Tag Archives: Big Oil

‘EPA Approved a Fuel Ingredient Even Though It Could Cause Cancer in Virtually Every Person Exposed Over a Lifetime’

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Kathy Kerridge: This story is an eye-opener for all of us who believe that the EPA is supposed to protect us and the environment. It is simply unbelievable that this has been approved and I think we all need to contact the White House to express our disapproval. If indeed this chemical is found in marine fuels, we have much to be concerned about in Benicia.]

Chevron’s Richmond Refinery in 2021. | J. Sullivan / Getty Images.

Co-published by ProPublicaThe Guardian, by Sharon Lerner, August 4, 2023

The Environmental Protection Agency approved a component of boat fuel made from discarded plastic that the agency’s own risk formula determined was so hazardous, everyone exposed to the substance continually over a lifetime would be expected to develop cancer. Current and former EPA scientists said that threat level is unheard of. It is a million times higher than what the agency usually considers acceptable for new chemicals and six times worse than the risk of lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking.

Federal law requires the EPA to conduct safety reviews before allowing new chemical products onto the market. If the agency finds that a substance causes unreasonable risk to health or the environment, the EPA is not allowed to approve it without first finding ways to reduce that risk.

But the agency did not do that in this case. Instead, the EPA decided its scientists were overstating the risks and gave Chevron the go-ahead to make the new boat fuel ingredient at its refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Though the substance can poison air and contaminate water, EPA officials mandated no remedies other than requiring workers to wear gloves, records show.

ProPublica and the Guardian in February reported on the risks of other new plastic-based Chevron fuels that were also approved under an EPA program that the agency had touted as a “climate-friendly” way to boost alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. That story was based on an EPA consent order, a legally binding document the agency issues to address risks to health or the environment. In the Chevron consent order, the highest noted risk came from a jet fuel that was expected to create air pollution so toxic that 1 out of 4 people exposed to it over a lifetime could get cancer.

In February, ProPublica and the Guardian asked the EPA for its scientists’ risk assessment, which underpinned the consent order. The agency declined to provide it, so ProPublica requested it under the Freedom of Information Act. The 203-page risk assessment revealed that, for the boat fuel ingredient, there was a far higher risk that was not in the consent order. EPA scientists included figures that made it possible for ProPublica to calculate the lifetime cancer risk from breathing air pollution that comes from a boat engine burning the fuel. That calculation, which was confirmed by the EPA, came out to 1.3 in 1, meaning every person exposed to it over the course of a full lifetime would be expected to get cancer.

Such risks are exceedingly unusual, according to Maria Doa, a scientist who worked at EPA for 30 years and once directed the division that managed the risks posed by chemicals. The EPA division that approves new chemicals usually limits lifetime cancer risk from an air pollutant to 1 additional case of cancer in a million people. That means that if a million people are continuously exposed over a presumed lifetime of 70 years, there would likely be at least one case of cancer on top of those from other risks people already face.

When Doa first saw the 1-in-4 cancer risk for the jet fuel, she thought it must have been a typo. The even higher cancer risk for the boat fuel component left her struggling for words. “I had never seen a 1-in-4 risk before this, let alone a 1.3-in-1,” said Doa. “This is ridiculously high.”

Another serious cancer risk associated with the boat fuel ingredient that was documented in the risk assessment was also missing from the consent order. For every 100 people who ate fish raised in water contaminated with that same product over a lifetime, seven would be expected to develop cancer — a risk that’s 70,000 times what the agency usually considers acceptable.

When asked why it didn’t include those sky-high risks in the consent order, the EPA acknowledged having made a mistake. This information “was inadvertently not included in the consent order,” an agency spokesperson said in an email.

Nevertheless, in response to questions, the agency wrote, “EPA considered the full range of values described in the risk assessment to develop its risk management approach for these” fuels. The statement said that the cancer risk estimates were “extremely unlikely and reported with high uncertainty.” Because it used conservative assumptions when modeling, the EPA said, it had significantly overestimated the cancer risks posed by both the jet fuel and the component of marine fuel. The agency assumed, for instance, that every plane at an airport would be idling on a runway burning an entire tank of fuel, that the cancer-causing components would be present in the exhaust and that residents nearby would breathe that exhaust every day over their lifetime.

