approve the new proposal without a thorough public study. “To understand the details—local pollution shifts, where the feedstock will come from, how many millions of acres could be needed for soy, palm trees, you name it—there must be a full-scale environmental review combined with a 180-degree shift away from their planned tar sands expansions,” said Wilder Zeiser of Stand.earth.
Many are also concerned about the loss of jobs. Mike Miller, president of United Steelworkers Local 326, which represents workers at Phillips 66, said the company told him they could probably handle the reduction in jobs through attrition—10 or 20 people typically retire every year, Miller said, and “there are a lot of older people at our facility.” He added that when the company tells the union something, “most of the time they tell us the truth.” He said the company also mentioned the possibility of transferring workers to other Phillips facilities.
Supervisor Gioia reported that in his conversations with Marathon about its possible conversion to biofuels, managers estimated that the new plant would employ fewer than half of the number soon to be laid off from its Martinez refinery.
The problem, Gioia said, is that “the new jobs in the green economy aren’t there yet.” Many communities whose economies depend on fossil fuel, he said, are looking to the example of the electric-bus manufacturing plant recently opened in L.A. County. “Contra Costa is ground zero” for figuring out how to make a just transition from fossil fuels, Gioia said.
U.S. Representative Mark DeSaulnier said in a statement, “Workers must be taken into consideration and supported through [this] process—including with proper training, advanced warning, and jobs worthy of their skills. I have already begun and will continue to bring together local stakeholders to ensure that a transition away from fossil fuels does not leave anybody behind.”
In his report, Karras calls on governments to require fossil-fuel producers to pay up-front into a fund to help communities recover from their economic and environmental impacts and to provide income support and retraining for laid-off workers. Noting the support for biofuels from state and federal government, he said, “The project being proposed is so heavily subsidized that there’s every justification for holding the company responsible for making the workers and the community whole.”
In addition to jobs, neighbors are concerned about leftover toxic pollutants. Crockett resident Rieser said Phillips has “tanks of toxins and old oil sludge on both sides of Route 80. How will these be dealt with? Abandoned?” In addition to converting the refinery, Phillips 66 says it will close the nearby carbon-treatment plant, leaving another toxic site. A requirement to clean up the pollution, she said, should be a condition of any permit the county may grant.
Biofuel helps reduce the amount of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide produced each year because it’s made from living plants. The carbon dioxide they absorb when they grow balances that emitted when they’re burned. “It’s probably true that biofuel will be some of what we need” to transition from a fossil fuel transportation system, Karras said. That’s because biofuel can be substituted for petroleum in existing vehicles and distribution systems, although for use in airplane engines, it must be blended with at least the same amount of petroleum fuel.
But according to the nonprofit Biofuel Watch, biofuel is “misleading as a climate solution,” for several reasons. One is that producing biofuel still releases carbon dioxide and toxic pollutants. Phillips 66 says the new facility will be 15 percent solar-powered, implying that the other 85 percent of the power will come from burning some kind of fuel.
Hydrocracking, the process Phillips 66 says it will use to produce biofuel, requires large amounts of hydrogen. And the refinery’s process for producing the hydrogen also produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, Karras said—along with health-harming pollutants.
In addition, burning biofuel in vehicles produces some of the same kinds of pollution as burning petroleum products, especially the “particulate matter” that causes the most harm to human health. A report from the National Institutes of Health evaluated research comparing the pollution from burning biofuel and petroleum. Results varied depending on the exact composition of the fuels, but in general the biofuels produced substantial amounts of particulate and other pollution, although less than petroleum. Low-income people of color are mostly likely to live near the refineries and freeways where those pollutants are concentrated.
A 2019 study compared two “pathways” for California to get off fossil fuel, one focusing on renewable fuels, the other on electrification of transportation. It estimated that the electrification pathway would reduce particulate pollution enough to avoid about 12,000 premature deaths a year. The renewable-fuels pathway would also avoid some premature deaths from particulate matter—but only about a quarter as many, 2,800 a year.
Land and Climate
The other big concern about biofuel is where the raw material comes from. Phillips 66 says it will be processing “used cooking oil, fats, greases and soybean oils.” But according to Biofuel Watch, the supply of used cooking oil is very limited. Phillips 66 has said that it will use soy oil from the Plains states, but these supplies are also limited. Many fear that the demand for soy and other biofuel crops is adding to the large-scale destruction of forests.
“Where biofuel production has been successful – using vegetable oils, corn, and sugarcane for example – the environmental and social consequences of vast new demand for these commodities has had severe and rippling effects on markets, food production, biodiversity, and human rights,” wrote Gary Hughes of Biofuel Watch. Destroying forests and soil to produce biofuel sometimes releases several times as much carbon as burning the fossil fuels they replace, according to a report from that organization.
State and federal policies heavily subsidize biofuels, according to Marijn van der Wal of Stratas Advisors, quoted in the Los Angeles Times story on the Phillips 66 announcement. Under the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the federal Renewable Identification Number program, producers of biofuel earn “credits” they can sell. They also get $1 per gallon through the federal Blenders Tax Credit program. Altogether, van der Wal estimated, this adds up to “about $3.32 a gallon . . . enough to cover production costs.”
Most American biofuel is produced in California “due to economic benefits under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard,” according to the US Department of Energy. But in a recent letter to the California Department of Energy, Biofuel Watch said this policy “locks in fossil fuel reliance” and “provides cover” for continuing the use of fossil fuel. That’s because it perpetuates the “liquid-fuel supply chain” and liquid-fuel vehicles. This “distracts from the imperative of deep transformation of our energy economy.”