The long-running saga of the effort to get a strong regulatory limit to particulate emissions from Bay Area refineries continues. On Wednesday, June 2nd, the Board of Directors of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) heard five and a half hours of public comments regarding their pending vote on passing an emissions limit that would improve public health. The Board decided to meet again on July 21st to vote on the two standards under consideration. Chevron increased the complexity of the Board’s decision-making by submitting a proposal for a collaborative approach the day prior to the meeting.

The speakers at the meeting, 186 by my count, were 80 people affiliated with the refineries, the building trades, unions, and business groups, who spoke in favor of the weaker standard that would cost less to implement. Their arguments centered on the refineries’ hypothetical projections of job losses, minor increases to gasoline costs, and increased reliance on dirtier foreign fuel. Some refinery employees attacked the BAAQMD staff projections of costs and relative health benefits as inaccurate and unreasonable. With a few exceptions, the 106 community members, environmental activists, doctors, and others urged adoption of the stronger standard because of its clear advantage in reducing premature deaths, asthma and a host of other health issues that most impact the lower-income communities closest to the refineries. These communities, disproportionately home to people of color compared to the rest of the Bay Area, are Richmond, where Chevron is located, and Martinez, the location of Marathon (which is not currently in operation) and PBF. Community members and health professionals spoke movingly about the toll on the many local children living with asthma.

The refinery emissions that can result in illness and premature deaths are known as PM2.5 particulates. These particles of 2.5 microns in diameter or less are the most important Bay Area air pollution health risk driver and have been shown to cause disease in all bodily functions, especially respiratory, cardiac, and neurological systems. There is no known safe level of PM2.5. The two standards under consideration are for PM10 (particles of 10 microns in diameter or less), which would control PM2.5s. The weaker standard, Control Scenario A, is for PM10 not to exceed .02 grains/cubic foot of air, while Control Scenario B is for PM10 not to exceed .01 grains/cubic foot. While this might seem like a small difference, the health impact is large. Implementing Scenario B at Chevron and PBF would save about $19 million per year more in reduced medical expenses and lost work days than Scenario A (using the mid-point of the BAAQMD model’s estimate ranges). These numbers, of course, don’t capture the suffering of ill children and adults, as well as the stress endured by entire families dealing with affected individuals. 

The refineries’ resistance to Scenario B is based on its considerably higher cost. To attain the .01 standard, the refineries would have to implement wet gas scrubbers (WSGs), which cost more to install and to operate annually than the electrostatic scrubbers (ESGs) that would work for the .02 standard. For example, installing WSGs would cost Chevron $241 million vs. $30 million for ESGs, and WSG annual costs would be $39 million vs. $4 million (using BAAQMD’s estimates). While the refineries use the scare tactic of job losses and plant closures, it gives a little perspective to recall that Chevron paid out $9 billion in stockholder dividends in 2019. It’s hard to believe that the cost differential is enough to significantly impact Chevron and PBF’s profitability. In fact, if the companies chose to pass on the costs to consumers, it is estimated that it would add 1 cent to the price of a gallon. If job losses do occur, they need to be addressed through just transition remediation measures that are beyond the scope of BAAQMD’s responsibilities. Also, as Jed Holtzman of 350 Bay Area brought up, oil refineries in Texas, hardly a liberal bastion, have used WSGs for years. WSGs aren’t an ideal solution, since they require about as much water daily as a golf course (about 1% of the refineries’ current water use). While there may be some ability to use recycled water, this problem underlines the necessity of transitioning to renewable energy ASAP.

Chevron’s collaborative approach, so conveniently submitted immediately before the Board was to have taken a final vote, would have the effect of further delaying the long-in-the making standard. It has been six years since Rule 6-5 limiting particulate emissions was adopted in 2015. In 2017, the California Assembly passed a bill requiring air districts that hadn’t attained mandated pollution limits to adopt an expedited schedule by January 1, 2019 to implement required reductions by 2023. Currently, the refineries would have five years after BAAQMD adopts a standard, until 2026, for implementation; the total time from Rule 6-5 to clean air would be 11 years. Chevron’s proposal is to implement the weaker standard in two years and then have five more years to adopt the stronger standard. Besides the two-year delay, there would be additional time lost in negotiations between BAAQMD and Chevron about the details. 

The issues at play in the Rule 6-5 adoption are the reduction of clear health dangers and economic justice vs. corporate profits. While figures can be put on estimates of profits, it’s hard to quantify the suffering of a child who has to live with asthma for the rest of their life. We know cases of asthma, many other illnesses, and premature deaths can be reduced if BAAQMD requires the .02 emissions standard. You can support adoption of a strong limit by speaking at the upcoming Board meeting, if you didn’t comment on June 2nd, and by calling BAAQMD directors.

Illana Weisman 

June 19th 2021

image by Marco de Winter