In addition, the EPA also said that it determined the risks from the new chemicals were similar to those from fuels that have been made for years, so the agency relied on existing laws rather than calling for additional protections. But the Toxic Substances Control Act requires the EPA to review every new chemical — no matter how similar to existing ones. Most petroleum-based fuels were never assessed under the law because existing chemicals were exempted from review when it passed in 1976. Studies show people living near refineries have elevated cancer rates.

“EPA recognizes that the model it used in its risk assessments was not designed in a way that led to realistic risk estimates for some of the transportation fuel uses,” an agency spokesperson wrote. For weeks, ProPublica asked what a realistic cancer risk estimate for the fuels would be, but the agency did not provide one by the time of publication.

New chemicals are treated differently under federal law than ones that are already being sold. If the agency is unsure of the dangers posed by a new chemical, the law allows the EPA to order tests to clarify the potential health and environmental harms. The agency can also require that companies monitor the air for emissions or reduce the release of pollutants. It can also restrict the use of new products or bar their production altogether. But in this case, the agency didn’t do any of those things.

Six environmental organizations concerned about the risks from the fuels — the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Moms Clean Air Force, Toxic-Free Future, Environmental Defense Fund and Beyond Plastics — are challenging the agency’s characterization of the cancer risks. “EPA’s assertion that the assumptions in the risk assessment are overly conservative is not supported,” the groups wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to EPA administrator Michael Regan. The groups accused the agency of failing to protect people from dangers posed by the fuels and urged the EPA to withdraw the consent order approving them.

Chevron has not started making the new fuels, the EPA said.

Separately, the EPA acknowledged that it had mislabeled critical information about the harmful emissions. The consent order said the 1-in-4 lifetime cancer risk referred to “stack air” — a term for pollution released through a smokestack. The cancer burden from smokestack pollution would fall on residents who live near the refinery. And indeed a community group in Pascagoula sued the EPA, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to invalidate the agency’s approval of the chemicals.

But the agency now says that those numbers in the consent order do not reflect the cancer risk posed by air from refinery smokestacks. When the consent order said stack emissions, the EPA says, it really meant pollution released from the exhaust of the jets and boats powered by these fuels.

“We understand that this may have caused a misunderstanding,” the EPA wrote in its response to ProPublica.

Based on that explanation, the extraordinary cancer burden would fall on people near boats or idling airplanes that use the fuels — not those living near the Chevron refinery in Pascagoula.

Each of the two cancer-causing products is expected to be used at 100 sites, the EPA confirmed. ProPublica asked for the exact locations where the public might encounter them, but Chevron declined to say. The EPA said it didn’t know the locations and didn’t even know whether the marine fuel would be used for a Navy vessel, a cruise ship or a motorboat.

In an email, a Chevron spokesperson referred questions to the EPA and added: “The safety of our employees, contractors and communities are our first priority. We place the highest priority on the health and safety of our workforce and protection of our assets, communities and the environment.”

Doa, the former EPA scientist who worked at the agency for three decades, said she had never known the EPA to misidentify a source of pollution in a consent order. “When I was there, if we said something was stack emissions, we meant that they were stack emissions,” she said.

During multiple email exchanges with ProPublica and the Guardian leading up to the February story, the EPA never said that cancer risks listed as coming from stack emissions were actually from boat and airplane exhaust. The agency did not explain why it initially chose not to tell ProPublica and the Guardian that the EPA had mislabeled the emissions.

The agency faced scrutiny after the February story in ProPublica and the Guardian. In an April letter to EPA administrator Michael Regan, Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate’s subcommittee on environmental justice and chemical safety, said he was troubled by the high cancer risks and the fact that the EPA approved the new chemicals using a program meant to address the climate crisis.

