Category Archives: Keeping Watch on Earth News

Solano County report on Valero near-catastrophic incident on May 5, 2017

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald and the East Bay Times
[Editor: Note that the Solano County analysis and report was not sent to City of Benicia elected officials nor released to the public.  The existence of the report came by way of a contact for information by KQED News.  See also: KQED: Solano County Probe Finds No Violations in Valero Refinery Outage.   For details, download the Solano County Incident Report.  – RS]

Second regulator finds Valero committed no violations in May 5 flaring

By Katy St. Clair, 10/24/17, 5:19 PM PDT 
(Chris Riley/Times-Herald)The city of Benicia was given a shelter in place alert and areas south of the Valero Refinery were evacuated after a power outage caused a flare up sending plumes of black smoke across Interstate 680.
The city of Benicia was given a shelter in place alert and areas south of the Valero Refinery were evacuated after a power outage caused a flare up sending plumes of black smoke across Interstate 680. | (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

A second agency has ruled that Valero Oil Co. did not violate any regulations in connection with the May 5 power outage that sent plumes of toxic gas into the air as the result of emergency flaring.

The Solano County Environmental Health Division could not find any safety or regulatory deficiencies on the part of Valero, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, assistant director of resource management.

“We looked at their processes — did they have safety plans in place, were they handling the chemicals properly? Did they report their emissions, did they have the proper plans in place to minimize the releases?” Schmidtbauer said.

Schmidtbauer’s team found that Valero had followed all protocol, though he said that his agency is still getting new information and that new regulations that went into effect on Oct. 1 will need to be taken into consideration when it examines Valero’s process going forward.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) conducted its own probe in May and also didn’t issue any violations.

The event occurred after PG&E shut down two main power feeds to the refinery, which initiated emergency flaring and ended up pumping more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide into the air. Valero is suing PG&E in excess of $75 million for the power outage, which the power company admits to causing.

Critics of Valero say that the oil refinery should have had sufficient, independent backup power to cover such emergencies, though there are no state or federal regulations that require it to do so.

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson responded to the county’s ruling by saying that just because Valero didn’t violate any regulations doesn’t mean that what happened wasn’t dangerous and preventable.

Valero wasn’t required to have backup power beyond PG&E and therefore could not be found to be violating any laws when all power was cut off.

“Lack of violations does not mean that we are safe,” Patterson said. “The next step is to have an incident review of what could be improved.”

Patterson has been pushing for Benicia to spearhead an Industrial Safety Ordinance patterned after one created in Contra Costa County that has some of the most stringent oversight in the United States, according to the county’s Health Services division. Contra Costa’s I.S.O. offers another set of eyes beyond regulators that requires refineries to be evaluated for safety and other concerns and then make changes if necessary. These changes and recommendations can vary from plant to plant, according to Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, whose district includes the Chevron refinery in Richmond that was the site of a major fire in 2012.

This year, the Governor’s Interagency Working Group on Refinery Safety adopted the Contra Costa model for its “best practices” dictate for refineries across the state. It went into effect Oct. 1.

Though this new oversight expands the Industrial Safety Ordinance statewide in order to strengthen health and safety issues around refineries, Patterson still wants to explore creating an ordinance in Solano County.

“We need an I.S.O. so that we provide the public’s right to know in an effective and transparent way and that we can have the expertise to assess the status of these programs,” she said in an email.

Although rules, procedures and regulations may be put into place, it is important to have local, expert oversight ensuring that they are all followed, she said. It would also be easier to share information with the community.

“This (would not) give us regulatory authority over the state but could go beyond the state in certain categories mostly dealing with noticing, reporting, investigations, inspections and public right to know,” she said.

Patterson likened it to how water pollution is overseen.

“While the feds and state set standards, and the regional water boards issue permits and violations, the local government has ordinances that apply the standards and collect the fees to ensure those standards are met,” she said.

Patterson is organizing a meeting for mid-November with Gioia, Cal/OSHA and other entities to conduct an incident review of the flaring in May, discuss a possible I.S.O. here, and figure out how closely the new Oct. 1 statewide guidelines mirror those in Contra Costa County.

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California Legislative Summary – October 2017

Repost from the Planning & Conservation League – PCL Insider

Planning & Conservation League’s 2017 California Legislative Summary

Matthew Baker, PCL Policy Director, October 2017

It was a big year in the California Capitol: the precedent setting Cap and Trade program was extended, a major transportation funding program was passed (SB 1), a funding bond for parks, water conservation, and climate resilience (SB 5) was approved for the ballot, and a historic “Housing package” including major funding for affordable housing to address the state’s housing crisis also passed the legislature, after months of deliberation, and was approved by the Governor. By some accounts it was one of the heaviest legislative years in California ever.

