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Stopping a Climate Change and Pollution Nightmare in the East Bay

Tar sands is the oil industry’s newest threat. Local activists want to put limits on refinery emissions to halt this dense and dangerous crude from coming to the Bay. But are the regional air district and state government on board?

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The tar sands also contain high concentrations of toxic metals, chemicals, and sulfur, which corrodes pipes and could lead to increased explosions, local residents fear.

Currently, numerous tar-sands-related projects are working their way through regulatory processes. Valero intends to bring large volumes of tar-sands crude into the Bay Area and Los Angeles via 100-car oil tanker trains. Phillips 66 already receives a comparatively small volume of tar sands via an elaborate delivery system. The company is now also proposing a Northern California crude-by-rail project.

Other possible projects include a Bakersfield rail hub that would bring tar-sands crude to existing California pipelines. Chevron has already completed a tar-sands-oriented expansion, although opposition by CBE and other groups forced a significant scale-back.

As Karras put it: "We've seen them come at us at a ten times faster rate in the last few years."

Emissions and Environmental Justice: A Recent History

In response to this threat of ramped-up oil-industry pollution emanating from the East Bay, a coalition of environmentalists — including 350 Bay Area, the Sierra Club, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, CBE, the Sunflower Alliance, and Steelworkers Union Local 5 — have pushed for "caps" on regional emissions since 2012, as a step toward deeper local cuts. After a couple years, the coalition seemed to achieve a breakthrough, when the supervisors and city councilmembers from nine counties that make up the BAAQMD board of directors unanimously passed a resolution directing staff to achieve 20 percent reductions for various types of refinery pollution.

But the California Air Resources Board thrust itself into the Bay Area emissions-caps discussion this past September. Executive officer Richard Corey wrote to BAAQMD executive director Jack Broadbent and flatly stated that "a local cap on Bay Area refinery emissions will have no effect on overall GHG emissions."

Corey's reasoning is tied to California's cap-and-trade system, which allows companies that lower emissions to sell pollution "allowances," which let other companies increase emissions. In addition to "allowances," California's version of cap-and-trade lets companies avoid regional pollution reductions by purchasing a certain number of "offsets" from carbon-saving projects elsewhere in the United States or in Quebec.

This means that, if a local company increased its emissions through full-tilt tar-sands processing, it could simply purchase additional "allowances" in California and "offsets" elsewhere in North America.

Chevron provides a case in point: The company was California's second-largest greenhouse-gas emitter in 2013, according to CARB data. But it was also the largest purchaser of offsets during the cap-and-trade program's inaugural two years, 2013 and 2014, according to a recent study by the Oakland-based California Environmental Justice Alliance. Tesoro and Valero were not far behind. The company has used forests in Maine, Michigan, South Carolina, Willits and Humboldt County — and an Arkansas-based project to destroy ozone-depleting substances — to offset its pollution, which mainly occurs in Richmond, El Segundo, and Kern County. As a result, its emissions of toxins in these places were undiminished.

Oil-industry representatives have also seized on the idea that regional emission caps would interfere with cap-and-trade. Western States Petroleum Association president Catherine Reheis-Boyd wrote in an email to the Express that "CARB has clearly stated that a local cap will ... not reduce statewide GHG emissions [and will] reduce cap-and-trade efficiencies; and [that it will] undermine statewide efforts to reduce GHGs."

But regional-caps proponents have labeled this argument an excuse for doing nothing. They point out that the state Legislature has gone beyond cap-and-trade with various policies to reduce emissions. For example, 2015's Senate Bill 350 mandates that 50 percent of electricity generation in California come from renewable sources by 2030.

Environmental-justice groups have long criticized cap-and-trade programs as cheap ways for major polluters to buy their way out of achieving emissions reductions. Those living alongside polluters tend to favor tight regulations on GHG emissions at the source as a means of achieving blanket reductions of these unregulated toxins.

This environmental justice movement dates to the early 1980s, when Black leaders from the Civil Rights era began calling attention to the triple whammy of race, poverty, and environment, citing how low-income communities of color overwhelmingly are more likely to live near pollution sources than affluent populations.

The Legislature has noted the moral imperative of addressing environmental-justice groups' concerns. It has also acknowledged the practical necessity of mobilizing their support for its climate policies, which are subject to unrelenting attacks from fossil-fuel industries.

The 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, also known as Assembly Bill 32, not only mandated that the state reduce emissions by 20 percent, relative to 2005 levels, by 2020, but also directed state agencies to achieve "co-benefits" on behalf of those most burdened by fossil fuel-related pollution.

In keeping with this mandate, CARB established an Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. However, current and former EJAC members have shared with the Express their deep frustration with CARB leadership, who they say has completely ignored their proposals.

"EJAC wanted to study the effectiveness of different ways of reducing greenhouse gasses," recalled Mari Rose Taruc of Oakland, a longtime director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, who has served on the EJAC for two terms. "But [CARB chairwoman] Mary Nichols just wanted to ram through cap-and-trade."

Instead of providing "co-benefits" to environmental-justice constituencies through direct pollution reductions, the state has agreed to share cap-and-trade's spoils with them. In 2012, Senate Bill 535 stipulated that at least 25 percent of revenues from cap-and-trade permit fees need to be invested in projects that guarantee emissions reductions and benefits for socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.

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