EPA assistant administrator Michal Freedhoff told Merkley in a letter earlier this year that the 1-in-4 cancer risk stemmed from exposure to the exhaust of idling airplanes and the real risk to the residents who live near the Pascagoula refinery was “on the order of one in a hundred thousand,” meaning it would cause one case of cancer in 100,000 people exposed over a lifetime.

Told about the even higher cancer risk from the boat fuel ingredient, Merkley said in an email, “It remains deeply concerning that fossil fuel companies are spinning what is a complicated method of burning plastics, that is actually poisoning communities, as beneficial to the climate. We don’t understand the cancer risks associated with creating or using fuels derived from plastics.”

Merkley said he is “leaving no stone unturned while digging into the full scope of the problem, including looking into EPA’s program.”

He added, “Thanks to the dogged reporting from ProPublica we are getting a better sense of the scale and magnitude of this program that has raised so many concerns.”

The risk assessment makes it clear that cancer is not the only problem. Some of the new fuels pose additional risks to infants, the document said, but the EPA didn’t quantify the effects or do anything to limit those harms, and the agency wouldn’t answer questions about them.

Some of these newly approved toxic chemicals are expected to persist in nature and accumulate in living things, the risk assessment said. That combination is supposed to trigger additional restrictions under EPA policy, including prohibitions on releasing the chemicals into water. Yet the agency lists the risk from eating fish contaminated with several of the compounds, suggesting they are expected to get into water. When asked about this, an EPA spokesperson wrote that the agency’s testing protocols for persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity are “unsuitable for complex mixtures” and contended that these substances are similar to existing petroleum-based fuels.

The EPA has taken one major step in response to concerns about the plastic-based chemicals. In June, it proposed a rule that would require companies to contact the agency before making any of 18 fuels and related compounds listed in the Chevron consent order. The EPA would then have the option of requiring tests to ensure that the oil used to create the new fuels doesn’t contain unsafe contaminants often found in plastic, including certain flame retardants, heavy metals, dioxins and PFAS. If approved, the rule will require Chevron to undergo such a review before producing the fuels, according to the EPA.

But environmental advocates say that the new information about the plastic-based chemicals has left them convinced that, even without additional contamination, the fuels will pose a grave risk.

“This new information just raises more questions about why they didn’t do this the right way,” said Daniel Rosenberg, director of federal toxics policy at NRDC. “The more that comes out about this, the worse it looks.”

To reverse climate change, Californians must wake up to the influence of Big Oil

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: This post (another opinion piece from SacBee, this time from their editorial board) references a ‘councilwoman-turned-state-senator’ who pledged to not take fossil fuel money but still benefited fabulously from an oil-and-gas PAC’s lavish electioneering on her behalf. She never personally accepted Big Oil money, and she can trumpet that all she likes, but she certainly did benefit from Big Oil money, and the impact can be the same. This is a huge problem in electoral politics, and one that absolutely reaches deep into Benicia: Candidates can pledge to steer clear of Big Oil money, but the Valero-funded Benicia PAC (previously known as ‘Working Families,’ now operating under ‘Progress for Benicia’) can make ‘independent expenditures’ on a candidate’s behalf, like ‘independently’ deciding to send out a little mailer to support a candidate they view as favorable to their interests. The result is the same – the candidate more favorable to Big Oil wins – even if the money trail is more twisty. And PAC’s routinely outspend what candidates can expend on their own behalf, by several orders of magnitude. This is Big Oil’s electoral playbook. Candidates oh-so-virtuously reject direct donations from Big Oil and special interest groups, signaling their independence in the climate fight, while still benefiting indirectly, to the tune of millions of dollars in some cases. I can’t allege that every candidate who ‘indirectly’ benefits from Big Oil money is subject to influence, but it’s not unreasonable to suspect that elected officials may be at least a tad more favorable to an industry that spends big to help them get elected.]

A truck drives into the Valero refinery in Benicia in July. | Rich Pedroncelli for AP.

SacBee, Opinion by the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board, August 5, 2023

California may not meet its ambitious 2030 climate goals. That is not necessarily a surprise.

