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Air Regulators Weigh Plan Aimed at Dramatically Cutting Bay Area Refinery Pollution

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Chevron's refinery complex in Richmond.  (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Bay Area air regulators are considering requiring the oil industry to significantly reduce the amount of pollution local refineries spew into the region's air.

The board that oversees the Bay Area Air Quality Management District plans to vote Wednesday on a proposal that could force two of California's largest refineries — Chevron's Richmond refinery and the PBF Energy refinery in Martinez — to install air pollution devices at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Supporters of the proposed rule change, including environmentalists and health and air quality experts, say the change is needed to protect the health of residents who live near the refineries, many of whom are low-income people of color in areas with higher rates of respiratory disease.

Advocates argue the board should approve the change, if for no other reason than to honor the agency's own stated mission of protecting and improving public health and air quality.

"I am asking the air district to stand with me for our mothers and our babies and to remain true to their mission," said Dr. Teresa Muñoz, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Richmond, at a press conference last Wednesday held a few blocks from the Chevron refinery. "Please keep your word."

Oil industry representatives, led by Chevron and PBF Energy, are urging the agency to reject the plan.

PBF says if the proposal is approved, it will be forced to shut down its Martinez plant, which it purchased from Shell early last year. Attorneys for Chevron say the data the air district staff used in creating the potential change is flawed.

"In short, this rulemaking has been procedurally defective, technically inaccurate, and the potential benefits of the proposed amendments are overstated," Michael Carroll, a partner at Latham & Watkins, wrote on behalf of Chevron in an April 30 letter to the air district.

Cracking Units

At issue are key refinery components called fluidized catalytic cracking units.

The cracking units use a chemical catalyst to help break down heavy crude oil into lighter components for products like gasoline. During the cracking process, the catalyst is coated with a carbon material called coke, which is then burned off.

The air district says that procedure, part of normal daily operations at many large refineries, emits more particulate matter than any other part of the refining process and makes up a significant portion of each plant's total emissions.

Proposal: Bring on the Scrubbers

The proposal before the 24-member air district board would amend Regulation 6 Rule 5, limiting the amount of particulate matter, ammonia and sulfur dioxide the cracking units emit.

The air district says the change could cut annual Chevron and PBF emissions of PM10 particulates by an estimated 400 tons — or 72% — from the recently reported level of 554 tons a year.

The proposal is not expected to affect Phillips 66 in Rodeo, which does not have a fluid catalytic cracking unit, or Marathon in Martinez, which is currently idled. Both refineries are being converted to produce renewable diesel fuel.

If approved, the rule would go into effect in five years, requiring Chevron and PBF to buy and install a system called a wet gas scrubber, a unit that Valero's Benicia refinery already has. The scrubbers capture and remove pollutants by sending exhaust gas through sprays of scrubbing liquid. The district says the scrubbers can significantly reduce the particulate matter released into the air.

Dirty Air

Particulate matter is essentially what some experts call "dirty air," which contains things like soot, dust and dirt.

Many Bay Area residents have become more familiar with the air quality concerns associated with particulate matter as a result of massive wildfires in recent years that have fouled the region's air.

"Compelling evidence also indicates that fine particulate matter is the most significant air pollution health hazard in the Bay Area," air district staff wrote in the agency's report on the proposal. "Reducing particulate matter emissions can reduce mortality and increase average life span."

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Fine inhalable particulate matter with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers or smaller — known as PM2.5 — can exacerbate conditions for people who have preexisting heart and lung conditions, including children with asthma.

Research has linked exposure to particulate matter to cardiovascular disease, changes in cognitive function, low birth weight and preterm births, among other health problems.

"Who gets the heaviest exposures to PM2.5? Low-income communities of color," said John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UCSF, who sits on the California Air Resources Board. "Where do they put refineries? Usually adjacent to low-income communities of color."

The rule change before the board also includes a limit on the total amount of PM10 an oil refinery releases, although most of those emissions are understood to be within the PM2.5 size range, an air district representative said.

"The refineries that surround us in the Bay Area are the largest source of industrial air pollution [in the region], which is dangerous to health" said Dr. Amanda Millstein, a pediatrician in Richmond and co-founder of Climate Health Now, a group of California health professionals pushing to transition away from fossil fuels.

"It's time to protect health over the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry," she said. "The air district board needs to fulfill its mission to provide a healthy breathing environment to every Bay Area resident and require the best available retrofit technology.

Industry Opposition

PBF says a wet gas scrubber would cost too much and that its Martinez refinery doesn't have enough space for such a unit. The New Jersey-based company says the scrubber would require considerable amounts of fresh water, electricity and natural gas.

In fact, according to air district staff, refineries that use wet gas scrubbers use between 120,000 and 430,000 gallons of water a day.

The proposal "will force us to shut down the Martinez refinery," Paul Davis, PBF's western region president, wrote in an April 29 letter to the district. He added that the refinery can work to reduce its particulate matter releases but not by as much as air district staff are recommending.

Chevron says it has been steadily reducing its emissions. The San Ramon-based oil giant says its Richmond modernization project, which involved bringing in a new hydrogen plant along with other developments, has brought about a larger reduction in particulate emissions than the district's proposed change would.

Chevron said in a series of letters to the the agency that the district's research on the proposal was riddled with errors and had not taken into account recent refinery improvements. It also said the district had underestimated the cost of installing and operating a wet gas scrubber and overestimated the projected emissions reductions.

"While the capital costs will indeed be exorbitant, the public health benefits will be negligible," Carroll, of Latham & Watkins, wrote on behalf of Chevron.

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Refinery industry executives and some labor leaders say the rule change could also reduce high-quality blue-collar jobs.

But local environmentalists argue the opposite.

"It's good for public health and good for the economy," said Dan Sakaguchi, a researcher for Communities for a Better Environment, a Richmond-based group that has long called for stronger refinery regulations.

"This policy would result in significant economic benefits, including creating thousands of community-supporting jobs, through the installation of new technology to reduce pollution," he said.

The air district meeting will be held on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. The public can read the agency's presentation here and watch the hearing live here.

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