Category Archives: Keeping Watch on Earth News

What’s good for the climate – and not so good – in the new Inflation Reduction Act

By Roger Straw, July 30, 2022

The proposed Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is important, no doubt about that.  Here are a number of ways to learn more.

If you’re a wonk for details, read the first of these two articles below, Manchin’s Inflation Reduction Act: What’s Good and Bad for Climate News. by Drilled News.

If you want a one-page exposé on the bill’s weak points, check out the second article, Manchin Poison Pills Buried in Inflation Reduction Act Will Destroy Livable Climate, by Brett Hartl of the Center For Biological Diversity.

Offsite reading – see also:

It’s a sad day when “progress” must be taken in great big baby steps and a few backward leaps.  I fear for the generations to come….

Manchin’s Inflation Reduction Act: What’s Good and Bad for Climate

Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Drilled News, July 28, 2022

Weird coincidence: My power was out when the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 was announced. By the time it came back on, Twitter was awash in takes on what Senator Joe Manchin’s proposal means for climate. Quick aside here, how annoying is the dude who shits on everyone else’s proposal and then finally submits his own worst-of-all-versions approach as the most sensible path forward? We’ve all worked with this dude at some point, and he is no one’s favorite.

Negotiating on climate policy with Senator Coal Baron began with the first iteration of the Build Back Better Act, which earmarked more than $500 billion for climate-related programs. That was still less than half of what is needed to actually transition off of fossil fuels, but it was a start and clean energy advocates were particularly excited about the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would have required electric utilities to clean up their electricity mixes by 4 percent each year. That doesn’t sound like much, but even the fastest-moving utilities were hitting around 2 percent each year (2020 was the best year on record, when the utility sector hit a 2.3 percent increase in clean energy), so the mix of regulation and incentives aimed at pushing them to 4 percent would have delivered meaningful emissions reductions. It was one of the first programs Manchin killed; he said utilities were already moving quickly enough. The fee proposed on methane emissions went too, as did a whole host of other regulatory measures.

“What we’ve seen is that carrots are much easier to pass than sticks,” Dr. Leah Stokes, professor of political science at University of California at Santa Barbara and author of the book Shortcircuiting Policy, about the way utilities have influenced and controlled energy policy over the years, told me at the time. “It’s really hard to actually require change,” she adds. “It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Hey, if you’d like to go solar, cool! Here’s some money. But you know, you don’t have to. You want an EV? Sure, that’s great. But you know, you don’t have to get an EV. Everything is just kinda voluntary and that’s important. Don’t get me wrong. Carrots are really important. But the problem with climate change is that we actually have to move fast enough. We need everybody to be doing the right thing at the pace and scale that’s necessary.”

And therein lies the rub. Politicans are still treating climate change like, well, politics. In doing so they’re missing the one really key difference between this issue and every other issue they might address: time. If Washington fucks up on healthcare, people will die, it’s true. But we’re not locked into mass death year over year, compounding and increasing all the time with no way to stop it. A new policy could literally stop the bleeding from one day to the next. The same is not true of climate. A compromise today may well be smart politics, but it is also genocide. It is a choice to put corporate profits above human life, and not just the humans walking around right now but also those who will walk the Earth 50 years from now. It’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder all the time whether politics is just fundamentally incapable of meeting this challenge.

Which is not to say that doing something, anything isn’t always better than doing nothing. Every percentage of a degree matters, and despite the fact that this Act supports fossil fuel extraction alongside clean energy development, on the whole we will emit less than had Manchin proposed absolutely nothing. So, with our climate realist glasses on, let’s take a look at the details of this proposal, which Manchin and Schumer agreed to and announced on July 27, 2022, and which they say could be law as early as August 2022.

The Weeds

This is a 725-page bill, and I have not read every single page yet, so please if there are climate provisions lurking outside the “Energy Security” section give me a shout. The section begins on page 232, and it starts with “Clean Electricity and Reducing Carbon Emissions.” Here’s what it does (I’ve put ** next to provisions that were part of the original BBB climate proposal):
…….(>>>…continued, click here…)  [An EXTENSIVE listing of provisions follows, a thorough analysis of the bill’s pros and cons.  Excellent for a deep understanding.  – R.S.]

