California is one of the country’s top oil and gas producers, and Chevron, one of the defendants, is headquartered in the state.
Politico, by Blanca Begert and Debra Kahn, September 16, 2023
Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a lawsuit Saturday against five major oil companies and their subsidiaries, seeking compensation for damages caused by climate change.
The suit, filed in San Francisco County Superior Court by Democratic Attorney General Rob Bonta, accuses the companies of knowing about the link between fossil fuels and catastrophic climate change for decades but suppressing and spreading disinformation on the topic to delay climate action. The New York Times first reported the case Friday.
The suit also claims that Exxon, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP — as well as the American Petroleum Institute industry trade group — have continued their deception to today, promoting themselves as “green” with small investments in alternative fuels, while primarily investing in fossil fuel products.
It seeks to create a fund that oil companies would pay into to help the state recover from extreme weather events and prepare for further effects of climate change. It argues that California has already spent tens of billions of dollars on responding to climate change, with costs expected to rise significantly.
“The companies that have polluted our air, choked our skies with smoke, wreaked havoc on our water cycle, and contaminated our lands must be made to mitigate the harms they have brought upon the State,” the suit says.
Shell and API said the question of how to address climate change should be dealt with in the policy arena.
“We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government and action from all sectors is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress,” Shell spokesperson Anna Arata said in an email.
“This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of California taxpayer resources,” API Senior Vice President and General Counsel Ryan Meyers said in a statement. “Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not the court system.”
California’s legal action joins dozens of similar lawsuits brought by seven other states and many municipalities seeking to hold major polluters accountable for allegedly lying about their role in causing climate change.
Eight California local governments filed some of the country’s first climate lawsuits in 2017 and 2018 that are now in state courts. At’s filing makes California the largest economy to join the campaign against oil companies. California is also one of the country’s top oil and gas producers, and Chevron, one of the defendants, is headquartered in the state.
A spokesperson for Newsom said the timing was motivated in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in April to allow existing suits from local governments to proceed in state court, rather than be moved to federal courts as oil companies wanted. State courts are seen as friendlier venues for plaintiffs seeking climate damages because they’re generally more receptive to considering state laws that deal with climate change.
“All these cases got tied up in years of procedural wrangling; oil companies doing everything they could to drag their feet,” said spokesperson Alex Stack. The “Supreme Court finally let these cases go forward this spring — the state as a whole is joining cities and counties.”
California officials have been contemplating legal action against oil companies for years, since at least the early 2010s, when former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown was serving as California attorney general. The state did sue coal companies and automakers before that, alleging public nuisance harms stemming from climate change, but the Supreme Court rejected the arguments.
The links between oil companies and efforts to downplay the effects of climate change have become clearer since then, a former top California legal official said.
“At that time there was less information about the ongoing and continuing efforts by oil companies to mislead and misrepresent on the record,” said Ken Alex, a former senior assistant attorney general under Brown who led the office’s environmental section. “I don’t think we had the same level of information that they have now about that conduct.”
The evidence has continued to pile up. A study published this year from Harvard University and the University of Potsdam in Germany found that Exxon’s climate models from 40 years ago were spot on.
California joining the legal parade against oil companies could prove significant.
“Having California participate is a big deal,” Alex said. “These are difficult cases. They have five defendants who have endless resources; it’s not simple to prove what they need to prove in terms of misrepresentation.”
At first glance, last autumn’s Glasgow climate summit looked a lot like its 25 predecessors. It had:
A conference hall the size of an aircraft carrier stuffed with displays from problematic parties (the Saudis, for example, with a giant pavilion saluting their efforts at promoting a “circular carbon economy agenda”).
Squadrons of delegates rushing constantly to mysterious sessions (“Showcasing achievements of TBTTP and Protected Areas Initiative of GoP”) while actual negotiations took place in a few back rooms.
Earnest protesters with excellent signs (“The wrong Amazon is burning”).
But as I wandered the halls and the streets outside, it struck me again and again that a good deal had changed since the last big climate confab in Paris in 2015 – and not just because carbon levels and the temperature had risen ever higher.
The biggest shift was in the political climate. Over those few years the world seemed to have swerved sharply away from democracy and toward autocracy – and in the process dramatically limited our ability to fight the climate crisis. Oligarchs of many kinds had grabbed power and were using it to uphold the status quo; there was a Potemkin quality to the whole gathering, as if everyone was reciting a script that no longer reflected the actual politics of the planet.
