California drivers — or the millions of them whose cars still run on refined petroleum — can expect to pay more to fill up their gas tanks in the coming days thanks to the partial shutdown of Valero’s Benicia refinery.
The retail cost of a gallon of gasoline in the state is expected to rise immediately, according to David Hackett, president of Stillwater Associates, a transportation energy consulting company based in Irvine.
That’s after a 12-cent spike in wholesale gas prices on Monday, Hackett said.
“That price increase is likely to get passed through to motorists over the next week or so,” he said. “You’ll start seeing prices go up starting probably today.”
The average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in California is $3.51, 16 cents higher than a week ago, according to AAA.
Several agencies are investigating a series of petroleum coke dust releases at the Benicia refinery that began more than two weeks ago. Those releases intensified on Sunday, prompting city officials to issue a health advisory.
The Valero refinery’s flue gas scrubber malfunctioned, a problem that led to a sooty plume of petroleum coke to billow out of the facility’s smokestacks. To deal with the problem, the refinery is slowly shutting down a significant part of its operations.
Last week, problems at two other California refineries contributed to the recent jump in gas prices.
AAA says a fire at a crude processing unit at the Phillips 66 refinery in Los Angeles County and a series of flaring incidents at Chevron’s Richmond refinery drove prices higher.
AAA spokesman Michael Blasky said price spikes are the norm when refineries suffer problems that lead to curtailed production.
“When a refinery goes offline and supply drops, retailers incorporate price increases almost immediately in California,” Blasky said.
Wholesale suppliers that sell fuel to gas stations and hear about the Benicia refinery’s shutdown will probably go into the so-called spot market to buy gas, sending the price up, Hackett said.
The refinery problems come amid a jump in the price of crude oil over the last year, which has sent gas prices up nationally.
State workplace regulators, the region’s local air quality district and Solano County health officials are trying to find out why a problem at Valero’s Benicia refinery suddenly worsened over the weekend, leading to a release of petroleum coke dust that prompted fire officials to urge those with respiratory problems to stay indoors.
The incident led to a partial shutdown at the facility and represents the worst malfunction at the plant since a power outage caused a major pollution incident in 2017.
The releases of elevated levels of particulate matter led several residents to complain of breathing problems and prompted Benicia’s mayor to call on Valero to pay the city back for its work dealing with the emergency. The partial refinery shutdown is also expected to lead to a spike in higher gasoline prices throughout the state.
Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said she’s gotten a flood of phone calls and emails from residents wanting to know why it took so long for Valero to suspend refinery operations.
“There’s a lack of understanding about how coke particulates could be continuously emitted throughout a couple of weeks,” Patterson said. “There’s not a lot of information that’s readily available to the public.”
California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health began a probe into Valero on Monday, the day after the company began the gradual shutdown of a significant portion of the refinery, according to agency spokesman Frank Polizzi.
Cal/OSHA becomes the latest government agency to look into the breakdown of a key piece of equipment inside the refinery that went down two weeks ago. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District and Solano County officials have launched probes as well.
Refinery Problems Started Two Weeks Ago
On March 11, the facility’s flue gas scrubber began malfunctioning. That meant the facility’s smokestacks began belching a sooty plume of petroleum coke dust — minute carbon particles that are a byproduct of the oil refining process.
The initial problem prompted the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to issue eight notices of violation against Valero.
The air district and Solano County health officials said during the following days that the flue gas scrubber had been fixed and the coke dust releases were intermittent and gradually coming to an end.
But the black smoke returned on Saturday. On Sunday, fire officials detected high levels of fine particulate matter, known as PM10, around the refinery and issued a health advisory urging people with respiratory issues to stay indoors.
“What we were seeing was dark gray, almost black smoke coming from the flue gas scrubber unit,” Benicia Fire Chief Josh Chadwick said Monday.
PM10 is particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter — larger than PM2.5 many became familiar with during last November’s Camp Fire, when smoke from the huge Butte County blaze prompted health advisories throughout much of Northern California.
Like PM2.5, the larger particulate matter is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA spokeswoman Soledad Calvino said the agency would not comment on ongoing or potential investigations.
The agency has said that once inhaled, petroleum coke dust can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects.
“The additional concern is that this is more toxic than the standard stuff you’d find in the atmosphere,” said Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis. “It’s probably similar in toxicity to diesel exhaust, which is a known carcinogen because it’s sooty in nature.”
On Sunday morning the wind in the Benicia area was blowing east to west at about 6 to 12 mph, according to meteorologist Jan Null.
That meant the coke dust was being blown toward residential neighborhoods, said Chadwick.
“That was one of the big concerns I had,” Chadwick said. “We had a wind shift … that really turned it back toward the city.”
Several Residents Complain of Breathing Problems
Chadwick said the Benicia Fire Department received two 911 calls for respiratory complaints. One of the calls was for one person who was transported to John Muir Medical Center in Concord. The other was for two people who told paramedics who showed up they didn’t need to be hospitalized.
The wind on Sunday also sent the coke dust toward parts of Contra Costa County, according to air district spokesman Ralph Borrmann. The agency received several complaints from people in Benicia and a few in Rodeo, Borrmann said.
Fire crews have been conducting air readings since Sunday morning and the levels of particulate are back to normal, Chadwick said.
Air district officials are expected to release the results of their testing later this week.
It’s unclear why the flue gas scrubber began malfunctioning again.