Manchin Poison Pills Buried in Inflation Reduction Act Will Destroy Livable Climate

Press Release by Brett Hartl, Center for Biological Diversity, July 28, 2022

WASHINGTON— A proposed climate and energy package would require massive oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, reinstate an illegal 2021 Gulf lease sale and mandate that millions more acres of public lands be offered for leasing before any new solar or wind energy projects could be built on public lands or waters.

The provisions, in sections 50264 and 50265, are buried near the end of the 725-page Inflation Reduction Act. The bill was released Wednesday after Sen. Joe Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced they had agreed to the $370 billion package.

“This is a climate suicide pact,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s self-defeating to handcuff renewable energy development to massive new oil and gas extraction. The new leasing required in this bill will fan the flames of the climate disasters torching our country, and it’s a slap in the face to the communities fighting to protect themselves from filthy fossil fuels.”

The bill would require the Interior Department to offer at least 2 million acres of public lands and 60 million acres of offshore waters for oil and gas leasing each year for a decade as a prerequisite to installing any new solar or wind energy. If the department failed to offer these minimum amounts for leasing, no right of ways could be granted for any utility-scale renewable energy project on public lands or waters.

In January a federal judge overturned the 80 million-acre Gulf of Mexico lease sale because Interior failed to address the climate harms from developing the leases. The additional Gulf of Mexico and Alaska lease sales mandated by the bill for 2022 and 2023 were part of a prior five-year leasing plan, but they did not occur.

The Inflation Reduction Act would require offering these minimum lease amounts for 10 years. That translates to more than 600 million acres of offshore leasing — four times the size of the entire Gulf of Mexico outer continental shelf.

On average the fossil fuel industry has purchased for lease 1 million acres of land every year since 2009. By requiring 2 million acres per year to be offered for lease — an area the size of Yellowstone National Park — the legislation all but ensures that the fossil fuel industry will maintain current oil and gas production levels without any change for the next decade. U.S. emissions must be cut in half over the next nine years to have even a chance of avoiding catastrophic warming.

“More oil and gas leasing is completely incompatible with maintaining a livable planet, so we’re forced to fight this,” said Hartl. “This deal is unacceptable. If it passes, we’ll fight every single lease the Interior Department tries to approve. Our climate and the health of our communities depend on it.”

Passing new laws to mandate oil and gas leasing would fundamentally conflict with the Biden administration’s climate goals. Multiple analyses show climate pollution from the world’s already producing fossil fuel developments, if fully developed, will push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Avoiding such warming requires ending new investment in fossil fuel projects and phasing out production to keep as much as 40% of already-developed fields in the ground.

Fossil fuel production on public lands is responsible for about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide federal fossil fuel leasing ban would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals in recent years.

Seeno in Benicia – here we go again…

Warning and good advice by architect of Benicia’s General Plan, former mayor Elizabeth Patterson


Benicia, California

May 26, 2022

Tail wagging the dog – a Benicia story

Many moons ago – before the red moon and blue moon – city leaders began the planning process for developing Sky Valley (1990s). Imagine suburban development like what is happening on Columbus Parkway along Lake Herman Road. More streets, water lines for more water and more traffic with more carbon emissions.

The first tail wagging.  Sky Valley planning process was the  tail wagging the dog. Why? Because the then General Plan was old and did not anticipate that kind of growth. The city council decision makers balked at paying for a general plan update. A group of organized citizens proposed to the council that the council establish a task force to determine wither the General Plan should be updated. The task force with a consultant was approved, and reported to the city council the need for an update.  Council adopted a resolution establishing a commission which was charged with leading the community discussion. The Council resolution included substantial city funds for the commission and future consultants including an economic assessment.

Take note that there are details to this story which I have provided in earlier postings such as a citizen collecting signatures in opposition to Sky Valley development and a vote by council to not move forward. This was after the respected city manager at the time initiated a specific plan process. The public was treated like most of these processes — being fed information in meetings and not being part of the ownership of the decision. Indeed one of the finest consultants in California known for her public participation process quit because of this flawed process. But I digress.

What a community-led process is. The General Plan update process was led by the General Plan Oversight Committee (GPOC – pronounced gee pock). There were panels of experts on property rights, geologic issues, affordable housing, open space and conservation and economics. By consensus – not brute power – GPOC found common ground in a shared vision for Benicia. And that shared and adopted vision is our current General Plan.