Now that we’ve watched Russia launch an oil-fired invasion of Ukraine, it’s a little easier to see this trend in high relief – but Putin is far from the only case. Consider the examples.
Brazil, in 2015 at Paris, had been led by Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ party, which had for the most part worked to limit deforestation in the Amazon. In some ways the country could claim to have done more than any other on climate damage, simply by slowing the cutting. But in 2021 Jair Bolsonaro was in charge, at the head of a government that empowered every big-time cattle rancher and mahogany poacher in the country. If people cared about the climate, he said, they could eat less and “poop every other day”. And if they cared about democracy, they could … go to jail. “Only God can take me from the presidency,” he explained ahead of this year’s elections.
Or India, which may turn out to be the most pivotal nation given the projected increases in its energy use – and which had refused its equivalent of Greta Thunberg even a visa to attend the meeting. (At least Disha Ravi was no longer in jail).
Or Russia (about which more in a minute) or China – a decade ago we could still, albeit with some hazard and some care, hold climate protests and demonstrations in Beijing. Don’t try that now.
Or, of course, the US, whose deep democratic deficits have long haunted climate negotiations. The reason we have a system of voluntary pledges, not a binding global agreement, is that the world finally figured out there would never be 66 votes in the US Senate for a real treaty.
Joe Biden had expected to arrive at the talks with the Build Back Better bill in his back pocket, slap it down on the table, and start a bidding war with the Chinese – but the other Joe, Manchin of West Virginia, the biggest single recipient of fossil fuel cash in DC, made sure that didn’t happen. Instead Biden showed up empty-handed and the talks fizzled.
And so we were left contemplating a world whose people badly want action on climate change, but whose systems aren’t delivering it. In 2021 the UN Development Programme conducted a remarkable poll, across the planet – they questioned people through video-game networks to reach humans less likely to answer traditional surveys. Even amid the Covid pandemic, 64% of them described climate change as a “global emergency”, and that by decisive margins they wanted “broad climate policies beyond the current state of play”. As the UNDP director, Achim Steiner, summarized, “the results of the survey clearly illustrate that urgent climate action has broad support amongst people around the globe, across nationalities, age, gender and education level”.
The irony is that some environmentalists have occasionally yearned for less democracy, not more. Surely if we just had strongmen in power everywhere they could just make the hard decisions and put us on the right path – we wouldn’t have to mess with the constant vagaries of elections and lobbying and influence.
But this is wrong for at least one moral reason – strongmen capable of acting instantly on the climate crisis are also capable of acting instantly on any number of other things, as the people of Xinjiang and Tibet would testify were they allowed to talk. It’s also wrong for a number of practical ones.
Those practical problems begin with the fact that autocrats have their own vested interests to please – Modi campaigned for his role atop the world’s largest democracy on the corporate jet of Adani, the largest coal company in the subcontinent. Don’t assume for a minute that there’s not a fossil fuel lobby in China; right now it’s busy telling Xi that economic growth depends on more coal.
And beyond that, autocrats are often directly the result of fossil fuel. The crucial thing about oil and gas is that it is concentrated in a few spots around the world, and hence the people who live on top of or otherwise control those spots end up with huge amounts of unwarranted and unaccountable power.
Boris Johnson was just off in Saudi Arabia trying to round up some hydrocarbons – the day after the king beheaded 81 folks he didn’t like. Would anyone pay the slightest attention to the Saudi royal family if they did not possess oil? No. Nor would the Koch brothers have been able to dominate American politics on the basis of their ideas –when David Koch ran for the White House on the Libertarian ticket in 1980 he got almost no votes. So he and his brother Charles decided to use their winnings as America’s largest oil and gas barons to buy the GOP, and the rest is (dysfunctional) political history.
The most striking example of this phenomenon, it hardly need be said, is Vladimir Putin, a man whose power rests almost entirely on the production of stuff that you can burn. If I wandered through my house, it would be no problem to find electronics from China, textiles from India, all manner of goods from the EU – but there’s nothing anywhere that would say “made in Russia”. Sixty per cent of the export earnings that equipped his army came from oil and gas, and all the political clout that has cowed western Europe for decades came from his fingers on the gas spigot. He and his hideous war are the product of fossil fuel, and his fossil fuel interests have done much to corrupt the rest of the world.