Terry Schmidtbauer, Solano County’s assistant director of resource management, said his department’s investigation is focused on the scrubber unit, other refinery components that interact with the device and if refinery workers made a mistake in operating the unit.
It’s also uncertain how long it will take to shut down the affected parts of the refinery and how long that closure will last.
“I am not sure how long Valero intends to have the affected portion shut down,” Schmidtbauer said in an email.
Lillian Riojas, a Valero spokeswoman, did not answer questions about how long the shutdown should last.
On Sunday the company issued a statement about the refinery problem.
“There may be a visible plume and flaring as part of the shutdown,” Valero’s statement said.
Mayor Renews Call for More Refinery Regulations
Mayor Patterson has been calling for more regulation of Valero’s facility ever since the May 5, 2017, refinery incident — a push that so far has failed to result in action.
The City Council rejected her proposal to develop an industrial safety ordinance, similar to one in Contra Costa County, that provides more information to town officials about refinery problems.
The latest incident has prompted her to renew her call for action.
“We definitely need an industrial safety ordinance with the fees to cover the costs that it’s costing the city,” Patterson said. “When we are responding to these things, that means we’re not doing something else.”
Patterson said she planned to bring up the issue of compensation at a City Council session this Saturday.
A Bay Area environmental group critical of the oil industry and the agencies regulating it said the episode should raise concern about operations at other facilities.
“This is the latest sign that Bay Area refineries and our air quality officials can’t safely cope with current workloads, let alone the increased volume of oil processing planned by the industry,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an Oakland-based lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity.
After Weeks of Issues, Valero’s Benicia Refinery to Temporarily Shut Down
By Ted Goldberg, Michelle Wiley, Mar 24, 2019 11:30 a.m.
The Valero refinery is performing a controlled shutdown to “improve conditions and minimize risk,” according to a statement from Benicia city officials. The shutdown could last multiple days and result in visible flaring.
Earlier Sunday, city officials issued an advisory notice for residents with respiratory issues to stay inside after a two-week-old problem at the Valero refinery worsened.
But now that the refinery is shutting down, city officials and Solano County health officer Bela Matyas says the air quality is safe for residents.
Valero Advisory Update – 10:30 a.m.
Benicia Fire Department continues to monitor air quality. Readings show that levels have significantly improved and are currently in the safe range. #ValeroScrubberIncident
“The concentration of particulate matter has become significantly higher over the past day. The emissions contain coke, a by-product of the refining process that is made up primarily of carbon particles,” the city’s statement says.
Benicia officials said testing of the coke dust released so far did not show heavy metals at harmful levels but warned that breathing in air from the releases could worsen underlying respiratory conditions like asthma.
“Inspectors are on scene working with the facility and with Solano County and making a determination if additional violations will be coming,” said Lisa Fasano, a spokeswoman with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
The Air District also deployed a monitoring van to drive throughout Benicia to “gather ground level emissions data.”
Repost from KQED News [Editor: Significant quote: “The risk of these tiny particles getting into people’s lungs is yet another example of the dangers of living near a dirty refinery,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Communities should not have to be afraid of breathing in pollution that could affect their health.” – R.S.]
Air District Hits Valero With Violations Over Benicia Refinery Releases
By Ted Goldberg, Mar 15, 2019
Local air regulators have issued seven notices of violation against the Valero Energy Corp. over a malfunction at its Benicia refinery that has led to the release of petroleum coke dust from the facility since Monday.
The problem has led to a response by four agencies: the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and Solano County health officials have launched investigations into the releases; the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration and the Benicia Fire Department are monitoring the situation.
It’s unclear how long the problem will last.
“Valero is telling us they are unable to give an estimate of when it will be resolved,” said Benicia Fire Chief Josh Chadwick.
A Valero representative says the malfunction is tied to a device that removes particulates during a process that takes place inside the refinery.
“We have been experiencing operational issues with the flue gas scrubber,” said company spokeswoman Lillian Riojas.
That led to so-called coke fines — very small carbon particulates that are a byproduct of the oil refining process — being released from the refinery’s flare stacks.
Normally, warm water vapor moves through the refinery’s towers and exits the stacks as steam, but the petcoke particulates make the plume appear dark and sooty.
“The fines remained in the raw exhaust gas,” said Professor Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, specializing in refinery operations.
“The dark smoke will continue until all of the fines in the lines leading to the exhaust stack have been cleared from the system,” Smith said.
While the material is not hazardous, the releases could include trace amounts of heavy metals, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, Solano County’s assistant director of resource management.
Valero’s Riojas did not respond to follow-up questions about the status of the scrubber that led to this week’s releases, but Benicia Fire’s Chadwick said Friday that “the maintenance issue has been resolved.”
So far, air tests have not raised concerns among the agencies monitoring the site. Crews have not detected high levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide or particulate matter, according to Chadwick.
And Schmidtbauer says the situation is slowly improving — the amount of coke dust coming from the facility has been lessening.
Nevertheless, the air district has issued four notices of violation against Valero for visible emissions and three for public nuisance, agency spokesman Ralph Borrmann said.
The U.S. EPA says significant quantities of dust from pet coke can present a health risk.
“The risk of these tiny particles getting into people’s lungs is yet another example of the dangers of living near a dirty refinery,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Communities should not have to be afraid of breathing in pollution that could affect their health.”
The problem represents one of the more extensive malfunctions at the refinery since it lost all power on May 5, 2017, an event that led to a major release of pollution, shelter-in-place and evacuation orders.