But that dog’s tail is wagging again. And this story follows a red moon. [This has nothing to do with the story but it does add color].

The second tail wagging. Coincidentally at the May 17th council meetings  two tails were on the agenda. Let me explain: as a result of the community led GPOC, the consensus was that in keeping with the vision for Benicia as a small town, smart growth and sustainable development, an urban growth boundary line (UGBL) would be established along Lake Herman Road excluding urban development requiring municipal services. This is another story I’ve written about and to keep this posting shorter I will just say that because of council wavering on the UGBL, citizens ran an initiative in 2003 to establish the UGBL by a vote that cannot be undone by Council. That initiative must be renewed after twenty years. The council voted to place the renewal of that initiative on the ballot this coming November.

Seeno Again. And at this same May 17 council meeting – coincidentally – council approved a planning process for what is called the Seeno property, establishing a “community-led” process to recommend a “vision” for the Seeno property. The property owner goes by another name now WCHB. But it is Seeno. So who is Seeno and where is the property?

Google Seeno and you will find stories of blatant destruction of wetlands and millions of fines paid – the price of doing business. You will find law suits against communities such as Brentwood for denying one of their projects. You will find in the 1980s about how Seeno built a commercial building in Concord that exceeded the Concord Airport safe aviation height. You will find articles about how the federal government and over 20 agencies “raided” the corporate offices in Concord. It had something to do with politics in Nevada and death threats on both sides. Seeno. They even filed a lawsuit against the City of Benicia for its planning efforts for creating walkable and bikable streets in the Industrial Park. They were not successful. And that family-owned business has owned over 530 acres here in Benicia west of East 2nd and along Lake Herman Road for over 35 years.

The current General Plan is the vision for Benicia. To change that vision requires a public process and an amendment . . .  and CEQA. The overarching goal of the General Plan is sustainable development. There are a multitude of goals and policies about land use, walkability, water, traffic and economic goals and policies. All of these are the guiding principles for development. It’s the constitution for land use. It’s the law.

At the May meeting Council adopted resolutions and approved consultants to determine a “vision” for the Seeno property. The “community-led” process is similar to the failed process in the Sky Valley experience. The planning consultant will meet with the council subcommittee of two (Young and Macenski) and then meet with the “community-led” public meeting.

Community-led process. So what is the community-led process? Three or so public meetings where you can show up and listen and comment. No formal commission. No stakeholder process. No ownership. Will this meeting process review the General Plan especially for the overarching goal of sustainability and more specific considerations of topography, view sheds, and other quality of life and city policies?

The scope of work for the two consultants – planner and economist – make no mention that the General Plan is the first step for considering the use of the Seeno property. Opportunities and constraints are fundamental planning approaches. I wrote a white paper on this very topic in anticipation of development of the Seeno site. The General Plan goals and policies are where one starts for “opportunities and constraints”. If the current planning process anticipates changing the land use, start with the existing framework. By the way, in the 1990s the Benicia Industrial Park Association conducted a robust campaign against housing/mixed use for the whole area including Seeno.

Best planning tool is not being used. Secondly and for a technical reason, a review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is not going to be done. The technical reason reminds me of the expression of “do what you want and ask for forgiveness later”. Why? Because CEQA is the best planning tool we have in California.  CEQA is intended to inform government decision makers and the public about the potential environmental effects of proposed activities and to prevent significant, avoidable environmental damage. It asks nearly all the questions one would want to ask about development. Think about it. Would we have built an asphalt plant near residential development if CEQA had existed? When will the carbon footprint be assessed? What are the potential off-setting strategies for the carbon footprint?

Water. Water supply. The cost of water treatment. When will these issues be addressed and what will be recommended and how much will it cost?

Not doing a CEQA-like process means that is less likely a proposed development will avoid impacts. What is more commonly done is mitigation for impacts. Meaning instead of avoiding potential water supply issues, CEQA could address with rain water capture, industrial above the ground cisterns. Avoiding storm water pollution and flooding would be designed up front in the potential future project feasibility. But waiting until an impact is formally identified, the typical mitigation would be water supply and storm water treatment. Such mitigation approach is expensive and not sustainable.

Carbon Footprint. How will there be an assessment for avoiding adding to our carbon footprint? Better yet, will there be a benefit of reducing our carbon footprint? Or are we going along in willful ignorance? Without some kind of CEQA assessment the answer is disturbing.