After all, that’s what the word “ambitious” means. California must set lofty, near-unattainable goals if we’re going to reverse the effects that climate change has created in our state — unprecedented wildfires, searing heat, and floods, to name a few.

California must continue to be an impatient, pioneering leader for the rest of the nation, as the federal government so often looks to our state to set the highest standard.

The California Resources Board, in its new 2022 climate change road map, set an increased target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to 48% below 1990 levels. Previously, the goal was 40%. In meeting that higher objective, the board predicted it would have to rely heavily on the use of emerging technologies that are expected to help remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere. There are both engineering ways to capture and store industrial emissions and natural approaches to absorbing carbon emissions such as reforestation. There is hope in “green hydrogen,” splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity. Green hydrogen could fuel heavy industries such as trucks and power plants and airplanes. But the technology to produce green hydrogen remains a work in progress.

Now regulators say the emerging technologies they were depending on may not be available by 2030.

So how to meet the goal? CARB may choose to increase the state’s controversial cap-and-trade program, which establishes a limit on major emitters of greenhouse gasses, and creates an economic incentive for corporate investment in cleaner technologies. Some participants are given emission allowances with the ability to purchase more.

Increasing cap-and-trade standards is not only a dubious solution to reach CARB’s goal of 48%, but could also drive up carbon prices dramatically and push industrial polluters out of California entirely. While that may make California’s numbers look good, it wouldn’t be a solution to the global problem of climate change and would deeply affect the state’s economy, which is already in a downturn after the pandemic.

In order to meet our climate goals, however lofty, California has to start making difficult emission cuts.

The reality is that it’s CARB’s duty to make the state’s progressive climate goals work in the real world — no easy task. At a recent cap-and-trade program workshop, regulators from CARB hinted for the first time that the department may struggle to meet those 2030 goals. CARB simply cannot be expected to prevail in this alone, and especially not when huge obstacles are placed in its way by oil lobbyists paying millions to keep the status quo in Sacramento.

A political action committee called “Coalition to Restore California’s Middle-Class Including Energy Companies Who Produce Gas, Oil, Jobs and Pay Taxes” was funded by Chevron, Valero, Phillips 66 and Marathon Petroleum. It spent more than $6 million across the state in 2022, funding the electoral campaigns of moderate Democrats and ensuring the election of a new class of politicians who would be wholly amenable to their influence.

In the Sacramento area, city councilwoman-turned-state-senator Angelique Ashby — who pledged during her campaign not to take any fossil fuel money — benefited from some $1.6 million in oil and gas expenditures from that PAC.

CARB cannot be expected to meet its ambitious goals if the same politicians that must take actions to achieve these emission reduction numbers (and presumably, the penalties for missing them) are under the influence of oil and gas companies with a vested interest in stymieing the work of CARB. Those interests are keeping gas-guzzling cars on the road and the worst emitters in business via loopholes in the laws.

It is little wonder CARB is setting the stage for the possibility of missing its ambitious goals. Our state government is too vulnerable to the influence of oil and gas companies. Californians must be aware of this corrosive influence and they must insist that powerful oil lobbyists have no sway over climate regulations nor anything that would hinder the progress of meeting our 2030 emission standards.

In recent years, more than a dozen other states have chosen to follow California’s more stringent emissions standards, rather than the more flexible federal regulations. In total, those states represent more than 35% of all new auto sales in America. California, too, has pledged to stop selling cars that are not electric, hydrogen-fueled or at least plug-in hybrid by the year 2035.

This state is a national and global leader in carbon regulation and greenhouse gas emissions. It must remain at the forefront to have any chance at reversing climate change. That means clearing hurdles and setting lofty targets — even if we miss.

Why do CA policymakers keep turning to Big Oil for climate solutions? It’s simple: Money.

