Category Archives: California Public Utilities Commission

KQED: In Wake of Valero Refinery Incident, Benicia Weighs Whether to Pursue Safety Ordinance

Repost from KQED News (NPR / PBS)
[Editor: Also tune in to an incredibly important 8-minute KQED audio report for interviews about asthma and Valero refinery pollution: When Oil refineries flare, what happens to the air.  – RS]

In Wake of Valero Refinery Incident, Benicia Weighs Whether to Pursue Safety Ordinance

By Ted Goldberg, Jun 18, 2018
A power outage on May 5, 2017, at Benicia’s Valero refinery led to a prolonged episode of flaring during which more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide were released into the air. (California Environmental Protection Agency)

Thirteen months after a major air-pollution incident at Valero Energy Corp.’s Benicia refinery, city leaders will decide whether to assume more oversight of the facility.

On Tuesday, the City Council plans to decide whether to direct staff to begin developing an industrial safety ordinance that would require Valero to pay for a set of air monitors, submit a safety plan to the city and provide Benicia with reports on serious refinery malfunctions.

The issue is the latest to pit Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, other city officials, environmentalists and some residents against the San Antonio-based energy company, which is the city’s largest employer and taxpayer.

Patterson began pushing for the reforms in the weeks following the May 5, 2017, refinery power outage that triggered the release of more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

“The space for the city is to be at the table and not be kept in the dark,” said Patterson.

The outage sent flames and black smoke into the sky, leading to shelter-in-place and evacuation orders. At least a dozen people sought medical attention for breathing difficulties. It took weeks for the refinery to return to full operations, and analysts said the incident prompted a rise in the state’s gasoline prices.

Patterson says that since the outage, neither Valero nor regulators have given the city detailed information about the incident.

For instance, city officials learned from KQED, not from Solano County, that county environmental health investigators concluded late last year Valero did not violate state regulations in connection with the accident.

“We don’t get those reports,” said Patterson in an interview last week. “We never did get a presentation by any state or regional agency, let alone Valero, about what had happened.”

“The public has a right to know,” she said.

Valero has consistently opposed a city safety ordinance, which would be modeled after those used in Richmond for the Chevron refinery and in the rest of Contra Costa County for the Shell, Phillips 66 and Andeavor (formerly Tesoro) facilities.

“We believe you will see there will be no need to pursue a duplicative and divisive Benicia Industrial Safety Ordinance,” Donald Cuffel, the refinery’s director of health, safety, environmental and regulator affairs, wrote in a letter to the City Council late last month.

Cuffel argued state and county agencies, as well as the local air district, already have similar regulations in place.

Last October, California officials approved rules similar to Contra Costa County’s ordinance for refineries statewide.

That prompted Solano County’s Department of Resource Management to spend close to 500 hours inspecting, reviewing and documenting the Valero refinery, according to Benicia city staff.

Currently, neither the Bay Area Air Quality Management District nor Benicia have air monitors in place to measure air quality after refinery accidents. Air district officials say they rely on monitors in nearby cities to gauge Benicia’s air quality.

Patterson’s proposal calls for Valero to pay for monitors to be placed throughout Benicia’s residential and industrial areas as well as on the refinery’s fence line. Data from those devices would be placed on a website.

Last week the regional air district approved a fence-line air monitoring plan by Valero, according to agency spokesman Tom Flannigan. The refinery has one year to install the devices.

The district is in the initial phases of looking for a location for a community air monitor, said Flannigan.

Iron Workers Local 378, which represents some of the refinery’s workers, is also opposed to the safety ordinance, calling it a “duplicative, outdated, go-it-alone strategy.”

“A local ISO won’t make sure our workers, trainees or this community any safer,” Jeff McEuen, the union’s business manager, financial secretary and treasurer, wrote in a letter to the City Council last week.

But a group brought together after last year’s refinery outage to develop safety reforms says the law is needed.

“This is a signature moment for Benicia, as it will signal whether the City Council puts the health and safety of Benicia, its citizens and community members over the Valero refinery’s ‘just trust us’ stance to its industrial safety record,” said Constance Beutel, a member of Benicia’s ISO Working Group.

At least one other member of the council sees the proposed ordinance as a way for the city to get information more quickly when the next refinery accident takes place.

“There is a problem with getting sufficient information out in a timely manner,” said Vice Mayor Steve Young. “There is a need for greater transparency.”

Young noted that the conflict over an industrial safety ordinance is the biggest between city leaders and Valero since the council rejected the company’s oil-by-rail proposal in 2016.

Councilmembers could either direct city staff to draft an ordinance that the council would vote on in the coming months, or the city could continue to rely on Solano County’s work in employing the new state regulations.

Meantime, the California Public Utilities Commission expects to complete its investigation of the refinery outage this summer, according to Garrett Toy, a CPUC lawyer.

Valero sued Pacific Gas and Electric after the incident, seeking $75 million for damage to refinery equipment and lost revenue. The company blames PG&E for the episode and claims it “shut off all electricity” to the refinery the day of the outage.