It’s worth remembering that Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, wears the Order of Friendship, personally pinned on his lapel by Putin in thanks for the vast investments Tillerson’s firm (that would be Exxon) had made in the Arctic – a region opened to their exploitation by the fact that it had, um, melted. And these guys stick together: it’s entirely unsurprising that when Coke, Pepsi, Starbucks and Amazon quit Russia last month, Koch Industries announced that it was staying put. The family business began, after all, by building refineries for Stalin.
Another way of saying this is that hydrocarbons by their nature tend towards the support of despotism – they’re highly dense in energy and hence very valuable; geography and geology means they can be controlled with relative ease. There’s one pipeline, one oil terminal.
Whereas sun and wind are, in these terms, much closer to democratic: they’re available everywhere, diffuse instead of concentrated. I can’t have an oilwell in my backyard because, as with almost all backyards, there is no oil there. Even if there was an oilwell, I would have to sell what I pumped to some refiner, and since I’m American, that would likely be a Koch enterprise. But I can (and do) have a solar panel on my roof; my wife and I rule our own tiny oligarchy, insulated from the market forces the Putins and the Kochs can unleash and exploit. The cost of energy delivered by the sun has not risen this year, and it will not rise next year.
As a general rule of thumb, those territories with the healthiest, least-captive-to-vested-interest democracies are making the most progress on climate change. Look around the world at Iceland or Costa Rica, around Europe at Finland or Spain, around the US at California or New York. So part of the job for climate campaigners is to work for functioning democratic states, where people’s demands for a working future will be prioritized over vested interest, ideology and personal fiefdoms.
But given the time constraints that physics impose – the need for rapid action everywhere – that can’t be the whole strategy. In fact, activists have arguably been a little too focused on politics as a source of change, and paid not quite enough attention to the other power center in our civilization: money.
If we could somehow persuade or force the world’s financial giants to change, that would yield quick progress as well. Maybe quicker, since speed is more a hallmark of stock exchanges than parliaments.
And here the news is a little better. Take my country as an example. Political power has come to rest in the reddest, most corrupt parts of America. The senators representing a relative handful of people in sparsely populated western states are able to tie up our political life, and those senators are almost all on the payroll of big oil. But money has collected in the blue parts of the country – Biden-voting counties account for 70% of the country’s economy.
That’s one reason some of us have worked so hard on campaigns like fossil fuel divestment – we won big victories with New York’s pension funds and with California’s vast university system, and so were able to put real pressure on big oil. Now we’re doing the same with the huge banks that are the industry’s financial lifeline. We’re well aware that we may never win over Montana or Mississippi, so we better have some solutions that don’t depend on doing so.
The same thing’s true globally. We may not be able to advocate in Beijing or Moscow or, increasingly, in Delhi. So, at least for these purposes, it’s useful that the biggest pots of money remain in Manhattan, in London, in Frankfurt, in Tokyo. These are places we still can make some noise.
And they are places where there’s some real chance of that noise being heard. Governments tend to favor people who’ve already made their fortune, industries that are already ascendant: that’s who comes with blocs of employees who vote, and that’s who can afford the bribes. But investors are all about who’s going to make money next. That’s why Tesla is worth far more than General Motors in the stock market, if not in the halls of Congress.
Moreover, if we can persuade the world of money to act, it’s capable of doing so quickly. Should, say, Chase Bank, currently the biggest lender on earth to fossil fuel, announce this year that it was quickly phasing out that support, the news would ripple out across stock markets in the matter of hours. That’s why some of us have felt it worthwhile to mount increasingly larger campaigns against these financial institutions, and to head off to jail from their lobbies.
The world of money is at least as unbalanced and unfair as the world of political power – but in ways that may make it a little easier for climate advocates to make progress.
Putin’s grotesque war might be where some of these strands come together. It highlights the ways that fossil fuel builds autocracy, and the power that control of scarce supplies gives to autocrats. It’s also shown us the power of financial systems to put pressure on the most recalcitrant political leaders: Russia is being systematically and effectively punished by bankers and corporations, though as my Ukrainian colleague Svitlana Romanko and I pointed out recently, they could be doing far more. The shock of the warmay also be strengthening the resolve and unity of the world’s remaining democracies and perhaps – one can hope – diminishing the attraction of would-be despots like Donald Trump.
But we’ve got years, not decades, to get the climate crisis under some kind of control. We won’t get more moments like this. The brave people of Ukraine may be fighting for more than they can know.
This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story
New Mexico is facing more than $8 billion in cleanup costs for oil and gas wells, an enormous liability that taxpayers could be left to pick up if drillers go out of business or walk away from their obligations.