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Kathy Kerridge: The fossil fuel industry is everywhere and their lies are leading to the destruction of a habitable planet for billions of people. One of the false solutions mentioned in this OpEd is carbon capture and storage. It sounds great until you learn it has never worked, it’s frequently used for drilling more oil,  and storage may only last for 50 years. Worst of all is that if pipelines leak they can spread carbon dioxide which is heavier than oxygen. It forces the oxygen out leaving nothing for us to breathe and internal combustion engines to work, so there may be no way to flee. We need to learn about this since there is a carbon capture and storage project being proposed to capture carbon in Antioch and pipe it under the Straits to dispose of in Solano. The section related to this is bolded below.]

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: I regret having two intro notes here but please recall that Steven Lucas, the attorney The Climate Center names here as a key architect of a ‘phony coalition’ some say was manufactured to oppose refinery regulations and penalties, is an associate of Nielsen Merksamer, the firm a Valero-funded PAC has used throughout allegedly misleading efforts to influence Benicia elections. (This PAC was previously known as ‘Working Families’ and more recently ‘Progress for Benicia.’) Nielsen Merksamer’s clients include Big Tobacco AND Big Oil giants Valero Energy Corporation, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Exxon. That’s one big, happy family.]

SacBee, by Ellie Cohen, July 27, 2023

Why do policymakers in California and other states continue to turn to the architects of the climate crisis for climate solutions?

The reason is simple: money.

Fossil fuel corporations spend millions of dollars every year to paint themselves as part of the solution to climate change. In reality, they spend far more on advertising, lobbying and public relations to appear climate-friendly than they do on actual investments in clean, renewable energy.

In the first quarter of 2023, oil companies spent $9.4 million trying to influence lawmakers in Sacramento — $5.2 million of which was funneled to just three front groups created to give the impression of grassroots support for Big Oil’s agenda. All three of these front groups were registered by a single attorney, Nielsen Merksamer’s Steven Lucas.

The firm, which has long-standing ties to Big Tobacco, manipulated voters through inaccurate comments by initiative signature gatherers to overturn a key public health law prohibiting oil drilling near homes, schools and hospitals. Lucas signed off as the registrant for another Big Oil-tied front group, the California Carbon Solutions Committee, which has lobbied for (and only for) SB 438 using a lobbyist, Virgil Welch, who was formerly a top aide at the California Air Resources Board.

These comments — and the front groups, the deceitful signature-gathering and massive lobbying budgets — offer a glimpse into something familiar to political insiders but not the public. Major polluters will always disguise their intentions and invest in misleading public relations plays as they seek to dismantle our democracy and stall climate action. Oil corporations work overtime, disguising their true intentions behind lobbying and PR, to kill bold climate policies while pushing false solutions like carbon capture, all to continue lining their pockets with pollution-soaked profits.

Some even feel emboldened enough to admit that deception is a big part of what they do.

Sacramento lobbyist, Theo Pahos, went on the record recently with Capital & Main to discuss a bill related to carbon capture and sequestration, stating, “We don’t want the environmentalists to see what we’re really up to.”

A non-profit publication that covers environmental issues in California, Capital & Main then wrote this: “Pahos was talking about plans by lobbyists to change a bill meant to regulate the industry’s handling of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, in a way that would mislead lawmakers and environmentalists.”

The bill Pahos was referencing was Senate Bill 438, which on its face was attempting to provide more clarity for regulating future carbon capture projects. But Pahos was saying that his plan, and that of other lobbyists, was to roll back rules about dangerous carbon pipelines at the eleventh hour.

“We (were) misadvertising (sic) what the bill does, what our intention is,” Pahol told Capital & Main.

Carbon capture and storage is one of the oil and gas industry’s favorite false solutions. According to the industry, this technology captures carbon dioxide emissions at fossil-fueled power plants before they reach the atmosphere. Yet there is growing evidence this simply doesn’t work. One study found that the technology can only reduce a power plant’s net emissions by 10 to 11 percent. This is no solution to depend on.

The bill has since been shelved by its author, Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Merced), until 2024.

Lies, public manipulation and underhanded tactics have been a part of the fossil fuel industry’s playbook for decades — and they are only getting worse as public support for action on climate change grows.

It’s time for Gov. Gavin Newsom and California leaders to wise up to the industry’s dirty tricks and put a stop to them.

