The rust-red painted tanks of Chevron's Richmond refinery are a familiar sight for drivers in the East Bay. The facility, sprawling across about four and a half miles at the foot of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, is the biggest refinery in Northern California.
It was built in 1902. Picture those black and white photos of Victorian ladies after the 1906 earthquake. The refinery was already here, chugging along.
"There was pretty much nothing else here. It just looked like an open plain," said Chevron's Brian Hubinger.
Today, according to the company, one out of every five cars on the road in the Bay Area is driving with gas from here, and two-thirds of the jet fuel used at Bay Area airports starts here.
Now Chevron is looking to launch a billion-dollar construction project at the refinery. It’s a slimmed down version of a project that environmentalists stopped with a lawsuit a few years ago.
After that legal battle and a fire at the refinery in 2012, Chevron is trying to win back the community’s trust not only with a new environmental impact report on the project, but also with a company-published local news website and billboards celebrating the city of Richmond, and TV ads supporting the proposed project.
Hubinger, the technical advisor for what Chevron’s calling its modernization project took me on a tour of the facility. (Critics of the project are more apt to call it an "expansion.") We drove to the end of the wharf where tankers full of oil from the Middle East and Alaska unload, and then back into the heart of the refinery, past right-angled tangles of pipeline.
We parked near what looked like a brown barn on stilts: Chevron's half-built hydrogen plant. That’s how much the company was able to construct before a state court judge stopped the project in 2010. This plant would produce more hydrogen, more efficiently, than the existing one does.
Chevron wants the upgrade -- and other changes it’s proposing -- because hydrogen helps clean the sulfur out of crude oil. And the company wants to refine crude that has more sulfur in it.
"It provides flexibility to the refinery to remain competitive in the future," Hubinger said.
Chevron won’t say exactly where that oil would be coming from, but the refinery can only receive crude via ship. So this is not about using trains to bring in oil from Canada’s tar sands or North Dakota’s Bakken formation, the company says. Instead, the project would allow Chevron to process crude from declining oil fields, which are often higher in sulfur.
Here’s another case where, like "modernization" versus "expansion," the language drives a point of view: Opponents call the crude that’s higher in sulfur “dirty.” In the oil industry, they call it “sour.”
There’s no debating, though, that sulfur is an impurity in crude oil, and that processing higher sulfur crude will affect emissions at the refinery.
CBE, with other partner organizations, was the group that won the lawsuit to stop the earlier project. CBE argued, and a state judge agreed, that Chevron hadn’t provided enough information about how the project would affect air pollution.
"Chevron refused to disclose the crude slate quality that they would process as a result of this project," Soto said. "If they were going to expand their hydrogen production, that was because they were going to be processing dirtier crude."
Unlike Chevron’s last attempt at the project, this time its environmental impact report does provide details on the amount of air pollution that will be created. And it describes how Chevron will try to offset that pollution.
"Our commitments for no net increase are: no net increase in criteria air pollutants, no net increase in health risk and no net increase in greenhouse gas," said Nicole Barber, a spokeswoman for Chevron. (Criteria air pollutants are particulates that the Environmental Protection Agency regulates for human and environmental health, such as lead, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.)
Greenhouse gas emissions could go up by 15 percent or more if this project happens, but, Barber said, Chevron would offset that by buying carbon credits, giving money to greenhouse gas reduction programs in Richmond and making changes on-site like using LED lighting and reusing water. That’s on the climate change side.
In terms of emissions that could make people sick -- toxic air contaminants and criteria air pollutants – Barber said Chevron will offset those, too. The company’s proposals include installing new burners that lower nitrogen oxide emissions and replacing three tanker ships with newer ships that have more efficient engines.
That’s all according to the environmental impact report. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which regulates emissions, and CBE have both said they’re still examining the report, and have no comment yet on whether the details Chevron provides are thorough and sufficient.
"We know they are claiming there will be no net increase in emissions," said Soto. "And that sounds great. Except that the current level of emissions are already killing us. We have disproportionately high rates of cancers, asthma, other autoimmune diseases."
Richmond is an industrial area. There are other refineries, shipping, trucking and factories. And year in and year out, Chevron’s refinery is one of the biggest polluters in the Bay Area.
Soto said the 2012 fire at the refinery is an extreme example of the health risks a refinery poses. The fire released a dark plume of smoke into the sky and sent more than 10,000 people to the hospital complaining of breathing problems
"That was an episodic exposure," he said. "But then there's the persistent and prolonged every day exposure that also happens."
Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin said she wants the project and the 1,000 construction jobs it's expected to create, but she also wants to make sure it’s safe. And she sees it as a chance to push Chevron for lower emissions.
"How often do we have an opportunity to determine whether or not to permit a $1 billion expansion project from a large refinery?" she said.
The draft environmental impact report is open for public comment until May second. The planning commission could vote on it as soon as this summer. There’s a public hearing on the project this week on Thursday night.
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