Cleaning up old wells at the end of their operating lives can be expensive, and typically states require drillers to cover part of the cleanup cost at the outset, known as financial assurance requirements. The money is tapped later on when the well or pipeline must be dismantled and cleaned up.
But a study commissioned by the New Mexico State Land Office published on April 30 found that “financial assurance requirements do not exist for much of the oil and gas infrastructure explored in this study, and in some cases where such requirements are imposed, operators may have multiple ways of minimizing or avoiding those requirements.” The study was conducted by the Center for Applied Research, an independent analytical firm.
Inadequate bonding requirements means there is a serious gap in available funding to properly clean up after the fossil fuel industry. According to the report, it could cost as much as $8.38 billion to clean up the state’s tens of thousands of wells and associated pipeline infrastructure. Alarmingly, however, New Mexico only has $201 million tucked away for cleanup, leaving a hole of $8.1 billion.
“That’s $8.1 billion that we don’t have,” New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard said in a statement. “Enormous sums of taxpayer money and money meant for public schools, along with the long-term health of our lands, are on the line.”
The industry likes to boast that oil and gas revenues contribute roughly a third of the state’s general fund — a fact that the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association (NMOGA) triumphantly advertised in a recent report and regularly highlights on social media.
Indeed, drilling accounts for a large source of state revenues. In April 2021, for example, the state took in $109 million in royalties, a record high. Those funds will be funneled into public services, including schools and hospitals.
As the report exposed, however, the massive liability put onto the public in cleanup costs somewhat undercuts the notion that the oil and gas industry is a financial godsend.
The industry has helped fill state coffers in recent years, with oil production booming to roughly 1 million barrels per day, more than double production levels from five years ago. According to the report, last year the oil and gas industry produced nearly 370 million barrels of oil and 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from roughly 60,000 wells, which was transported on 35,000 miles of pipelines.
But as the State Land Office study highlights, the industry is leaving behind enormous costs for the state and the general public to deal with at a later date, a liability that is mostly obscured from public discussion.
The average cost to plug an old well and reclaim the surface is over $182,000 per well, but the state only has the finances to cover a little over $3,200 per well. The funding gap is even more staggering for pipelines. Decommissioning and reclamation costs are roughly $211,000 per mile of pipeline, but available financial assurance only totals about $51 per mile.
The risk to the public from inadequate bonding requirements is compounded by the fact that oil and gas drillers can go out of business long before wells are cleaned up, which can be years or even decades later. The U.S. shale industry has burned through hundreds of billions of dollars in cash, and there have been more than 250 bankruptcies of North American oil and gas companies since 2015. And as the clean energy transition accelerates, the financial challenges to the industry are likely to only grow more severe.
The state has long suffered from the roller coaster cycles of extractive industry, according to James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, a health, education, and economic advocacy organization. “We’ve made policy choices in boom times that have really exacerbated our over-dependence on oil and natural gas revenues,” Jimenez told DeSmog.
“Because of the really volatile nature of the oil and gas industries, we haven’t had sustainability in the programs,” he said. A dependence on a boom-and-bust industry has forced the state to make cuts to school systems during downturns in the past.
“We need to reduce this over reliance we have on oil and natural gas to fund really basic important programs like our K-12 education and higher education systems,” Jimenez said. He added that the state should diversify its revenue base, such as through progressive taxation on the wealthy and supporting non-extractive business sectors.
Even as money flows to the state from drilling today, the unfunded liabilities of cleanup that are dumped onto the public also highlight the downside to such high levels of drilling. “The $8 billion that it would take to do the cleanup would have to come from somewhere,” Jimenez said. Dollars spent on cleaning up the waste from the oil and gas industry, are dollars not spent on other important needs, such as rural broadband or road infrastructure, he added.
“The answers are simple and urgent — raise royalty rates and taxes on the industry, stash away the revenues in our Permanent Fund to stabilize cash flows, and spend current budget dollars on investments to diversify our economy,” Thomas Singer, senior policy advisor at the Western Environmental Law Center, told DeSmog via email.
On top of the financial risks from abandoned wells, the fossil fuel industry brings numerous environmental and public health hazards as well. Oil and gas operations have contributed to a deterioration in air quality in the state. And in northwestern New Mexico, there have been more than 300 accidents since 2019, including oil spills, fires, blowouts, and gas releases, and much of it has occurred on Navajo land, as reported by Capital & Main.
A recently published peer-reviewed study found that shut-in conventional oil wells in the Permian basin could be leaking a substantial amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change.
