Category Archives: Biofuels

Bay Area refineries taking a new path – going from processing crude oil to renewable energy

Refineries Renewed  – Phillips 66, Marathon move to renewable biofuels

East Bay Express, By Jean Tepperman, September 16, 2020
OIL CHANGE: Local residents stand tall in front of the Phillips 66 refinery, which will become the world’s biggest producer of renewable fuels by 2024. PHOTO BY GLENN HUMMEL

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 She noted that Phillips 66 hasn’t withdrawn permit applications for “two tar-sands-related projects.”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.

Just Transition

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.

Clean Fuel?

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.”

Another Bay Area refinery shutting down fossil fuel production – Phillips 66 in Rodeo

Phillips 66 is turning a California oil refinery into a biofuel plant

Phillips 66 said its Rodeo refinery near San Francisco will make fuel from used cooking oil, fats, greases and soybean oils. Above, a taco shell, dripping oil, emerges from a deep fryer. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times, by Bloomberg, August 12, 2020

Phillips 66 has become the latest in a string of U.S. refiners to announce plans to convert an oil refinery into a biofuel plant.

The company said Wednesday that its 120,000 barrel-a-day Rodeo refinery near San Francisco will become the world’s biggest plant that makes so-called renewable diesel, as well as gasoline and jet fuel, out of used cooking oil, fats, greases and soybean oils.

The announcement came about a week after Marathon Petroleum Corp. said that it may convert two refineries into renewable diesel plants. In June, HollyFrontier Corp. said it would turn its Cheyenne, Wyo., refinery into a renewable diesel plant by 2022.

As refiners across the U.S. struggle with depressed fuel demand amid the pandemic, California’s low-carbon fuel trading scheme may represent a pathway for survival. Demand for so-called renewable diesel is surging in the Golden State as refiners buy increasing numbers of credits under the low-carbon fuel standard program, which aims to cut vehicle emissions 20% by 2030.

“There is overcapacity on the refining market,” Marijn van der Wal, biofuel advisor at Stratas Advisors in Singapore, said in an interview Wednesday. “Are we going to shut down our refineries or are we going to repurpose them?”

Renewable diesel is chemically identical to diesel derived from fossil fuels, according to Neste Oyj, the word’s biggest producer of the fuel.

The LCFS credits as well as federal RIN D5 credits and recently reintroduced Blenders Tax Credits generate about $3.32 a gallon in subsidies for renewable diesel producers, enough to cover production costs, Van der Wal said in a June report.

“It’s a mind-boggling amount of money,” he said by phone. “You will make a lot of money as long as all these subsidies come in.”

Find out why the smallest details can be the most important.
The Rodeo plant could start operating as early as 2024, producing 680 million gallons a year of renewable diesel, gasoline and jet fuel, the company said. Combined with production from an existing project in development, the plant would produce more than 800 million gallons a year. In addition to repurposing the Rodeo refinery, the company also announced it would be closing its 45,000-barrel-a-day plant in Santa Maria in 2023.

Last week, Marathon said it will convert its 166,000-barrel-a-day Martinez, Calif., refinery into a terminal facility and that may include a 48,000-barrel-a-day renewable diesel plant as soon as 2022. The company is turning its 19,000-barrel-a-day North Dakota plant into a renewable diesel plant by the end of this year.

The surge of new entrants into the California biofuel market is creating its own problems, Van der Wal said. Existing renewable diesel suppliers to California, including Neste and Valero Energy Corp., have locked up much of the feedstock, leaving less tallow and cooking oil for the newcomers. Additionally, so many projects are being proposed that there may not be enough diesel demand in California to absorb the additional fuel.

Study Finds Biofuels Worse for Climate than Gasoline

[Editor:  I was wrong.  In a recent post, I applauded Valero Energy for planning a new “renewable diesel” refinery in Texas, and I wondered if Valero Benicia might someday convert to production of renewable fuels.  Here’s why “renewable” doesn’t necessarily mean “clean.”  – R.S.]

