Activists Take Aim at Bay Area Crude Oil Projects

Pennie Opal Plant from the environmental group Idle No More at a rally at the Air District in San Francisco says she's concerned about crude oil from the Tar Sands. (Molly Samuel/KQED)
Pennie Opal Plant from the environmental group Idle No More at a rally in San Francisco. She says she's concerned about local refineries bringing in crude oil from Canadian tar sands. (Molly Samuel/KQED)

Local community and environmental activists are sounding an alarm over four proposed energy projects in the Bay Area. Demonstrators rallied Wednesday morning outside a Bay Area Air Quality Management District board meeting, calling on the Air District to put the developments on hold.

Two of the proposals are for crude-by-rail projects. One would be an addition to the Valero refinery in Benicia; the other would be an oil terminal in Pittsburg that would receive crude by pipeline, rail and ship. Activists are concerned about crude-by-rail because, they say, trains would provide a means to bring in what they call "dirty" oil from the Canadian tar sands.

The other two projects, at Chevron's Richmond refinery and the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo, concern equipment upgrades, which, activists say, will position refiners to process heavier grades of crude.

"What's really at stake here is the public's health," said Andres Soto, an organizer with the East Bay group Communities for a Better Environment. "We're asking the District to not issue any more permits until this issue about the quality of the crude is publicly disclosed, publicly discussed, and either mitigation or a moratorium on its processing here in the Bay Area is established."

The oil companies have not disclosed where exactly the oil involved in these projects would be coming from. But, as Valero spokesman Bill Day told me for a previous story, they're all looking for ways to get oil out of the middle of the continent and to the refineries on the coasts:

“Whether it’s in Texas, up in Canada, in the Northeast, in the Marcellus Shale, up in the Dakotas in the Bakken Shale, that’s where the new crude oil is coming from, and there are huge amounts of it,” says Bill Day, a spokesman for the San Antonio-based Valero. “There’s no such thing as dirty oil or clean oil, I want to be very clear about that.”

Air district engineer Jim Karas, who briefed the Board on the projects at Wednesday's meeting, told me none of the projects can go ahead without its approval, and the Air District won't allow the refineries to go over the pollution limits already in place. "That is what we do. That's our business," he said.

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But he also pointed out, that with or without oil from the tar sands, the refineries are processing what the environmentalists might call "dirty" crude.

"The reality is that the refiners already process very heavy crude," he said. "That's California crude. That's what they were built to handle."

The Board heard updates but did not make any decisions on the projects at the meeting.

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