North America is now the biggest producer of oil in the world thanks largely to Canada’s tar sands and North Dakota’s Bakken shale, and West Coast refineries are looking to cash in.
But not all crude is created equal, and oil companies hoping to import tar sands oil and Bakken crude — known as “cost-advantaged crude” in industry parlance — are deliberately disguising the true nature of upgrades they’re making to their facilities in California when seeking the necessary permits from regulatory agencies or speaking about the projects to the public.
“We’re seeing this all over the state,” says Yana Garcia, a staff attorney with Communities for a Better Environment.
CBE, which is one of several green groups calling out refineries that appear to be acting in bad faith, was notified by the South Coast Air Quality Management District last Friday that the permitting process for a Tesoro refinery in Wilmington, CA had been put on hold after the group filed numerous comments in opposition to the “negative declaration” the SCAQMD had made.
A “negative declaration” is essentially a rubber stamp ruling from the regulatory body, meaning it agreed with Tesoro that no significant impacts to the environment and human health were likely and the oil company could go ahead with its plans to build a new shipyard pipeline which, the company said, was only intended to speed up offloading of crude from ships to shore-based storage tanks.
In a press release, CBE explains:
There was no mention of the corrosive and explosive crude oils Tesoro plans to import, or its plans to combine its Wilmington refining operation with its newly acquired BP refinery in Carson; omitting major increases in greenhouse gases that result from tar sands crude oil refining, and other key impacts. Based on Tesoro’s omissions, the environmental document for the project incorrectly concluded that there was not even the potential for significant impacts.
“At its best, it’s just business being business, they want to get these crudes out to the refineries and start profiting from them,” Yana Garcia says. “At its worst, that gaming of the system is essentially about lying to the public and letting these pretty nasty projects go through in predominantly low-income communities of color.”
This is just one of three such cases in recent memory. CBE has also submitted comments to SCAQMD about the negative declaration given to a Phillips 66 application for the permits to build new storage tanks at its refinery in Carson, CA.
“Phillips 66 talks about it as being a benign storage tank modification project,” Yana Garcia says, “but it’s because they’re planning on bringing in tar sands and Bakken.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council and CBE were instrumental in halting the permitting process for a Valero refinery in Wilmington last year, where the company was seeking to build a new crude-by-rail terminal in order to bring more tar sands oil down from Canada.
Working closely with local activists, the groups convinced the city of Benicia, CA to insist on a full environmental impact study before Valero could build a rail facility at its Benicia refinery similar to the one proposed for its Wilmington refinery. Valero put a halt on the permitting process in Wilmington while it waits for the outcome in Benicia.
There’s a very good reason why oil companies are not eager to divulge to adjacent communities and regulators that they’re seeking to import more cost-advantaged crude.
Last January, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration was forced to issue a safety alert regarding Bakken crude “to notify the general public, emergency responders and shippers and carriers that recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”
The train that derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last year was carrying Bakken crude, for instance.
According to Earth Island Journal, residents say “the burning petroleum was like a wall of fire, or a river of fire. The blaze, which burned for 36 hours, sent flames and smoke hundreds of feet into the air. At one point, the fire was pulling in so much oxygen that nearby trees were whipping about as if in a tropical storm.”
Tar sands oil is also especially problematic. Aside from the fact that hundreds of thousands of acres of Alberta’s Boreal forest are being clear cut to get at the crude bitumen in the tar sands of the forest floor, turning that bitumen into a type of crude oil known as dilbit, or diluted bitumen, requires a massive amount of energy and water. Making dilbit from tar sands creates three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional crude.
And tar sands oil is just as dangerous to handle as Bakken crude, if not more so. The NRDC’s Diane Bailey describes dilbit crude as “the dirtiest, most dangerous type of crude oil that could possibly be brought to California refineries” because it increases smog, soot, and toxic air pollution, all while leaving behind more toxic byproducts.
Tar sands oil is also especially corrosive, which can lead to refinery accidents such as the Chevron Richmond refinery explosion and fire in 2012.
Image credit: Solodov Alexey / Shutterstock