There are too many important bills that passed this year than can be described in detail here, but the following are some of the highlights of the legislation PCL was engaged in:

It is a major disappointment to PCL to report that the Governor vetoed AB 890 (Medina). PCL worked very hard with the author and sponsors of this bill in an effort to correct a court-created loophole that has enabled project proponents to use the ballot initiative process to bypass environmental review.  This is a difficult problem, but in the end our team developed a viable solution that had gained wide support. In his veto message, the Governor did indicate recognition of the problem and a willingness to correct it, and PCL looks forward to working with the administration and our partners to pursue this solution.

PCL was also extremely focused on this year’s “Housing Package” which was comprised of more than 15 bills signed by the Governor to address the housing shortage and the growing lack of housing affordability in California. PCL has worked for the past year with a coalition of diverse interests with the goal of identifying housing concepts, appropriate project review streamlining, and financial incentives to accelerate production of the right things in the right place—that is, equitable infill development without displacement of low income communities. While we had concerns with some specific bills, PCL supported the package in total, which represents a significant step forward in the right direction for California’s housing needs.

Some of the more significant bills in the package include SB2 (Atkins) that establishes a long-sought after permanent source of funding for affordable housing, and SB 3 (Beall), a bond for the 2018 ballot for further affordable housing funding. Though more is needed, these bills represent the most significant investment in housing since the dissolution of redevelopment agencies in California. AB 1505 (Bloom) is another long-sought after win for equity advocates, clarifying a court decision to ensure that local inclusionary housing ordinances extend to rental housing. PCL helped to get the language right in SB 166 (Skinner) that requires jurisdictions make a new site available for affordable housing if a formerly identified site for affordable housing is changed to another use. PCL also worked very closely with the bill sponsor, Council of Infill Builders, to ensure that the NIFTY Act, AB 1568 (Bloom), stayed nifty—establishing a unique voluntary financing district mechanism for jurisdictions to fund affordable infill housing and associated utility and transit infrastructure upgrades.

Of the entire housing package, SB 35 (Wiener) posed the greatest challenge for PCL. SB 35 allows for “by-right” approval (a full CEQA review exemption) of housing projects that meet certain affordability and environmental criteria. Again, PCL worked very hard with diverse interests to ensure that this bill incentivized truly equitable infill housing, without displacement, and without urban “greenfield” expansion. While we greatly supported the intent of the author, in the end we found that the final language did not meet that intent and opposed the bill. Stay tuned for a more detailed analysis in the upcoming California Today newsletter of SB 35, strengths and weaknesses in the housing package, and what these implications mean for PCL’s work moving forward.

There were a number of bills which PCL supported that aimed at back-stopping California law with protections we currently rely on federal law for. SB 50 (Allen), imposing restrictions on the privatization of federal lands, was signed by the Governor. SB 51 (Jackson), establishing protections on science and climate data generated in California was vetoed by the Governor.  The farthest-reaching bill in this regard, SB 49 (de Leon), seeks to adopt provisions of the Federal Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, as well as federal workers-rights protections, into the California Code. Due to practical concerns over how such a broad law will be implemented, the bill was held in committee. SB 49 will likely be a two-year bill and priority for PCL.

There were also multiple bills concerning water that PCL was engaged on. We support SB 623 (Monning), which would establish a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The bill was held this year in committee but will likely move again next year. We opposed SB 634 (Wilk), a problematic privatization of a public water agency in Santa Clarita, which the Governor signed. PCL and many others strongly opposed the last-hour passage of AB 313 (Gray), which would have restricted authority of the State Water Resources Control Board and posed a terrible precedent for the powers of other state agencies. Thankfully, the Governor vetoed AB 313.

PCL is always watching for last minute gut-and-amend bills, and particularly last-minute CEQA exemptions for special projects, and there was one such bill. SB 789 (Bradford) would have given a CEQA exemption to a proposed stadium in Inglewood, raising broad opposition in the last days of the session, and the bill was held in committee.

There were many wins for the environment and social equity in 2017, but there were some loses as well. PCL and our partners are already looking ahead to 2018 to build upon those wins and to find constructive approaches to the many challenges that remain. Stay tuned!