Economics. Speaking of economics, the second consultant is the economist. And the consultant is the same firm that did the 1999 General Plan economic study and EIR assessment. Their scope of work has nothing in it to assess development for consistency with the General Plan goal of sustainability. Nor does it lay out a decision making process for life cycle cost analysis. This means the real cost of maintenance and operations for roads, water lines, water supply, waste water treatment, and other municipal services. For instance, residential development property taxes don’t keep up with the cost of things and therefore some municipal services such as roads are not maintained as good as they should be. Or there may be a need for higher sales tax to cover these. Or… there could be other strategies so the city does not dig its financial hole deeper with added cost of residential development or any development.

What Kind of Retail Matters. The economic scope of work will assess retail. Retail that provides services within commercial and light industrial development (the current general plan designation) is sustainable and should reduce driving because these services are within walking distance. But. Large scale retail – including a movie complex or chain retail – will wreck downtown. Just look around and see: Pleasanton, Fairfield, Vallejo. Where is the analysis for this effect?

We as a city have had the best planning processes in the past as described earlier for GPOC. We had internationally regarded planners conduct meetings, seminars and charrettes. We had a nationally recognized economist detail what cities need to think about when doing development. At one time we were leaders in reducing our carbon footprint. Best of all we have a specific plan for the Seeno site based on the opportunities and constraints of the land and policies and a graphic supporting the specific plan.  This was the product of a citizen-led effort.  Have we learned from our past efforts?

Oh, and did I mention that Seeno is paying for this work?

My recommendations are for the council to

  • Establish a formal task force perhaps along the lines of the Waterfront Park process (done by the same firm that the current planning consultant worked for). This would be a community-led process.
  • Ask how can we add value to what we have and avoid failed business as usual development.
  • Adopt a CEQA approach that is not an actual legal CEQA but uses the tools and approaches for assessment of development choices.
  • Ensure by council resolution that any agreement for potential future specific plan includes a development agreement.
  • Adopt a resolution affirming the General Plan goal for sustainable development and no net increase in our carbon footprint. Climate crises is real. Business as usual is unforgivable. I expect nothing less from our council.

    Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 – 2020
    Elizabeth Patterson After three terms as Mayor of Benicia CA, Elizabeth retired from Benicia’s city council in 2020. She is vice-chair of the Delta National Heritage Area Advisory Committee; serves on the North Bay Watershed Association representing Solano County Water Agency; is policy chair for AAUW; is a lecturer for a grant funded semester course at Sonoma State on land use planning and management and water.  She loves to walk and hike with Alex, her 18 month-old puppy.

Benicia Independent announces new directions

‘BenIndy’ will return to more frequent focus on issues other than COVID-19

The Benicia Independent, by Roger Straw, May 25, 2022

Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

Friends, family and neighbors near and far – it’s been a looong and sometimes lonely road here at the wheel, driving and maintaining the clean-energy vehicle known as the Benicia Independent.

Now, having passed through a challenging 25 month public health journey, the time has come to reconfigure the roadmap – again.

The BenIndy on COVID-19

In April of 2020, the BenIndy was overtaken by the urgency of reporting on the deadly pandemic sweeping into Benicia and Solano County.

At first, your BenIndy staff of one – that’s me – collected, analyzed and published Solano County COVID data five days a week M-F.  More than a year later in June of 2021, the County cut back to 3 days a week, and although I complained that we ought not be slacking off, I followed suit and began posting my COVID report on MWF.

Just two months ago, on March 14, 2022, the Solano County Health Department cut back to informing the public about COVID only on Mondays and Thursdays.  Again, I expressed disappointment, but switched to a twice a week posting.

As of today, over more than two years, I have published 416 Solano/Benicia COVID reports, keeping residents informed as the virus mutated and surged – and killed 425 of us.  (425 Solano residents.  The County does not disclose City data on deaths and hospitalizations.)

I have been tired of this for a long time, but I carried on due to the danger and severe threat to public health.

The world beyond COVID-19

Meanwhile, like everyone else, I have been alarmed by historic news from Ukraine.  I’ve not posted nearly often enough about our U.S. Supreme Court poised to take over the private health decisions of women.  Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are threatening the very basis of our democracy.  And my deep and abiding concern for sensible gun control and racial justice has spiked, again, with the devastating news from Buffalo NY and Uvalde TX.