Climate Central, by John Upton, August 25th, 2016

Corn is the main crop used in the U.S. to produce biofuel. Credit: Jim Deane/Flickr

Years of number crunching that had seemed to corroborate the climate benefits of American biofuels were starkly challenged in a science journal on Thursday, with a team of scientists using a new approach to conclude that the climate would be better off without them.

Based largely on comparisons of tailpipe pollution and crop growth linked to biofuels, University of Michigan Energy Institute scientists estimated that powering an American vehicle with ethanol made from corn would have caused more carbon pollution than using gasoline during the eight years studied.

Most gasoline sold in the U.S. contains some ethanol, and the findings, published in Climatic Change, were controversial. They rejected years of work by other scientists who have relied on a more traditional approach to judging climate impacts from bioenergy — an approach called life-cycle analysis.

Following the hottest month on record globally, and with temperatures nearly 2°F warmer and tides more than half a foot higher than they were in the 1800s, the implications of biofuels causing more harm to the climate than good would be sweeping.

The research was financially supported by the American Petroleum Institute, which represents fossil fuel industry companies and has sued the federal government over its biofuel rules.

“I’m bluntly telling the life-cycle analysis community, ‘Your method is inappropriate,’” said professor John DeCicco, who led the work. “I evaluated to what extent have we increased the rate at which the carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere?”

Lifecycle analyses assume that all carbon pollution from biofuels is eventually absorbed by growing crops. DeCicco’s analysis found that energy crops were responsible for additional plant growth that absorbed just 37 percent of biofuel pollution from 2005 to 2013, leaving most of it in the atmosphere, where it traps heat.

“The question, ‘How does the overall greenhouse gas emission impact of corn ethanol compare to that of gasoline?’ does not have a scientific answer,” DeCicco said. “What I can say definitively is that, whatever the magnitude of the emissions impact is, it is unambiguously worse than petroleum gasoline.”

The findings were criticized by scientists whose work is directly challenged by them.

Argonne National Laboratory scientist Michael Wang, who has led lifecycle analyses that found climate benefits from different biofuels, called the research “highly questionable” for a range of technical reasons, including its focus on growth by American crops instead of the global network of farms.

Driven by federal and Californian policies that promote biofuels to slow global warming, the use of ethanol, biodiesel and similar products more than trebled nationwide during the years studied, providing 6 percent of Americans’ fuel by 2013. Federal data shows gasoline sold in the U.S. last year contained about 10 percent corn ethanol.

Thursday’s paper provided fresh fuel for a heated debate among opposing groups of scientists over bioenergy’s climate impacts. Some are certain it’s a helper in the fight against climate change. Others are convinced it’s a threat.

“In the long run, there’s no question that biofuels displacing petroleum is a benefit,” said Daniel Schrag, a geology professor at Harvard who advises the EPA on bioenergy climate impacts. His views sharply oppose those of DeCicco. “It’s just a question of how long you have to wait.”

Eight years of pollution from biofuels compared with extra carbon absorption by energy crops. Michigan scientists found 37 percent of the pollution remained in the atmosphere — 83 teragrams. Credit: DeCicco et al., Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use, Climatic Change, 2016

Schrag dismissed Thursday’s findings, saying there’s no reason to develop a new approach to measuring biofuels’ impacts. He said the proposed new approach fails because it doesn’t account for the years it can take for bioenergy to benefit the climate.

Analyses by scientists who have studied the life-cycle impacts of growing corn and other crops to produce ethanol have generally concluded biofuels can create between 10 percent to 50 percent less carbon dioxide pollution than gasoline.

Those estimates have been based on the notion that although bioenergy releases an initial blast of carbon dioxide pollution, the benefits of it accrue over time, as crops, trees and grass grow and suck that carbon dioxide back into their roots, flowers and leaves.

Such benefits are more conceptual than scientific, turning scientific debates at the EPA and elsewhere over how to calculate them into seemingly intractable policy quagmires.

“What timescale should we look at?,” Schrag said. “Some of the fundamental questions about timescale are not scientific questions. They are societal questions.”

