The State of California is sponsoring a series of statewide meetings where members of the public can testify about the ways the oil industry affects our health and that of our communities. One of these meetings is being held in Oakland (see when and where below). We highly encourage everyone with a story to tell about oil industry impacts on you, your family and your neighborhood to come and testify. We will have two minutes to speak our hearts and minds.
The meeting is sponsored by the Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM, formerly DOGGR) of the state’s Department of Conservation. Although CalGEM specifically regulates oil and gas production (oil drilling), it will share public testimony from this meeting with other state regulatory agencies.
The new rulemaking that results will be based on this important public input, and will consider the best available science and data to inform new and strengthened protective state requirements.
The Sunflower Alliance is making arrangements for free transportation from Rodeo and Richmond to the hearing. If you need a ride, please let us know at email@example.com .
See this Facebook post for a recording of the first public hearing in Bakersfield meeting on February 19.
A little more background:
AB345 (currently heading toward the state senate) and the Governor’s own plans require Public Health Rulemaking around the urgent call for 2,500-foot setbacks from oil and gas extraction sites. The first step is this series of pre-rulemaking community meetings to gather public input.
When you testify about Bay Area oil industry impacts, please be sure to start with a strong statement of solidarity with those folks who are living near oil drilling sites, and express your support for setbacks and AB345.
If you can’t attend:
Written comments can be sent via email
or by postal mail to—
Department of Conservation
801 K Street, MS 24-02
Sacramento, CA 95814
ATTN: Public Health near Oil Gas Rule-making
Monday, March 9, 1-3 PM —Doors open at 12:30. A rally outside is tentatively scheduled for noon.
360 14th St., Oakland (near 12th St. BART)
Solano County inspectors documented a long list of shortcomings and inadequate procedures at Valero’s Benicia oil refinery that contributed to a major pollution release from the facility earlier this year, newly released county documents show.
The county’s Department of Resource Management documented violations of eight separate state regulations. The infractions included failure to fix important sensors in a refinery furnace unit, infrequent inspections of key equipment, and failure to have an operating plan in place to deal with unexpected refinery conditions.
Solano’s probe relied in part on Valero’s root cause analysis of the shutdown, which found that one of the worst refinery incidents in the Bay Area in years was caused by a mistake made months earlier.
Both reports focused on tubes in the refinery’s furnace that heat up crude oil before it’s routed to other parts of the facility for processing. County and refinery officials say those furnace tubes were damaged during maintenance work last November, which caused the devices to fail and contributed to the plant’s malfunctions in March.
The Valero complex ended up belching out a massive amount of black sooty smoke, which led to health concerns for people living nearby.
The refinery’s subsequent closure contributed to a statewide spike in gasoline prices and prompted investigations by several government agencies, renewing attention on the refinery two years after a power outage caused a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide in the area.
Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas declined to comment directly on the company’s violations. Instead, she pointed to the company’s May filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which it reported it’s facing more than $342,000 in fines in connection with the incident. The company told the SEC it expects to face $242,840 in proposed penalties from Solano County and $100,000 from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Valero’s root cause analysis, completed in July, examines a series of problems that led to the refinery malfunctions.
Company inspections during the refinery shutdown found that furnace tubes were bulging and leaking. Valero says when the facility was restarting a unit last November, a safety valve improperly “lifted,” allowing crude oil to bypass one of the refinery’s furnaces.
Valero says “it was not appreciated at the time” that allowing the bypass “exposed the furnace tubes to elevated temperatures.” Extreme heat gradually deformed the tubes and allowed a solid substance called petroleum coke to form inside. Valero’s analysis concedes that the deteriorating conditions were “not timely identified and mitigated, leading to the tubes’ subsequent failure” and the March refinery malfunctions.
Solano County’s investigation reported that carbon monoxide and oxygen sensors in the refinery furnace were not operational for at least three years.
“Proper functioning sensors would have provided an indication that the furnace was malfunctioning to Valero staff, allowing them to act sooner to correct the condition and prevent additional release,” said Terry Schmidtbauer, the county’s assistant director of resource management, in an email.
“The issue with the furnace upset the system,” Schmidtbauer said.
Those system issues became more evident in early March as two other refinery components experienced problems. One was a fluid coker, which heats up and “cracks” the thickest components of crude oil processed at the refinery. Another, a flue gas scrubber, removes fine particles before gases are released from the facility’s smokestacks.
Malfunctions with those devices led to an increase in carbon monoxide levels, according to Valero, To reduce those levels, refinery crews ended up increasing the temperature on the furnace tubes, thus accelerating their deterioration.
There was little liquid in the tubes, which puts them at risk of damage, according to Professor Eric Smith of Tulane University’s Energy Institute, who specializes in refinery operations.
“One result is thermal degradation of the metal tube,” said Smith, who reviewed company and county findings. “Another effect is that the liquid that does make it through the tube is converted into petroleum coke.”
That dynamic led to the release of sooty smoke and resulted in elevated levels of particulate matter and a health advisory.
County inspectors discovered several problems with lines that carry petroleum coke. On the day the refinery was shut down, one was leaking. Valero staff told Solano officials in April another line had failed five times in the last three years.
The county’s Department of Resource Management has ordered Valero to make a series of changes, some of which it has already completed. They include orders to reduce petroleum coke releases, new procedures for preventing the overheating of furnace tubes and increased training.
Solano County’s Schmidtbauer said the department was still assessing what penalties it will levy against the refinery.
Local air regulators issued 12 notices of violation against Valero. Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the air district, said the agency’s probe is not yet complete.
An investigation by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Cal/OSHA, is expected to wrap up in the coming weeks, according to agency spokesman Frank Polizzi.
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday directed his secretary of natural resources to fire Ken Harris, the state’s top oil regulator, after learning from The Desert Sun/USA TODAY and watchdog groups that fracking permits have doubled without his knowledge since he took office and that seven supervisors charged with regulating the industry own shares in major oil companies.
Ann O’Leary, chief of staff to Newsom, sent a letter to Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for Natural Resources, asking him to immediately make several changes in the Department of Conservation, including firing Harris.
Harris is the head of the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, also known as DOGGR. He could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
O’Leary also told Crowfoot to “continue at full pace the investigation you have already started related to the allegations that employees at DOGGR have holdings in energy companies, which could constitute actual or apparent conflicts of interest, and take the maximum disciplinary action appropriate under law.”
In the meantime, she directed him to ensure that all employees and contractors who own oil or gas stocks recuse themselves from all permitting decisions pending individual reviews based on new conflict rules that are being formulated.
On Wednesday, The Desert Sun reported the pace at which fracking permits are issued has doubled since Newsom took office in January, and thousands of permits for new and re-used oil and gas wells also have been approved, angering environmental and public health groups who hoped for a phase-out of the state’s billion-dollar industry following the retirement of Gov. Jerry Brown.
The Desert Sun also reported on the findings of two watchdog groups, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance, who uncovered records showing that top state regulators and engineers held investments in Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Valero and other petrochemical giants.
Almost half of the 2,300 well permits issued in 2019 have benefited oil companies invested in by agency officials, the consumer groups said.
Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance uncovered the regulators’ personal investments and permit data through public records requests, and the two groups shared the documents with The Desert Sun and the USA TODAY Network.
“This is a good start,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “This shows the governor wants to change the culture at the agency to make sure it’s free of conflicts and safety comes before the oil companies’ interests. The next move has to be to hold accountable Mr. Harris’ supervisors, who were well aware that this was an agency that was permitting wells with the oil companies’ interests first in its mind and the public last.”
Guest Bloggers Deborah Gordon and Frances Reuland: Is California Extraordinary? Its Oil Resources Certainly Are
Facts About California’s Oil and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Despite ongoing federal rollbacks to environmental regulations, California has the right to set its own clean air standards because it is truly extraordinary. Truth be told, the compelling circumstances that first set in motion California’s vehicle emissions standards remain entirely valid. And there are four recent conditions, related to California’s oil supply, production, and refining, that bolster California’s case against the Administration’s threat to strip California of its clean car clout.
In 1967, then governor Ronald Reagan adopted statewide vehicle emissions regulations to address California’s severe air pollution. Shortly thereafter, when the federal Clean Air Act was adopted, California was granted a waiver to set its own tougher vehicle emissions standards. Over the decades, California has repeatedly ratcheted up these regulations to also include greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In order to maintain its waiver, California’s emissions standards must be deemed necessary to meet “compelling and extraordinary conditions.” Historically, these referred to the state’s unique meteorology, geography, population, and air pollution levels.
All of these still hold true: the sun shines strong, the weather is warm, mountains wall in emissions from cars and other sources, one in eight American drivers reside here, and the air is still very dirty.
But there are four more extraordinary circumstances, all relating to California’s oil resources, that need to be factored into the case for preserving and strengthening California’s clean car program.
These circumstances are bolstered by the fact that California’s gasoline and diesel markets are geographically isolated from other locations in the United States that produce refined products. As such, California is essentially self-sufficient, refining its own transport fuels. Little, if any, gasoline and diesel are obtained from outside the state to balance out supply with demand.
All of the oil California produces ends up in its own refineries, and this is not an environmentally-friendly affair, especially in a state that has taken the lead on clean air and climate change. According to the Oil Climate Index (OCI)—an open source tool (developed by Gordon and her partners at Stanford and the University of Calgary) that compares the climate impacts of global oils—extracting and refining oil in California is dirtier than anywhere else in the United States. Weakening California’s vehicle emissions standards will force Californians to consume more of the state’s dirty oil longer into the future. This will increase pollution levels and elevate risks to public welfare in the state with the nation’s worst air pollution—69 percent of counties had unhealthy air on 33 days last year.
California’s oil resources are extraordinarily strained
As Texas, North Dakota, New Mexico, and overall U.S. oil production rises, California production is in decline. Since 1985, California’s crude oil production has dropped steadily: the state now produces under 500,000 barrels per day, less than half of its output 30 years ago. California’s aging oil fields, unstable seismic geology, and tight environmental rules all work to limit oil production. Successfully running its oil refineries at their current capacity of 2 million barrels a day to meet Californians’ gasoline and diesel demands requires the state to feed the entirety of its domestic oil into its refineries and then import 70 percent more oil. If realized, Trump’s plan to weaken the state’s clean car standards would increase gasoline and diesel demand, exacerbating the state’s already-strained oil resources and further pressuring security of its energy supplies.
California’s oil resources are extraordinarily dirty
California’s oils have some of the largest carbon footprints worldwide. Producing, refining, and consuming a barrel of California oil emits more GHGs than other global barrels. For example, the state’s largest oilfield, Midway Sunset, is estimated to be more carbon intensive than Canada’s oil sands. California’s South Belridge and Wilmington fields are also among the highest-emitting in the nation. Trump’s plan would increase California’s GHG footprint, countering the state’s climate goals.
California’s oils are extraordinarily energy intensive
Aging oils in California require significant amounts of energy to extract and refine, much more than newer resources in North Dakota, the Gulf of Mexico, and elsewhere. Fossil fuels, like natural gas and diesel, provide these extra energy inputs. A barrel of California’s Midway Sunset oil, for example, uses one-third of its total energy just to extract and refine it into petroleum products like gasoline and jet fuel. Likewise, California’s complex refineries consume nearly five times more energy to turn the state’s oil into marketable products than simpler refineries. Much more manpower and money are spent bringing California oil to market than elsewhere in the country.
California’s oils are extraordinarily undocumented
Unlike other states and countries, California does not document its oil quality. The problem is that California’s oil resources are more dangerous to handle than most global oils. In 2011, for example, a California oil field worker was buried alive when the ground gave way as steam was being cycled through the oil field. California’s complex oil was documented long ago by the federal government, but recommendations for oil data transparency have gone unheeded for over a century. These large information gaps introduce new environmental risks for California.
California’s 30 million motor vehicles that far outnumber any other state are a major source of air pollution. Clean car rollbacks are a threat to the state’s environmental progress—and energy security. The state needs to fight hard to preserve its pioneering vehicle emissions standards on behalf of itself and several U.S. states and international provinces that have already adopted them. Beyond preserving the standards in place, state policymakers should also consider tightening their emissions standards if they are going to make real headway addressing climate change. In this historic fight, California can draw on its extraordinary status—namely its exceedingly dirty, depleting oils that are unusually energy intensive and fundamentally unknown.
Deborah Gordon is the director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University. Frances Reuland is Carnegie’s James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in the Energy and Climate Program.