Of course, that’s not all.  There’s a world of nearby news: it’s electoral campaign season again here in Benicia, with our Big Oil political action committee amassing over $200,000 to once again pollute our polls and elect a puppet City Council.  Vallejo news and Solano County and California news is compelling and important.

So it’s time for me to let go of the daily, weekly, interminably ongoing COVID report.  I’ll archive for public access the spreadsheet I’ve kept that shows the spread of COVID here from April 2020 to May 2022.  Check it out at BenIndy COVID SPREADSHEET
And the 416 individual updates are archived here: DAILY COVID POSTINGS ON BENINDY.

New Directions

I will renew and strengthen my Benicia coverage, including:

    • an expanded focus on Benicia Black Lives Matter
    • coverage of Benicia’s 2022 electoral campaigns, including the run for City Council by my favorite candidate, Kari Birdseye and the powerful Valero PAC that will surely oppose her
    • continuing stories on Benicia environmental concerns, with a close eye on the SF Bay, the Carquinez Strait, the air around us and our not-so-friendly neighbor, Valero Benicia Refinery

I will also return to peace and justice themes writ large, national and international issues that have motivated me for over 50 years in my professional and retirement life:

    • Racial Justice and the resurgence of white supremacist ideology and expression
    • Gun violence and sensible gun control
    • Organized threats to our democracy in swing states and the federal government
    • Gender justice and LBGTQ rights, with a serious focus on women’s health issues and the right to safe and legal abortion
    • World order, peace, freedom and international justice, including opposition to authoritarian and fascist powers
Limits and personal needs

Of course I’ve set the bar higher than my 73-year old body and retirement needs can begin to attain.  We all know that it’s important to accept some limits and attend to personal needs as well as the critical calls to vigilance, resistance and service.

So I’ll never do it all.  But at least I’ve given myself clarity and permission to move in a good direction.

Help where help is needed?

If there’s anyone out there reading this far down in the story who would like to assist me, I’d welcome turning a one-person operation into a team approach.  In particular, if you would like to pick up on COVID reporting, that would be nice.  Or if you’d like to become a regular contributor on any of the themes I’ve highlighted, let’s talk.  Write to me at rogrmail at gmail dot com.

Who knows?  Maybe the BenIndy will see another 15 years?!

Baykeeper features Benicia activists Andrés Soto and Kathy Kerridge: The struggle for clean air and water in Benicia

Environmental watchdog group Baykeeper filed a lawsuit in federal court against Amports, which owns the Port of Benicia, and Valero for allegedly mishandling petroleum coke, a refinery product that can damage the heart and lungs.

Peninsula|Press, a project of Stanford Journalism, by Elissa Miolene, May 16, 2022

From a cliff overlooking the Port of Benicia, Cole Burchiel pumped his fists in the air. It was a silent, solitary celebration – born not of happiness, but of vindication.

As a field investigator at the San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental watchdog group, Burchiel had been conducting one of his regular patrols of the bay. As he maneuvered his drone around the port, black plumes towered from the ship beneath it. And as he hit record, the drone – affectionately named Osprey – captured what for months had been impossible to prove.

Petroleum coke, a refinery byproduct that can damage the heart and lungs, was being mishandled at the Port of Benicia.

“It’s heartbreaking to see this happening to the environment,” Burchiel said. “But it was exciting because finally – after all this time – we have enough to do something about it.”

Five months later, in March of 2020, Baykeeper officially filed a lawsuit in federal court against Amports, which owns the Port of Benicia, and Valero, which produces the petroleum coke itself. According to Baykeeper, the incident Burchiel caught on camera was just one of many documented by the organization between November 2020 and March 2021.

Valero declined to comment on the suit, while Amports did not return requests to do so.

“We have a solid case lined up and some of the best lawyers I’ve ever met, so I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to deliver justice to this community,” said Burchiel. “The wheels are now in motion and the train can no longer be stopped.”

Baykeeper hopes the lawsuit will lead to increased regulation not just in Benicia, but across the East Bay, where many think decades of contamination – and the presence of five oil refineries – have led to increased asthma, respiratory disease, and other illnesses.

Elusive East Bay pollutants

The first call to Baykeeper’s hotline came from a longshoreman at the Port of Benicia in 2016. Black dust was billowing everywhere, the caller said, along with a thick, black substance that was seeping into the Carquinez Strait.

