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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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"People used to call us the Bay Area Refinery Workers, but I guess someone else has claimed that name," he said, joking, before stating that the caps would also help the refineries become safer workplaces.

One by one, people at the meeting rose to implore BAAQMD to adopt the regional caps with haste. "Our children and our grandparents are dying every day from cancer," said Richmond resident Sandy Saeteurn of APEN. "This refinery cap will hold the line while you focus on the other measures you need to take to reduce emissions."

"We have to protect this world, and you are one of few places where change can happen," said Amy Valens, a retired teacher from the 350 Marin climate-change group.

Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan is the city's representative on the air district board, and she gave comfort to cap proponents by speaking critically about the oil industry's push to refine dirtier fuels.

Earlier at the meeting, BAAQMD executive director Broadbent repeated the claim that a regional emissions caps would send refinery production elsewhere and that it would not achieve an overall reduction in emissions.

As an alternative to the cap, he proposed a more selective regulatory structure using the cost-effective, technological retrofits of specific refinery equipment so as to control and reduce their emissions, known as the Best Available Retrofit Control Technology method. Broadbent planned to bring the matter up for a vote by December, but some BAAQMD board members requested that the vote occur sooner.

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos insisted that Broadbent return to the next BAAQMD meeting in July with a timetable for implementation of a cap proposal, and that his staff prepare an environmental-impact review of the idea as soon as possible. Avalos has been a persistent advocate of caps, in part owing to his own personal experience with the oil industry. Growing up in the southern Los Angeles town of Wilmington, he lived close to several refineries. One of his earliest memories, he says, is of an explosion at the Wilmington Texaco refinery, which blanketed his town with pollution and was met by false promises from company officials that such incidents would never occur again.

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Only a few years ago, the oil industry was pushing ahead with projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia, which would have enabled delivery of enormous volumes of the high-carbon crude to the West Coast.

But grassroots opposition to Keystone XL led President Barack Obama to veto the project in 2015. And determined opposition by some of the most systematically disenfranchised people in North America — Canada's indigenous people — has been the main obstacle to the Northern Gateway's completion. As a result, the tar sands are effectively landlocked, and the oil industry has been forced into their current efforts to ship smaller quantities of this carbon-intensive product by rail.

A 2015 report in the journal Nature found that trillions of dollars' worth of known and extractable coal, oil, and gas reserves — including nearly all remaining tar sands and all Arctic oil and gas — must remain in the ground if global temperatures are to be kept under the safety threshold of 2 degrees centigrade, agreed to by the world's nations.

And that's why proponents of the emission caps — led by those most directly poisoned by oil refineries — see this prospective new regulation as a crucial piece of an international grassroots struggle to fight climate change and starve the tar-sands beast.


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