The University of Michigan scientists dispensed with the timescale-based approach altogether, eliminating the need for policy decisions about which timeframes should be used. Instead, their research provided an overview of eight years of overall climate impacts of America’s multibillion-dollar biofuel sector.

The findings from the new approach were welcomed by Timothy Searchinger, a Princeton researcher who has been a vocal critic of bioenergy. He has been speaking out for years about the shortcomings of traditional approaches used to measure its climate impacts.

Searchinger said the approach developed in Michigan provides an “additional calculation” to help overcome the flawed assumption that climate pollution released when bioenergy burns does not matter.

Although European officials have warned of the limitations of the use of lifecycle analyses in assessing the climate impacts of bioenergy, the EPA has been steadfast for more than five years in its attempts to create a new regulatory framework that would continue to embrace the approach.

“The U.S. is not coming close to offsetting the carbon released by burning biofuels through additional crop growth,” Searchinger said.


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Valero, other refiners spend more on U.S. clean fuel standards, look for savings through exports

Repost from Reuters
[Editor: Significant quote: “The price of credits has fuel makers like PBF Energy Inc and Valero looking to increase exports, which are not subject to the regulations, as a way to escape the costs.”  (emph. added) – RS]

Refiners on track to spend record on U.S. clean fuel standards

By Jarrett Renshaw, Aug 10, 2016 4:26pm EDT

Major refiners like Valero Energy Corp are on track to pay record amounts this year for credits to comply with U.S. renewable fuel rules, corporate filings show, a trend that hurts profits and has some looking to export more to avoid the cost.

Refiners and fuel importers are required to meet a U.S. biofuel quota of roughly 10 percent through blending products like ethanol into gasoline and diesel. If they fall short, they can buy credits generated by companies in compliance. But the cost of the credits, known as Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), has jumped.

The rising costs have hurt a sector already struggling with huge global fuel stockpiles. The S&P 1500 index of refining and marketing companies has fallen 18 percent so far in 2016, compared with a 6.5 percent gain for the broader market.

In the first half of 2016, a collection of 10 refinery owners including Marathon Petroleum Corp, spent at least $1.1 billion buying RINs, a Reuters review of their filings showed. This puts them on track to surpass the annual record of $1.3 billion the same group spent in 2013.

Refinery executives sharply criticized the regulations during recent earnings calls, saying the burden helped bring about the weakest profits in five years.

“RINs continue to be an egregious tax on our business and have become our single largest operating expense, exceeding labor, maintenance and energy costs,” CVR Refining Chief Executive Jack Lipinski said last month.

Marathon Chief Executive Gary Heminger said on a call last month that demand for RINs are going to outpace supply and the company wanted to see renewable fuel standards eased.

Refiners without blending or retail outlets, such as Delta Air Lines and CVR, have to buy a greater percentage of RINs because they don’t create their own. Delta is part of a refiner group challenging fuel standards through the courts.

Supporters of the existing policy, including the influential corn lobby, said the regulations have produced the desired effect: more renewable fuels in the nation’s gasoline and diesel. They noted refiners can avoid the cost of RINs by investing in blending operations.

“Companies that refuse to blend more renewable fuel will end up paying a premium to other market participants, including speculators, but this is a choice,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy, which represents ethanol producers.

ESCAPE THROUGH EXPORTS

Renewable fuel credits averaged about 78 cents apiece in the second quarter, about 25 percent above the same period a year ago, according to Oil Price Information Service data analyzed by Reuters.

Prices for the credits have rallied on more ambitious targets from U.S. regulators on the volumes of ethanol required to be blended with gasoline, traders and industry sources said.

The price of credits has fuel makers like PBF Energy Inc and Valero looking to increase exports, which are not subject to the regulations, as a way to escape the costs.

PBF Chief Executive Thomas Nimbley said on an earnings call last month that it was “very important” that they expand their refined product export operations, citing RINs as a driver.

Refiners are also lobbying to shift the responsibility of compliance from their industry to blenders and distributors who mix gasoline with ethanol for delivery to filling stations.

(Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson)