Category Archives: Environmental pollution

Why California gets to write its own auto emissions standards: 5 questions answered

Repost from LEGALPLANET.org – BerkeleyLaw / UCLA LAW

Why California gets to write its own auto emissions standards: 5 questions answered

Authored by Nicholas Bryner and Meredith Hankins, Posted on April 6, 2018 10:02 am by Nick Bryner
Rush hour on the Hollywood Freeway, Los Angeles, September 9, 2016. AP Photo/Richard Vogel

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Legal Planet editor’s note: On April 2, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the Trump administration plans to revise tailpipe emissions standards negotiated by the Obama administration for motor vehicles built between 2022 and 2025, saying the standards were set “too high.” Pruitt also said the EPA was re-examining California’s historic ability to adopt standards that are more ambitious than the federal government’s. Legal scholars Nicholas Bryner and Meredith Hankins explain why California has this authority – and what may happen if the EPA tries to curb it.

Where does California get this special authority?

The Clean Air Act empowers the EPA to regulate air pollution from motor vehicles. To promote uniformity, the law generally bars states from regulating car emissions.

But when the Clean Air Act was passed, California was already developing innovative laws and standards to address its unique air pollution problems. So Congress carved out an exemption. As long as California’s standards protect public health and welfare at least as strictly as federal law, and are necessary “to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions,” the law requires the EPA to grant California a waiver so it can continue to apply its own regulations. California has received numerous waivers as it has worked to reduce vehicle emissions by enacting ever more stringent standards since the 1960s.

Other states can’t set their own standards, but they can opt to follow California’s motor vehicle emission regulations. Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s standards.

Gov. Ronald Reagan signs legislation establishing the California Air Resources Board to address the state’s air pollution, August 30, 1967. CA ARB
What are the “compelling and extraordinary conditions” that California’s regulations are designed to address?

In the 1950s scientists recognized that the unique combination of enclosed topography, a rapidly growing population and a warm climate in the Los Angeles air basin was a recipe for dangerous smog. Dutch chemist Arie Jan Haagen-Smit discovered in 1952 that worsening Los Angeles smog episodes were caused by photochemical reactions between California’s sunshine and nitrogen oxides and unburned hydrocarbons in motor vehicle exhaust.

California’s Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board issued regulations mandating use of the nation’s first vehicle emissions control technology in 1961, and developed the nation’s first vehicle emissions standards in 1966. Two years later the EPA adopted standards identical to California’s for model year 1968 cars. UCLA Law scholar Ann Carlson calls this pattern, in which California innovates and federal regulators piggyback on the state’s demonstrated success, “iterative federalism.” This process has continued for decades.

California’s severe air pollution problems have made it a pioneer in air quality research.
California has set ambitious goals for slowing climate change. Is that part of this dispute with the EPA?

Yes. Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. The tailpipe standards that the Obama EPA put in place were designed to limit GHG emissions from cars by improving average fuel efficiency.

These standards were developed jointly by the EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and California, which have overlapping legal authority to regulate cars. EPA and California have the responsibility to control motor vehicle emissions of air pollutants, including GHGs. DOT is in charge of regulating fuel economy.

Congress began regulating fuel economy in response to the oil crisis in the 1970s. DOT sets the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard that each auto manufacturer must meet. Under this program, average fuel economy in the United States improved in the late 1970s but stagnated from the 1980s to the early 2000s as customers shifted to purchasing larger vehicles, including SUVs, minivans and trucks.

In 2007 Congress responded with a new law that required DOT to set a standard of at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020, and the “maximum feasible average fuel economy” after that. That same year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act authorized the EPA to regulate GHG emissions from cars.

The Obama administration’s tailpipe standard brought these overlapping mandates together. EPA’s regulation sets how much carbon dioxide can be emitted per mile, which matches with DOT’s increased standard for average fuel economy. It also includes a “midterm review” to assess progress. Administrator Scott Pruitt’s new EPA review, released on April 2, overturned the Obama administration’s midterm review and concluded that the 2022 to 2025 standard was not feasible.

The EPA now argues that earlier assumptions behind the rule were “optimistic” and can’t be met. However, its review almost entirely ignored the purpose of the standards and the costs of continuing to emit GHGs at high levels. Although the document is 38 pages long, the word “climate” never appears, and “carbon” appears only once.

The EPA’s decision does not yet have any legal impact. It leaves the current standards in place until the EPA and DOT decide on a less-stringent replacement.

U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from transportation exceeded those from electric power generation in 2016 for the first time since the 1970s.  USEIA
Can the Trump administration take away California’s authority to set stricter targets?

The EPA has never attempted to revoke an existing waiver. In 2007, under George W. Bush, the agency denied California’s request for a waiver to regulate motor vehicle GHG emissions. California sued, but the EPA reversed course under President Obama and granted the state a waiver before the case was resolved.

California’s current waiver was approved in 2013 as a part of a “grand bargain” between California, federal agencies and automakers. It covers the state’s Advanced Clean Cars program and includes standards to reduce conventional air pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, as well as the GHG standards jointly developed with the EPA and DOT.

The Trump administration is threatening to revoke this waiver when it decouples the national GHG vehicle standards from California’s standards. EPA Administrator Pruitt has said that the agency is re-examining the waiver, and that “cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country.” In our view, this statement mischaracterizes how the Clean Air Act works. Other states have voluntarily chosen to follow California’s rules because they see benefits in reducing air pollution.

How would California respond if the EPA revokes its waiver?

Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols have all made clear that the state will push back. It’s almost certain that any attempt to revoke or weaken California’s waiver will immediately be challenged in court – and that this would be a major legal battle.


Nicholas Bryner, Emmett/Frankel Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy, University of California, Los Angeles and Meredith Hankins, Shapiro Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy, University of California, Los Angeles

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KQED: EPA Demands Answers From Valero Months After Massive Benicia Refinery Outage

Repost from KQED News

EPA Demands Answers From Valero Months After Massive Benicia Refinery Outage

By Ted Goldberg, August 23, 2017

An 18-minute power outage on May 5, 2017, at the Valero refinery in Benicia led to a prolonged episode of flaring during which 74,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide was released into the air.

The Valero Energy Corporation is facing a deadline in the coming days to respond to questions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about power issues at its Benicia oil refinery several months after an outage shut down the entire facility for weeks, leading to a major release of pollution.

The EPA wants detailed information about the outages that have led to flaring events at the refinery over the last three years, and it wants inspection records for all of the facility’s process units.

“EPA believes that much of the requested information is, or should be, readily available at the facility,” wrote Enrique Manzanilla, director of the agency’s Pacific Southwest Superfund Division, in a letter obtained by KQED.

The agency has asked Valero to explain its policies on handling outages, its risk management program and its flare system.

“The company may not withhold any information from EPA on the grounds that it is confidential business information,” the July 27 letter states. The EPA says Valero is required to respond to the agency within 30 days of receiving the letter.

The outage initially sent a huge plume of smoke into the air, prompting evacuation and shelter-in-place orders. It would later lead to several local and state investigations, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, a decrease in profits for Valero and a push for more refinery oversight by the city of Benicia.

A Valero official says the company is working on providing answers to federal officials.

“We did receive the EPA request, and we intend to respond accordingly,” Lillian Riojas, a Valero spokesman, said in an email.

The EPA’s demands seem to go against the image the Trump administration has established as less interested in strong regulations on the fossil fuel industry.

“This letter is a bit surprising given that Trump’s EPA seems to be ignoring many public health issues to the delight of just about every polluter in the country,” said Hollin Kretzmann, at the Center for Biological Diversity, in an email. “The EPA must think Valero’s practices are especially concerning if it’s asking for this information.”

Still, he says the agency is not being aggressive enough. “This might be little more than a public relations exercise in the face of increasingly high-profile pollution problems at Bay Area refineries,” Kretzmann said. “There’s no assurance that any of this information gathering will lead to meaningful action.”

Daniel Kammen, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley who has long advocated for strong solutions to climate change, says the EPA’s demand for information from one of the nation’s largest oil companies in connection with a local emergency should be the kind of on-the-ground work the agency does, no matter who’s in the White House.

“Actual workers at the EPA have to continue their jobs irrespective of political interference,” Kammen said.

If the EPA did not act on its federal mandate to react to Valero’s pollution release, it could be sued by environmental groups, according to Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis.

“Despite (EPA Administrator Scott) Pruitt’s stance on climate and environment in general, in numerous decisions he has shied away from taking actions that will certainly lose in court,” Wexler said.

The agency’s demands are part of a review of the refinery prompted by the May 5 outage, according to EPA officials who declined to comment further on the agency’s letter to Valero.

They came a month after Valero filed a lawsuit against PG&E, blaming the utility for the power failure. The oil giant is seeking in excess of $75 million for damage to refinery equipment and lost revenue it says was the result of the shutdown that took place after PG&E “shut off all electricity” to the Benicia facility.

PG&E has said the power failure was triggered by an “inadvertent operation” to protect electrical circuits. It has hired an engineering firm to review the cause. That company, Exponent, has yet to turn over a report to PG&E, according to utility spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

The refinery released more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide from flaring in the days and weeks after the outage.

In June, KQED revealed that the refinery released more than 74,000 pounds of the toxic gas during 14 days of flaring after the outage, described as a “huge amount” by experts. That information came from a report the company filed with state officials and was obtained through a California Public Records Act Request.

Valero filed a separate report with the California Office of Emergency Services last month that showed the refinery released more than 8,200 pounds of sulfur dioxide on June 18 and 19.

The outage prompted several investigations, including one that revealed damage to part of the facility.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) inspected the refinery after the power failure, closed its investigation the same month and decided not to issue any violations afterward.

But the outage did damage one of the refinery’s flares, according to Cal/OSHA. “Attention was given to the South Flare, due to damage on flare tips and the dump stack,” wrote Cal/OSHA safety engineer Sean Sasser in a notice after the inspection.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued several notices of violation against the company due to the flaring in the days after the shutdown. Its investigation is ongoing, according to district spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

Solano County’s Department of Resource Management also launched a probe. That review is ongoing and is expected to be completed in October, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, the department’s director.

Experts say the outage led to an increase in the state’s gasoline prices.

And the shutdown hurt Valero’s bottom line. Its lawsuit claimed that the company lost a “substantial amount of profits.” The company’s second-quarter earnings, released last month, fell by more than 30 percent, apparently because it took several weeks to get the refinery back online.

The outage has also prompted Benicia city leaders to consider increasing their oversight of the refinery and improve how they communicate with residents about emergencies.

On the day of the shutdown, authorities imposed shelter-in-place evacuation orders for parts of the city, and at least a dozen people sought medical treatment for breathing difficulties.

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EAST BAY TIMES: Benicia: Valero to pay $157,800 penalty over toxic chemicals

Repost from the East Bay Times

Benicia: Valero to pay $157,800 penalty over toxic chemicals

By Denis Cuff, October 5, 2016, 5:53 pm
The Valero refinery is photographed in Benicia, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)
The Valero refinery is photographed in Benicia, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

BENICIA – The Valero oil refinery has agreed to pay $157,800 in federal penalties for improper management and storage of toxic chemicals and hazardous waste, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday.

The violations included illegal disposal of benzene, a carcinogen, into an unlined storm water retention pond and not alerting the public about all of its toxic chemical releases, EPA officials reported.

In addition to paying the penalties, Valero will modify its piping operations by June 2017 to prevent an estimated 5,000 pounds of benzene from being released into the atmosphere over the next 10 years, officials said.

Evidence of the violations were detected during an EPA inspection of the Benicia refinery in May 2014 to assess compliance with the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

Additional violations included the company’s failure to determine if solid waste generated at the refinery was hazardous; the failure to maintain and operate to minimize risks of a toxic release; and failure to maintain complete and accurate records, the EPA said.

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