On land, many Benicia residents were noticing something similar. Pat Toth Smith, for example, said that those living near the Valero Benicia Refinery would wake up with a layer of powder on their cars. Constance Beutel, another Benicia resident, described seeing black dust, suspended and shimmering, in sun-lit air.

Baykeeper speculated that the black dust was petroleum coke, a bottom-of-the-barrel byproduct packed with heavy metals. Petroleum coke resembles coal, but is much dirtier – and when burned, it emits 5 to 10 percent more carbon dioxide.

At first, the Baykeeper team tried to locate the source of the petroleum coke on its small, blue-and-white speedboat. They knew that most of the petroleum coke produced in the area came from the Valero Benicia Refinery, which shipped the material to Asia via the Port of Benicia. In their boat, Baykeeper skippers and field investigators circled the strait, but were ultimately unable to detect evidence of contamination from the water.

Years later, Baykeeper was able to see the port – and spot the evasive pollution – from a new angle: the sky.

“The most significant pollution was an aerial plume of black smoke nearly 500 feet tall,” Burchiel said.

Cole Burchiel peers into a telephoto lens to survey ships at the Port of Benicia. Photo by Elissa Miolene for the Peninsula Press

Over the last decade alone, 277 toxic spills in Benicia were reported to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), with 75 spills reported by the Valero Benicia Refinery itself. As part of their investigation into Amports and Valero, Baykeeper also found significantly high levels of zinc, nickel, mercury, copper, and arsenic in dredging material taken from the bay in 2010, 2013, and 2016, materials that point to consistent petroleum coke contamination, the organization said.

Tap image to enlarge.

These findings occurred amid a regular barrage of pollution, smoke, and contaminants already drifting across the East Bay, which – even if reported – were usually invisible to those breathing them in.

Can’t see it, can’t prove it

While Baykeeper was looking into Valero, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (Air District) was doing the same – albeit, from a different lens.

After an investigation into the refinery in late 2018, the Air District found that Valero was producing toxic emissions, including cancer-causing agents like benzene, that were hundreds of times higher than permitted. The Air District mandates that refineries produce less than 15 pounds of “precursor organic compounds,” or hazardous air pollutants, per day. But over the three years of their investigation, the Air District found that Valero was producing 5,200.

According to the Air District, Valero had been aware of these elevated levels since 2003.

“This wasn’t just a little bit over the legal limit,” said Kathy Kerridge, director of the Good Neighbor Steering Committee, an organization focused on environmental issues in Benicia. “This was like somebody driving 400 miles per hour in a five mile per hour speed zone.”

Though the Air District made these findings – and issued a notice of violation to Valero – in 2019, the agency did not notify the public until earlier this year, when it announced the imposition of an abatement order against the refinery.

Benicia Mayor Steve Young said he met with the general manager of the Valero Refinery nearly every month since he took office. Nothing about the investigation or the violation was ever revealed to him, either by Valero or the Air District, Young said.

“The fact that none of this was mentioned to me during any of these meetings is dispiriting,” said Mayor Young. “This was first discovered in 2003, but the Air District didn’t find out about it until 2018. Once they started to address it, they still didn’t let the city know. We are frustrated that something like this could go on – undetected and unreported – for this long.”

At a community meeting in February, Benicia residents repeatedly asked representatives how such pollution could have been concealed at Valero, and why the public was not notified until three years after the Air District began their investigation. According to the Air District, this information was kept from the public to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation. Before releasing its findings, the Air District was working with Valero to develop a solution to the exceedance – one that ultimately reduced emissions, but not enough to comply with existing regulations.

“We could have done better, and we should have done better sooner,” said Damian Breen, the Senior Deputy Executive Officer at the Air District, at the community meeting.

In mid-March, the Air District approved an abatement order for Valero that requires the refinery to halt unreported emissions.

Even before these emissions were publicized, Valero was already the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter in the Bay Area, producing an estimated total of 2,186,096 metric tons of CO2 per year.

Tap image to enlarge.

Valero was surpassed only by other oil producers, including the Shell Martinez, Chevron Richmond, and Tesoro refineries – the latter of which is now idled.

­Life in a refinery corridor

According to Andres Soto, Benicia resident and environmental activist, the battle for transparency and accountability is nothing new to his community – one that is at the tail end of the Bay Area’s refinery corridor.