 

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Big Oil aims to buy democracy in WA State

Repost from Sightline Institute 
This article is part of the series Look Who’s Taking Oil & Coal Money 

BIG OIL AIMS TO BUY DEMOCRACY IN WASHINGTON

Local Northwest elections targeted with huge fossil fuel spending.
By Eric de Place, October 25, 2017 6:30 am
Bow of oil tanker by Roy Luck used under CC BY 2.0

With no statewide races or federal level races, 2017 is supposed to be an “off” year election. But for the fossil fuel industry and their allies it’s proving to be a spending bonanza. Coal, oil, and railroad shippers have dumped a jaw-dropping $1.5 million into three relatively small caliber Washington races: a Vancouver port commission seat, a state senate race in suburban King County, and a Spokane city ballot initiative.

Coal, oil, and railroad shippers have dumped a jaw-dropping $1.5 million into three relatively small caliber Washington races.

The big media story this election has been at the Port of Vancouver, where the oil company Tesoro aims to build a 360,000 barrel-per-day oil train facility called Vancouver Energy. Two of the three port commissioners back the project, but the outcome of the election could change that. Candidate Don Orange is likely to join current port commissioner Eric LaBrant in opposing Tesoro’s plans, and they could end the project by declining to renew the company’s lease.

Running against Orange is Kris Greene with heavy backing from the company he would be responsible for permitting. So far, the project’s backer has contributed a staggering $370,000 to Greene, far and away the largest corporate donation in the history of Vancouver’s port and the largest direct donation to any candidate in all of Washington in 2017. This princely sum comes on top of a $162,000 independent expenditure from Enterprise WA Jobs, a political action committee (PAC). The biggest donors to the PAC this year are none other than Tesoro to the tune of $200,000 and BNSF with $215,000, the two companies who profit from the terminal’s operations.

Reports from the Columbian newspaper have also revealed a shocking degree of coordination between Greene and his oil business sponsors. In effect, Tesoro has operated Greene’s campaign, doing everything from writing his press releases to speaking for the campaign to hiring DC-based communications firms with connections to some of the worst anti-environmental campaigns in the nation. (Tesoro is no stranger to big spending for right-wing spending in Washington, but 2017 marks a new level of aggression for the Texas oil company.) In September, Greene’s former campaign manager Robert Sabo even quit because of Tesoro’s outside influence on the campaign. He told the Columbian in an article earlier this month “Big Oil is completely dictating where every penny is going.”

Meanwhile, a state senate race on the eastside of Lake Washington is setting new spending records. The match in the 45th district pits Republican Jinyoung Englund against Democrat Manka Dhingra in a contest that could have major implications for the state legislature. If Dhingra wins, the Senate will flip to the Democrats, giving them majorities in both houses along with control of the governor’s office. Democratic control would likely take action on long-stalled environmental priorities like oil transportation safety requirements, funding for toxic waste cleaning up and prevention, or statewide clean energy investments.

A trio of right-wing PACs are spending big to support Republican Englund with a combined $820,000. The same Enterprise WA Jobs PAC playing in the Vancouver race is also spending big in the 45th. Beyond the hundreds of thousands from Tesoro and BNSF, the PAC has another $100,000 from Chevron and $25,000 from Koch Industries (the fossil fuel company of Koch Brothers notoriety). Meanwhile, the Citizens for Progress Enterprise WA PAC is registering another $350,000 from Texas oil company Phillips 66. And the Leadership Council PAC shows yet more oil and railroad money: $25,000 more from Tesoro, $20,000 from BNSF, and $10,000 from Union Pacific.

Backing Democrat Dhingra are the New Directions PAC and the Working Families PAC, with funding from State Democratic Campaign Committee, The Leadership Council, state unions, the Washington Conservation Voters, and big national names like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.

In Spokane, a citizen’s ballot initiative, Proposition 2, proposes to levy fees on coal and oil trains that pass through the city. It has garnered predictable opposition from fossil fuel companies, as well as the railroads that ship their products. So far, the industry’s PAC has $180,454 worth of contributions, including an eyebrow-raising October contribution of $39,500 from Lighthouse Resources, the struggling company behind a Longview coal terminal development that was effectively killed by state permitting agencies in September. Lighthouse had previously given $25,000 to the PAC, an amount that was matched by Cloud Peak, a company that exports modest volumes of coal via a terminal in British Columbia, as well as Tesoro, and the railroads BNSF and Union Pacific.

The Northwest is proving to be the graveyard of ambitions for coal, oil, and gas schemes as a region-wide groundswell of opposition has fought back project after project. Now, stymied at every turn, the fossil fuel industry is deploying what may be its most dangerous weapon: piles of cash and a willingness to overwhelm democratic institutions, even at a local level. If the “off” year elections of 2017 prove successful for Big Oil, there is every reason to think the industry will play hardball in the big ticket races of 2018.

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