“New Mexicans must recognize that while industrialization of our landscape to produce oil and gas brings revenue today, if not properly cleaned up, it also jeopardizes our economy of the future,” Singer said. Allowing drillers “to defer this obligation indefinitely puts the state and taxpayers at great risk that they will have pick up the tab or leave these areas as polluted sacrifice zones.”
Residents of East Bay refinery communities, public officials and environmental organizations had mixed reactions to recent surprise announcements by two Bay Area oil refineries: Phillips 66 said its Rodeo refinery will stop processing petroleum and switch to producing biofuel—made from living plants. It will also close its Rodeo carbon-processing plant. Days later, Marathon announced it would close its Martinez refinery and consider using it to produce biofuel.
“It’s really historic to see 50 percent of the refineries in Contra Costa make a decision to go from processing crude oil to renewable energy,” said Supervisor John Gioia. “It moves us in the right direction, knowing it’s not where we want to end up.” He added that, since the converted refineries will probably employ fewer workers, the county’s big challenge will be “to assist workers to find replacement jobs with equal pay [and create] pre-apprenticeship programs to get local people into jobs.”
Rodeo resident Maureen Brennan said, “I’m 60 percent excited for the community about this new technology and 40 percent worried. I’m happy to have less pollution from the refinery. I’m just suspicious.” She noted that Phillips 66 hasn’t withdrawn permit applications for “two tar-sands-related projects.” Nancy Rieser, another refinery neighbor, was skeptical about the refinery’s mention of “used cooking oil” as a raw material. She said she feared that, instead, rainforests in Brazil and Paraguay would be cleared for “industrial soybean production” to supply the biofuel industry.
And Greg Karras, author of a recent report calling for gradual decommissioning of California refineries, said the move to biofuel is a “strategy to protect oil companies’ stranded assets.” State and federal support for this strategy diverts resources from the real solution: electrification of transportation.
Phillips 66 announced that, starting in 2024, the refinery will become the world’s biggest producer of “renewable diesel, renewable gasoline, and sustainable jet fuel,” reducing the use of fossil fuel. The company said the change will cut carbon dioxide emissions from the refinery by 50 percent, sulfur dioxide by 75 percent and reduce pollution in general. The plant will produce 50,000 barrels of biofuel a day, compared to its current output of 122,000 barrels a day of petroleum products.
In addition, the project’s website, Richmond Renewed, says it “will provide high-paying family-wage jobs with healthcare benefits. Crude oil refinery workers will have the opportunity to transition to produce renewable fuels. Construction jobs for refinery conversion will help the county recover from the COVID-induced recession.”
The Phillips 66 biofuel project—and the possible project at Marathon in Martinez—reflect an oil-industry trend that started before the current economic problems. Many California policies have been promoting a move from fossil-fuel transportation. And environmental activists have been winning battles against planned fossil-fuel expansion. “There’s a lot about this project that’s way less terrible” than previous proposals, said Karras. San Luis Obispo County recently nixed a Phillips 66 plan to bring crude oil by rail from Canada’s tar sands to its Santa Maria refinery. And for years community opponents have stalled two Rodeo refinery proposals they say are also about tar sands: construction of propane and butane storage tanks and expansion of tanker traffic.
For starters, refinery neighbors and environmental organizations are focusing on making sure the county won’t approve the new proposal without a thorough public study. “To understand the details—local pollution shifts, where the feedstock will come from, how many millions of acres could be needed for soy, palm trees, you name it—there must be a full-scale environmental review combined with a 180-degree shift away from their planned tar sands expansions,” said Wilder Zeiser of Stand.earth.
Many are also concerned about the loss of jobs. Mike Miller, president of United Steelworkers Local 326, which represents workers at Phillips 66, said the company told him they could probably handle the reduction in jobs through attrition—10 or 20 people typically retire every year, Miller said, and “there are a lot of older people at our facility.” He added that when the company tells the union something, “most of the time they tell us the truth.” He said the company also mentioned the possibility of transferring workers to other Phillips facilities.
Supervisor Gioia reported that in his conversations with Marathon about its possible conversion to biofuels, managers estimated that the new plant would employ fewer than half of the number soon to be laid off from its Martinez refinery.
The problem, Gioia said, is that “the new jobs in the green economy aren’t there yet.” Many communities whose economies depend on fossil fuel, he said, are looking to the example of the electric-bus manufacturing plant recently opened in L.A. County. “Contra Costa is ground zero” for figuring out how to make a just transition from fossil fuels, Gioia said.
