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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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But advocates for regional caps say local governments should have the ability to go beyond cap-and-trade. "If we have the will locally to do more, we should do it," activist Soto said.

Power of the Oil Lobby

In 2012, a crack in a steel pipe at Chevron's Richmond refinery caused a fireball to ignite inside the facility. Nineteen workers narrowly escaped. A toxic plume spread over Richmond and San Pablo, prompting 15,000 residents to seek medical treatment. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board later ruled the major cause of the explosion was the refinery's reliance on oil with high sulfur content, which caused rapid corrosion of the pipe.

Tar sands contain even more toxic metals and chemicals than Chevron's existing crude sources, as well as higher concentrations of sulfur, according to the BAAQMD — and with it the threat of more frequent spills, fires, and explosions, proponents of the regional caps argue.

In response to the incident, BAAQMD adopted a set of regulations. Last year, mainly at the prompting of 350 Bay Area and the Sierra Club, the air district also took several steps to rein in GHGs. It has even committed to reducing the GHG emissions in its jurisdiction by 80 percent by 2050.

But many activists contend that air-district staffers have attempted to thwart consideration of local emissions caps because they're too cozy with oil corporations.

CBE attorney Roger Lin noted that staff with the Bay Area agency has authorized permits for three tar-sands-related infrastructure projects since 2013, and they may grant approval to Valero's Benicia crude-by-rail project in September. Yet they've failed to bring the activists' emissions-caps proposal before the board of directors for full consideration — going on four years after it was first proposed. (Jean Tepperman has reported on this in the past for the Express.)

BAAQMD's advisory council, a seven-member expert panel that consults with the board of directors and the executive officer on technical and policy matters, has also opposed the emissions caps. The council's members are largely selected by BAAQMD executive staff.

Advisory Council Chairman Stan Hayes has said at recent meetings that he agrees with the goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but that regional refinery caps would simply lead to "a game of climate change Wack-a-Mole," where one area swats down emissions and then they pop up somewhere else.

While Hayes has an extensive scientific background, he also has worked as a consultant to the oil industry. During a long tenure as a principal of the environmental consulting firm Environ International, his clients included the American Petroleum Institute, the country's largest oil-industry lobbying organization, and the Western States Petroleum Association. In 2005, for example, he lobbied against stronger regulations that CARB was considering on emissions of ozone — a greenhouse gas.

Environ International has consulted with businesses on how to benefit financially from carbon-trading programs, including California's cap-and-trade system, via a company division called CarbonVentures. In 2003, Hayes co-authored an engineering trade journal article titled "Profit From Effective Greenhouse Gas Management — A Six-Step Plan," which advised companies on how to "realize the benefits of available opportunities and to gain competitive advantage" from carbon trading.

Hayes told the Express that he has "been really candid" with BAAQMD Deputy Director Jeff McKay regarding his work for the oil industry. But he declined to discuss whether he considers such work a conflict of interest.

As for his effort to help companies attain a competitive advantage from carbon-trading, Hayes explained that he and his colleagues were "trying to encourage people to see that it was in their interests economically to reduce carbon emissions."

The oil industry has been lobbying hard against the regional caps. In April, an organization called the Committee for Industrial Safety — bankrolled by oil giants Chevron, Shell, Tesoro and Phillips 66 — even sent a suspicious mailer to an unknown number of households in the Bay Area, targeting BAAQMD board-member voter districts. The mailer claimed to be from a group called Bay Area Refinery Workers, and included signatures from twelve refinery employees, who called for a vote against new oil-industry regulations in the name of economic justice. According to state and federal records, each corporation annually provides the lobbying group between $100,000 and $200,000 to advocate on their behalf.

Contra Costa County Supervisor and environmentalist John Gioia is an influential representative on the BAAQMD board of directors, as well as the Bay Area's representative to the CARB board of directors. At a June 1 BAAQMD committee meeting, he noted that it has become well-known in Sacramento that the oil industry may attempt to pass legislation to strip GHG regulation authority from local air districts in response to BAAQMD's new and proposed measures.

The oil industry spent more than $23 million lobbying California legislators in 2015 alone, according to data on the California secretary of state's website.

It Comes Down To This

On June 15, BAAQMD's directors convened a much-anticipated meeting inside their new Beale Street headquarters at the edge of San Francisco's Financial District. More than one-hundred people attended, including many of the oil-industry employees who had signed the Bay Area Refinery Workers letter. One of the afternoon's most interesting public comments, however, came from Mike Smith, of Steelworkers Union 5, which represents 80 percent of employees at three of the Bay Area's refineries. In contrast to the industry mailer, he expressed the union's support for emission caps.

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