SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Amidst doubts over the legality of an attempt by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to ram through 11th-hour changes to a proposal for the nation’s first-ever caps on greenhouse gas emissions from oil refineries, the Air District’s board of directors postponed voting on the proposal until at least September.
Board members had anticipated voting on the emissions caps, known as Rule 12-16, at their meeting Wednesday. But Air District staff increased the amount of greenhouse gases that Bay Area refineries can produce under the caps three times in less than one month, with the final changes made at 2 p.m. Tuesday, leaving members with just 16 hours to review them.
“This process has been incredibly troubling; I’ve never seen anything like it in the many years I’ve worked in government,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said at the meeting. A letter from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra read aloud to board members called the time that Air District staff provided for review “insufficient.”
The caps, which set annual limits on the amount of greenhouse gases that each of the Bay Area’s five oil refineries and three associated facilities can produce, are meant to keep emissions from rising while the state and the Air District figure out how to cut them.
The originally proposed caps, presented to the board at a May 31 meeting, were based on the average annual emissions each plant discharged from 2011 to 2015, with a 3 percent buffer for yearly production variability. However, Air District staff changed how the caps were calculated, raising them by up to 29 percent to allow for refinery upgrades and expansions that the Air District had already approved but that had not yet been built or begun operating.
The cap for the Chevron facility in Richmond was raised to account for the fact that it was not operating at full capacity during the 2011 to 2015 baseline period due to a fire there in 2012.
“This is a starting point. It is a backstop so we can indeed halt any kind of increases we see … while we then work with the state to reduce emissions, ” said Eric Stevenson, the Air District’s director of meteorology, measurement and rules, while presenting the staff report to the board.
Public health groups, however, are condemning the changes, arguing to the board on Wednesday that they will increase emissions. According to the Air District’s own report, Tesoro’s facility in Martinez would be allowed to produce 29 percent more greenhouse gases per year, and Chevron’s facility 25 percent.
“This would lead to a significant increase tantamount to having an additional refinery being put in the area,” Bob Gould, an adjunct professor at the University of California, San Francisco, told the board Wednesday.
Following three hours of public comment from health advocates and even representatives from the Chevron and Tesoro refineries slamming the legality of the last-minute changes, multiple board members expressed reservations about voting on the proposal. Instead, they passed a substitute motion 13-6 to revise it to include hard caps that do not include “hypothetical” permitted facilities.
“I believe, whether it was intentional or not, that we are going to have a legal problem,” Ronen said, adding that she had not seen the new numbers until she arrived for the meeting. She blamed Air District staff for the botched vote.
“I felt like we gave very clear instructions to the staff on May 31 to bring back a rule on the caps we discussed, and that’s not what happened,” she said. “I don’t know why we didn’t have these discussions on unpermitted sources then, when the staff knew about it. It’s the job of this body and regulators to set those caps, not the refineries.”
Other board members, however, protested the delay, reminding their colleagues that this would be the first refinery emissions cap in the nation.
“I’m really concerned that we are moving in a trajectory which is going to kill our attempts to do something historic,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “We don’t need to be perfect. Perfect is the enemy of the good. We need to be bold and courageous politically and in terms of policies.”
Refineries produce roughly 18 percent of all Bay Area greenhouse gas emissions, and account for 70 percent of stationary-source greenhouse gas emissions in the area. Bay Area refineries also produce more than half of greenhouse gas emissions from the refinery sector in California.
In its report, Air District staff recognized that California is not on track to achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and that “dramatic reductions are needed in less than 13 years to achieve the 2030 goal” of a 40 percent emissions reduction.
“The state cannot meet its aggressive mid-term and long-term climate goals if its refining industry … does not decrease its [greenhouse gas] emissions rapidly,” the report states. “Any [greenhouse gas] emission increases at refineries could jeopardize the progress toward the state’s 2030 and 2050 reduction goals.”
Greg Karras, a senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, reminded the board about the staff’s finding Wednesday. “Your staff report does an excellent job at the very end detailing all of the ways that we know for sure that we will never meet our climate goals in the region if we allow our refinery emissions to increase,” he said. “Adopt the May 31 caps.”
A date was not set to vote on the revised proposal.