U.S. Representative Mark DeSaulnier said in a statement, “Workers must be taken into consideration and supported through [this] process—including with proper training, advanced warning, and jobs worthy of their skills. I have already begun and will continue to bring together local stakeholders to ensure that a transition away from fossil fuels does not leave anybody behind.”
In his report, Karras calls on governments to require fossil-fuel producers to pay up-front into a fund to help communities recover from their economic and environmental impacts and to provide income support and retraining for laid-off workers. Noting the support for biofuels from state and federal government, he said, “The project being proposed is so heavily subsidized that there’s every justification for holding the company responsible for making the workers and the community whole.”
In addition to jobs, neighbors are concerned about leftover toxic pollutants. Crockett resident Rieser said Phillips has “tanks of toxins and old oil sludge on both sides of Route 80. How will these be dealt with? Abandoned?” In addition to converting the refinery, Phillips 66 says it will close the nearby carbon-treatment plant, leaving another toxic site. A requirement to clean up the pollution, she said, should be a condition of any permit the county may grant.
Biofuel helps reduce the amount of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide produced each year because it’s made from living plants. The carbon dioxide they absorb when they grow balances that emitted when they’re burned. “It’s probably true that biofuel will be some of what we need” to transition from a fossil fuel transportation system, Karras said. That’s because biofuel can be substituted for petroleum in existing vehicles and distribution systems, although for use in airplane engines, it must be blended with at least the same amount of petroleum fuel.
But according to the nonprofit Biofuel Watch, biofuel is “misleading as a climate solution,” for several reasons. One is that producing biofuel still releases carbon dioxide and toxic pollutants. Phillips 66 says the new facility will be 15 percent solar-powered, implying that the other 85 percent of the power will come from burning some kind of fuel.
Hydrocracking, the process Phillips 66 says it will use to produce biofuel, requires large amounts of hydrogen. And the refinery’s process for producing the hydrogen also produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, Karras said—along with health-harming pollutants.
In addition, burning biofuel in vehicles produces some of the same kinds of pollution as burning petroleum products, especially the “particulate matter” that causes the most harm to human health. A report from the National Institutes of Health evaluated research comparing the pollution from burning biofuel and petroleum. Results varied depending on the exact composition of the fuels, but in general the biofuels produced substantial amounts of particulate and other pollution, although less than petroleum. Low-income people of color are mostly likely to live near the refineries and freeways where those pollutants are concentrated.
A 2019 study compared two “pathways” for California to get off fossil fuel, one focusing on renewable fuels, the other on electrification of transportation. It estimated that the electrification pathway would reduce particulate pollution enough to avoid about 12,000 premature deaths a year. The renewable-fuels pathway would also avoid some premature deaths from particulate matter—but only about a quarter as many, 2,800 a year.
Land and Climate
The other big concern about biofuel is where the raw material comes from. Phillips 66 says it will be processing “used cooking oil, fats, greases and soybean oils.” But according to Biofuel Watch, the supply of used cooking oil is very limited. Phillips 66 has said that it will use soy oil from the Plains states, but these supplies are also limited. Many fear that the demand for soy and other biofuel crops is adding to the large-scale destruction of forests.
“Where biofuel production has been successful – using vegetable oils, corn, and sugarcane for example – the environmental and social consequences of vast new demand for these commodities has had severe and rippling effects on markets, food production, biodiversity, and human rights,” wrote Gary Hughes of Biofuel Watch. Destroying forests and soil to produce biofuel sometimes releases several times as much carbon as burning the fossil fuels they replace, according to a report from that organization.
State and federal policies heavily subsidize biofuels, according to Marijn van der Wal of Stratas Advisors, quoted in the Los Angeles Times story on the Phillips 66 announcement. Under the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the federal Renewable Identification Number program, producers of biofuel earn “credits” they can sell. They also get $1 per gallon through the federal Blenders Tax Credit program. Altogether, van der Wal estimated, this adds up to “about $3.32 a gallon . . . enough to cover production costs.”
Most American biofuel is produced in California “due to economic benefits under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard,” according to the US Department of Energy. But in a recent letter to the California Department of Energy, Biofuel Watch said this policy “locks in fossil fuel reliance” and “provides cover” for continuing the use of fossil fuel. That’s because it perpetuates the “liquid-fuel supply chain” and liquid-fuel vehicles. This “distracts from the imperative of deep transformation of our energy economy.”