LOS ANGELES (CS) — A Superior Court judge on Friday said he was likely to halt the proposed expansion of a biofuel refinery in the city of Paramount in the southeast part of Los Angeles County.
The judge strongly suggested that he was in agreement with three environmental groups, including Communities for a Better Environment, that filed a writ in May 2022 claiming the city's environmental review of the project was insufficient.
The AltAir refinery sits in the middle of a mostly residential area, across the street from both a high school and an elementary school, adjacent to a row of single-family homes. The refinery opened in the 1930s and for 80 years it produced gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and asphalt. It closed in 2011. Three years later, it was converted into AltAir Paramount, licensed to process up to 3,500 barrels per day of vegetable oils and beef tallow into biodiesel and jet fuel.
World Energy, which purchased AltAir in 2018, now wants to expand the refinery so that it would be capable of processing up to 25,000 barrels per day of feedstock — a seven-fold increase.
The petitioners objected the proposed expansion largely on environmental justice grounds, arguing it would harm the predominantly low income neighborhoods around the plant. The expansion would increase nitrogen dioxide emissions and add 540 diesel truck trips and 50 railcar trips every day, to and from the plant, bringing in feedstock and taking away biofuel.
Judge Mitchell Beckloff said he had two main issues with the environmental review document, which cities must prepare before approving any major project. The EIR compared all the environmental impacts of the refinery's expansion to the environmental impact the plant had in 2011, just as the refinery had done in 2013, when it first applied for permission to convert itself into a biofuel plant.
The petitioners called that comparison "misleading," since using 2011 as a "baseline" would make the proposed project seem like a relative decrease in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, rather than the modest increase in pollution the project will almost surely cause.
Beckloff agreed emphatically.
"It is a fiction to suggest in an informational document that 2011 is the baseline," Beckloff said. "It's just pure fiction. I really don’t understand."
Biofuels were once championed by environmental activists as a way of weening people off of fossil fuels, and indeed, the federal government still considers biodiesel to be "carbon neutral." Even though burning biodiesel releases the same amount of carbon into the air as traditional petroleum-based gasoline, champions of biofuel liken it to a closed loop: Plants suck in carbon dioxide as they grown, then emit carbon when they're burned by cars and jets.
But many groups have turned against biodiesel, in part because of the growing popularity of electric cars, and in part because of studies that have suggested that mass adoption of biofuel would lead to drastic changes in land use, converting more land into farming and thus releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, cancelling out their presumed benefits.
That same argument played out in Friday's hearing, which ran more than two hours, much of it consisting of Judge Beckloff grilling AltAir's attorney, Matt Wickersham.
Beckloff expressed dismay that the project's environmental impact report seemed to conflate carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuel and from the burning of biofuel, despite the fact the everyone considers them to have different "carbon cycles," and therefore different net affects on global warming.
"Talk about misleading!" Beckloff exclaimed.
Paramount's attorney said very little throughout the hearing. Wickersham at one point asked if construction work to expand the refinery might be allowed to continue while the city revised its environmental impact report.
"The overall environmental benefits of having a renewable refinery that would be able to provide much needed renewable energy justifies allowing construction to continue, pending an updated or corrected EIR," Wickersham said.
Not likely, Beckloff said.
"There's certainly information [in the EIR] that's valuable," the judge said. "it just seems to me that the whole foundation of the EIR is problematic if the baseline is off."
But Beckloff stopped just short of making his ruling final, opting instead to take the matter under submission. Should the judge rule in favor of the petitioners, as seems likely, the city would have to prepare a new report. The new version of the document would also be subject to judicial review. The suit, therefore, is unlikely to permanently halt the biofuel refinery's expansion, merely to delay it.Follow @hillelaron
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