After living in Richmond and Benicia, Soto has seen similar things in both refinery towns, including a lack of trust with the Air District, a lack of trust with the refineries, and the impact those factors have on community members. Soto’s grandson, for example, plays on the local baseball team sponsored by Valero. He also has severe asthma, a condition which can be linked to the inhalation of refinery-produced materials.

Kerridge has also seen such illness firsthand. Two of her neighbors have died of lung cancer, and in the past two years, two of her friends’ husbands. She has had breast cancer. None of them were smokers.

“It’s very difficult to say this is caused by excess pollution, you can’t really pin it on that,” Kerridge said. “But I don’t know how typical it is to have that many people die of lung cancer in your neighborhood.”

Though it can be difficult to link pollution with health effects, Benicia’s toxic release score – used to enumerate exposure to chemical emissions from large facilities – is higher than 83 percent of the state, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. A 2016 report also showed that Solano County has rates of asthma and some cancers that are higher than the state average.

Tap to enlarge.

With three other refineries operating across the East Bay, communities like Richmond, Martinez, and Vallejo share Benicia’s health risks – and in some cases, face additional challenges. Richmond, for example, is home to Chevron, the largest refinery in the East Bay. In the neighborhood surrounding Richmond’s Levin Terminal, which handles coal and petroleum coke, asthma rates are higher than 99% of all neighborhoods in California, according to CalEnviroScreen.

Tap to enlarge.

Eduardo Martinez, a Richmond city councilmember and retired elementary school teacher, is intimately aware of such health effects. When he first moved to Richmond, he couldn’t understand why so many of his students were refusing to participate in their physical education classes.

“When I kept trying to push them, I got complaints from parents saying, I don’t know whether my son’s told you, but he has asthma,” said Martinez. “I started doing an inventory of my students, and I found out that over half my students had asthma.”

Realizing the extent of the issue, Martinez created an alternate physical education curriculum for those suffering from asthma, thereby creating an “asthma club” for children who couldn’t previously participate in gym classes.

It’s something that is not lost on the refineries, including Chevron in Richmond. In response to a request for comment, Chevron pointed to its efforts to reduce emissions, increase refinery safety, and monitor air quality. It also highlighted its own community air monitoring program, which has been in operation since 2014. The full comment can be accessed here.

“Chevron has a long-standing commitment to reduce emissions at our Richmond facility,” said the refinery in an email. “Our recent major investment in a Modernization Project is a great example of efforts taken to improve energy efficiency, reduce air emissions overall, cap greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the safety and reliability of the refinery. This project enabled the refinery to achieve more than 25 percent reduction of particulate matter emissions refinery-wide.”

Still, many activists say such efforts are not enough.

“This is a huge issue: that you can have oil extraction and facilities around sensitive receptors – kids, older people, even you and me,” said Janet Scoll Johnson, Coordinator of the Sunflower Alliance, a Bay Area environmental group. “This is the fight in the East Bay. It’s an environmental justice issue of the highest order.”

Cole Burchiel surveys Richmond’s Levin Terminal from his drone. Photo by Elissa Miolene for the Peninsula Press
Pushing forward, on land and at sea

Despite these challenges, organizations across the East Bay are continuing to push forward on land and at sea. From 1989 to today, Baykeeper has won over 300 lawsuits against polluters – and both the organization and Benicia residents are hopeful that their latest suit against Valero will lead to decreased pollution.

“We hope to work with the defendants to resolve this case quickly and in a way that protects the health of the bay and the local community,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, the executive director of Baykeeper, in an email.

The San Francisco skyline from the Baykeeper’s boat, shot during a regular patrol in February 2022. Photo by Elissa Miolene for the Peninsula Press.

In the meantime, community members are remaining hopeful. Kerridge and a team of activists recently unveiled the Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program, a system that scans for benzene, black carbon, and other pollutants right outside Valero’s gates. Martinez is running for mayor, with a foundational pillar of his campaign centered around a transition from fossil fuels. And Soto, though recently retired, is continuing to work with those in the ecosystem to hold institutions – both private and public – accountable.

“My hope comes from the fact that we have been able to organize, pull people together, and create networks all around the Bay Area addressing this,” said Soto. “The industry is going kicking and screaming, resisting these changes – but that’s nothing new. We expect that.”