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Chevron, PBF Energy Sue Air District Over New Bay Area Refinery Pollution Rule

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About a dozen cement smokestacks rise amid low-lying building beyond a freeway.
The Chevron refinery in Richmond. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Two of the nation's biggest oil companies are suing Bay Area air regulators to block a new rule that would force their regional refineries to significantly reduce the amount of pollution they spew into the air.

Chevron and PBF Energy filed separate lawsuits this week in Contra Costa County Superior Court against the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), whose board voted 19 to 3 to require both refineries to reduce the particulate matter their plants emit. The rule is set to take effect in five years.

In the lead-up to the July vote, both companies slammed the rule and threatened legal action.

Chevron says the air district overstated the public health benefits of the new rule and underestimated the costs of implementing it at the company's Richmond refinery. It contends the new rule represents the most expensive particulate matter regulation in state history.

"The Air Board's rulemaking process was flawed and the Board's actions ... conflict with state law and are based on faulty science," Chevron said in a statement Wednesday.

PBF — the second company — has argued that having to buy and install a device to meet the particulate matter reduction requirements would force it to shut down its Martinez refinery.

In its lawsuit, PBF says its own emissions proposal, which called for a reduction in particulate matter releases, but to a lesser degree than the one approved, was improperly removed from consideration by the air district.

The company argues the district ignored requirements set forth by the California Environmental Quality Act, and says the technology likely needed to meet the new standard "will have significant adverse cost, operational, and business impacts to regulated refineries."

Paul Davis, president of PBF Energy's Western Region, said in a statement that the refinery is moving forward on a planned project that will significantly reduce its particulate matter releases by early next year.


"Despite being disappointed by the ... board's decision," the refinery is "committed to continue working with the air district to reduce particulate matter emissions," Davis said.

The new rule focuses on key refinery components called fluidized catalytic cracking units, which break down heavy crude oil into lighter products like gasoline. During that process — a part of normal daily operations at many large refineries — carbon material known as coke is burned off, producing large amounts of particulate matter released into the air.

To satisfy the new rule, PBF and Chevron would most likely need to buy and install devices known as wet-gas scrubbers at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The district says the rule could cut annual Chevron and PBF emissions of PM10 particulates by an estimated 400 tons a year, reducing preventable deaths and increasing the average lifespan of people who live near the refineries. That so-called "dirty air," which contains soot, dust and dirt, represents the most significant air pollution health hazard in the Bay Area, it asserts.

Environmentalists and health advocates lobbied the air district for the change. They argued the district needed to follow through on its stated mission to keep nearby residents, many of whom are lower-income people of color who have suffered from disproportionately high rates of respiratory disease, safe from air pollution.

Andres Soto, a Richmond organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, called the lawsuits an egregious act of racial and environmental injustice by some of the world's largest corporations.

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"Chevron and PBF would rather spend endless dollars on their army of lawyers rather than implement a hard-won victory by frontline polluted communities to improve their health," he said.

Dr. Amanda Millstein, a Richmond pediatrician and co-founder of Climate Health Now, a group of California health professionals pushing to transition away from fossil fuels, took aim at Chevron, the oil giant that runs the refinery in her city.

"Chevron's shameless and predictable delay is coming at the expense of my patients' and their families' lives," Millstein said. "It is outrageous for the oil industry to sue a government entity for acting in the public's interest while fulfilling its charter."

Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, said the lawsuits fly in the face of research that shows fossil fuel pollution causes thousands of premature deaths in California every year.

"It's contemptible for Chevron to pay its pricey lawyers to sue rather than just install pollution-control equipment that many refineries already have in place," Kretzmann said. "Given this is a matter of life and death for frontline communities, Chevron's penny-pinching is completely immoral."

Jed Holtzman, a former policy analyst with 350 Bay Area, which pushed for the rule, said local advocates fought hard to get the district to put the life-saving rule in place.

"Bay Area communities should be outraged that Big Oil is trying to subvert democratic government action to protect our health," he said.

The change is not expected to affect the Bay Area's three other refineries. Valero's Benicia plant already has a wet-gas scrubber; Phillips 66 in Rodeo does not have a fluid catalytic cracking unit; and Marathon in Martinez has been idled for months.

Both Phillips 66 and Marathon also plan to convert their local facilities into renewable diesel plants in the coming years.

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