Ellie Cohen is the CEO of The Climate Center, a climate and energy policy nonprofit working to rapidly reduce climate pollution at scale, starting in California.

‘Bad neighbor’ State Farm had at least $30B invested in fossil fuels when it abandoned CA homeowners and climate victims

Like a bad neighbor, State Farm is gone from California

An oil rig silhouetted by a golden sunset.

San Francisco Chronicle, by David Arkush and Carly Fabian, July 12, 2023

State Farm’s decision to stop providing new homeowners insurance policies in California is an indicator of the growing damage caused by climate change. As climate-driven disasters lead to higher losses, insurers like State Farm will raise prices and cut back coverage or even flee.

Far from neutral victims, though, insurers are profiting from both sides of this crisis. They collect premiums and investment profits from fossil fuels while extracting ever more from consumers whom they plan to abandon.

To be clear, there is no question that climate change is disrupting insurance markets. The rising frequency and severity of disasters are driving up the cost of insurance and destroying some insurance markets entirely by rendering areas “uninsurable.”

But there’s more going on here than a simple story of climate disasters disrupting the math of insurance.

The root cause of the climate crisis is the rampant burning of fossil fuels. Insurers are critical gatekeepers for the fossil fuel industry, providing the insurance that allows companies to operate. As experts in evaluating risk and extreme weather, insurers knew about climate change early on. But in their pursuit of short-term profits, they didn’t stop underwriting fossil fuels.

Many are still underwriting the most reckless and dangerous parts of that sector, like the expansion of fossil fuels. Some insurers, largely in Europe, have begun restricting their underwriting of fossil fuels, but U.S. insurers are dragging their feet, even as they increasingly abandon homeowners.

Insurers also invest heavily in fossil fuels, unconscionably using their customers’ premiums to profit from businesses that will destroy their homes and, in some cases, even kill them while driving up insurance costs and making many areas uninsurable.

State Farm is a prime example of insurers’ hypocrisy. Rather than suffering financially in California, the company has made substantial profits in the state in recent years, along with other homeowner insurers whose profits in California have been four times the national average, even after accounting for major wildfires. At the same time, the latest data shows State Farm alone had $30 billion invested in fossil fuels and the industry overall had over $500 billion.

The crisis has also been a boon for industry lobbyists who have seized it as an opportunity to bully states and bilk customers. When State Farm announced its decision to stop offering new California homeowners’ policies, the industry’s primary lobbying group, the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, claimed insurers must be allowed to use secret models to set profitable rates. The industry has long wanted those models because they make it harder to catch insurers overcharging for policies. Rather than work on a transparent approach to modeling climate impacts, the industry is pushing a consumer protection rollback it has sought for decades.

The industry playbook appears to be this: Profit as long as possible from fossil fuels. Stick customers with not just direct climate harms, but also higher premiums, while delayingdenying and low-balling claims. Bully regulators for giveaways. Then leave.

Some neighbors. 

Although the industry isn’t putting forward serious solutions, there are steps insurance regulators and legislators can take. In an emergency, the first step is to stop the harm. California can start by requiring insurers to align their underwriting and investments with science-based climate targets to stop insurers from contributing to this crisis.

Regulators can also explore transparent solutions for pricing climate-related risk and consider developing public solutions to provide reinsurance, which is essentially insurance for insurance companies. Public reinsurance programs would facilitate reimbursements for claims above a high dollar amount to insurers that expand their coverage, allocating risks in a way that creates stability for insurers and a stronger safety net for the public.

As insurers leave vulnerable areas, and unregulated reinsurance prices soar, a public backstop for the highest losses would provide more certainty for insurers who want to offer coverage in vulnerable areas while creating a stronger safety net for consumers.

After each disaster and withdrawal, industry trade groups will push for their wish list — with no promise to stay, even if they get everything on it. It’s time for the public and regulators to advance real solutions.

David Arkush is the director and Carly Fabian is the policy advocate for Public Citizen’s Climate Program.

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: The sections bolded above reflect my added emphasis.]