PG&E hired a third party engineering firm, Exponent, to review the outage. The company submitted that report to the CPUC. Both PG&E and the commission have declined to release that report.

Valero’s lawsuit is expected to go to trial next year.

    A looming disaster – Crude oil running on Butte County’s railways poses a threat to local, state watersheds

    Repost from the Chico News & Review

    A looming disaster – Crude oil running on Butte County’s railways poses a threat to local, state watersheds

    By Dave Garcia, 03.10.16
    DAVE GARCIA. The author, a longtime Oroville resident, is the spokesman for Frack-Free Butte County.

    Scientists have found unprecedented levels of fish deformities in Canada’s Chaudière River following the Lac-Mégantic Bakken crude oil spill in 2013. This catastrophic train derailment, which killed 47 people and ravaged parts of the small town in Quebec, underscores the danger of spilled toxic crude oil getting into our waterways and affecting living organisms.

    I find the Canadian government’s report very distressing—even for Butte County. That’s because, just last week, I observed a train of 97 railcars loaded with crude oil traveling through the Feather River Canyon and downtown Oroville.

    The California Public Utilities Commission has designated this rail route as high risk because of its sharp curves and steep grade; it travels next to the Feather River, which feeds into Lake Oroville, an integral part of California’s domestic water supply.

    If you think that railway shipping is safe, think back to 2014. That’s the year 14 railcars derailed, falling down into the canyon and spilling their loads of grain into the Feather River. The last thing we need, especially in a time of drought, is crude oil poisoning the water of our second-largest reservoir.

    In 2010, it took over $1 billion to clean up the Kalamazoo River crude oil spill. But you can never really clean up a crude oil spill in pristine freshwater, as the deformed fish from the Chaudière River reveal.

    Keeping crude-oil-carrying railcars on the state’s tracks is simply not worth it. Less than 1 percent of California’s imported oil is transported by railway. Californians receive little benefit, but bear the risks to their communities and watersheds from this practice.

    Since Lac-Mégantic, there have been nine more crude oil derailments, explosions and spills into waterways. We need to learn a lesson from those catastrophes. We must convey to our politicians—local, state and federal—our priority of protecting our communities, fisheries and waterways. Let’s not let what happened in Quebec happen in Butte County.

      PGE proposes to double fees for clean energy customers

      Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle
      [Editor:  The proposed increase is to be voted on at a Thursday, 12/17/15 meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission.  See agenda, p. 17 (Item #16, Adopting Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s 2016 Electric Procurement Cost Revenue Requirement Forecast.  The item in question is “$118.7 million for the Power Charge Indifference Amount.”  More background  and an ACTION letter opportunity at ActionNetwork.  More at Marin Independent Journal.  – RS]

      High cost of breaking away

      EDITORIAL – On Alternatives to PGE

      The Pacific Gas and Electric Co., California’s largest utility and a longtime regulated monopoly, insists that its application to nearly double a fee for customers defecting to local clean power plans is simply a matter of market forces.

      PG&E’s many critics think otherwise.

      “There’s an urgency for PG&E to stifle competition,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. “They’re protecting a monopoly.”

      The suspicions are understandable. PG&E has the legal right to charge the fee, known as a Power Charge Indifference Adjustment.

      It has to do with PG&E’s obligation to provide power to everyone in its service area as the utility of last resort. Should any customer’s alternate energy provider go out of business, PG&E still has to be able to provide for those customers — hence a fee.

      “We have to undertake long-term forecasts about serving those customers in the event of their other service provider going out of business,” said PG&E spokesperson Nicole Liebelt. “It’s about ensuring that those customers won’t be left stranded.”

      Liebelt said that PG&E’s longterm contract costs for serving customers are higher than current market costs, and that’s why the fee had to rise.

      “The formula for calculating the fee hasn’t changed,” Liebelt said. “It’s the inputs that change every year.”

      But the fee has never been as high as it is this year — the cost for each residential customer would nearly double, from $6.70 to $13 per month. In San Francisco, the proposed fee for residents looking to move to CleanPower SF would skyrocket by 100.26 percent.

      Meanwhile, there’s never been a greater danger of Bay Area customers stranding PG&E.

      CleanPowerSF, San Francisco’s city-run green energy program, launches in the spring. Peninsula Clean Energy, a community choice renewable energy program for San Mateo County, is scheduled to launch in August 2016.

      And Marin Clean Energy and Sonoma Clean Power aren’t going anywhere.

      But the administrators of these programs have all cried foul, saying that the big fee hikes threaten their business models.

      We urge the California Public Utilities Commission to consider these arguments very carefully before they vote on a rate increase as early as next week.

      Leno has urged the CPUC to do a public review of its methodology for how the fee should be calculated before voting on any increase above 15 percent.

      Considering the fact that the CPUC has historically been incredibly deferential to PG&E’s concerns, Leno’s idea is worth considering. Electricity customers deserve choices, and local clean energy programs deserve the opportunity to compete on a level playing field.