Today’s rant concerns an article in the magazine, The Nation, whose web version can be found at https://www.thenation.com/article/this-bay-area-proposal-would-strike-a-huge-blow-to-the-dirtiest-forms-of-oil-production/

The article has the title “This Bay Area Proposal Would Strike a Huge Blow to the Dirtiest Forms of Oil Production, “ by one Will Parrish, dated 31 January, 2017.

The cynic in me is having a field day in pointing out that it is just too easy to cherry pick the misstatements and lack of fact checking made by journalists writing about environmental matters. The problem here is that I find that my inner cynic has a good point.

Now it could be argued that it’s not really fair or even productive to cherry pick and attack the misstatements and lousy fact checking in such articles because that’s not the point of the articles in reporting on environmental matters that concern all of us. Yes, I concede there is value in good environmental reporting that gives us information on things that can be a danger to public health and the commonweal. My counter to such a statement is that it’s a real shame there is hardly any good environmental reporting out there.

Let me put it to you in another way (opinion alert!). Regardless of perceived value by people who are interested in articles on any given subject, facts still matter and they should always matter. Even cherry picked mistakes in factual content matter because if enough facts and misstatements exist in a piece of journalism, then it calls into question the quality and credibility of the article and the publication that allowed it into print through its failure to properly vet its content. Having made my position and opinion clear, let us proceed with picking facts and statements like ripe choke cherries before making pie.

The article is about a proposed new emission standard in California. The author shows his bias right out of the gate by making clear that the desirable purpose of this new emission standard is to prevent California refineries from processing heavier strains of crude like dilbit from tar sands - all for the purpose of fighting increasing global emissions of greenhouse gasses:

Just hours after President Trump announced his intention to resume construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, Brown declared, “The science is clear,” and said there is much California can and will do on its own to combat the climate crisis. A coalition of climate-justice advocates and labor groups in the Bay Area have a proposal that they say is a prime example of how California can do this. 

The people and organizations in this coalition

“are pushing to make the San Francisco Bay Area the first place in the world to place limits on oil refineries’ overall greenhouse-gas (GHG) and particulate-matter emissions. The proposal would prevent oil corporations from making the Bay Area a center of tar-sands refining by enforcing a cap based on historic emissions levels. “


This statement is somewhat amazing to me since the single best way to stop the production of fuels from tar sands is to get the Canadians to stop mining the stuff. The second best way to keep tar sands dilbit out of California is to build the Keystone XL pipeline - that would send all the tar sand dilbit to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. Building the Dakota Access pipeline isn’t an issue as far as dilbit is concerned since its purpose is the transportation of Williston Basin light crude. The third best way to keep dilbit out of California is outlaw the rail transport of crudes through urban areas or to tax it out of existence. Using an emissions regulation to keep dilbit out of California is kinda like using a wrench to light a campfire. Opinion Alert: I really feel that the object of such actions is not to serve the so-called stated action, whether it’s keeping dilbit and other heavy crudes out of California or to preserve Lakota sacred spaces or protect the water supply of the Sand Pipe Indian Reservation; I believe the real aim of such actions are a way to attack evil Big Oil out of frustration by individuals' lack of control over environmental issues in the face of a perceived uncaring plutocracy...but that’s a blog post for some other day. Let’s get back to misstatement hunting.

“The idea for a cap on oil refinery emissions was born from an incident some 15 miles and a world away from San Francisco’s financial district. In 2012, an explosion and fire at Chevron’s massive refinery complex in Richmond—an industrial East Bay city predominantly composed of low-income and working-class people of color—endangered 19 workers and sent 15,000 neighbors to local hospitals with respiratory ailments. Within months, a coalition of environmental-justice, environmental, and labor groups had organized to oppose the oil companies’ push to refine cheaper, dirtier crudes. “

Wow! There’s so much here to pick on!. The aim of opposing Big Oil’s “push” to refine cheaper, dirtier crudes came into being because of the 2012 Richmond Refinery fire? Let’s start with Big Oil’s “push to refine cheaper, dirtier crudes.”

This is chemical engineering 101, folks: heavier crudes are always more expensive to refine than light crudes. There is less profit in refining heavy crudes, including dilbit, always and everywhere. No one in their right mind, even an evil brain-sucking Big Oil executive who rapes and pillages the earth and steals from widows and orphans would prefer heavy crudes over light ones. The lighter and sweeter the crude, the more profit there is to be had, the cleaner the process, and more importantly, the smaller and simpler the refinery can be, meaning safer and less-regulated operation. I would recommend the author of this rather astounding statement might do to take a look at http://www.energy.ca.gov/almanac/petroleum_data/ and http://www.energy.ca.gov/almanac/petroleum_data/refineries.html for a crash course from a neutral source on crudes and how they are refined. Seriously, thinking heavier crude is cheaper to refine is right up there with an article I read recently where the journalist actually thought that the crude from tar sands that was pumped through pipelines was the same as raw bitumen - I’m saving that article up for a future blog post.

Now let’s consider the 2012 Richmond Refinery fire. I’ve done work there, by the way, both some geotechnical analysis of ground stability for Chevron for the proposed building of a new structure and tank testing of the Navy’s underground fuel bunkers on the back side of the hill on the refinery’s west side where their million gallon aboveground storage tanks are located. One thing I can say about the facilities there and on the Navy’s side of the hill is that both organizations really care about doing their geotechnical engineering correctly. I’ve hunted buried pipeline in the area too using geophysical tools. It’s one of the more fun places I’ve been to do environmental geoscience.

Anyway, about that fire. First, the fire had nothing to do with dilbit or tar sands products. Nothing. Zero. Zip. Most of the crude that arrives in Richmond comes through the marine terminal. There’s no Canadian tar sands dilbit currently shipped on the Pacific coast. There’s no Venezuelan heavy crude, which is almost as bad as Canadian tar sands crude, being shipped to California. The Bay Area doesn’t refine a lot of the really heavy junky crude because such low profit crap crude isn’t shipped to the Bay Area. Most of the heavy junk crudes go to the refineries along the Gulf of Mexico where more lax environmental regulations make it possible to build new refinery capability. The regulatory environment in California is already so severe for refineries that it is currently impossible to build new refinery facilities in the state (ref: fourth paragraph of http://www.energy.ca.gov/almanac/petroleum_data/refineries.html, accessed 2/21/2017).

The superficial cause of the Richmond Refinery fire was the explosion of a vapor cloud caused by actions during a piping repair on a leaking sidecut pipe off one of the crude oil distillation towers. The underlying causes of the fire were 1) lack of common-sense safety engineering controls on the pipeline (no cut-off valve to shut down product flow into the pipe from the distillation tower); 2) deteriorated internal pipeline lining (lack of adequate inspection and replacement of worn piping components); 3) inadequate safety procedures (attempt to repair the pipe leak with product actively flowing in pipe instead of shutting down the distillation tower prior to making the repair; and 4) human error (the responders attempting the pipe repair damaged the pipe while trying to work on it but continued the work even after causing the pipe to shift instead of evacuating and shutting down the distillation tower). In many respects, it was a classic industrial accident made up of cascading causes, the cure of any one of which would have prevented the disaster. Chevron goofed big time. Regardless, the fire was not connected to junky heavy crudes, but to normal operations on the usual medium and light crudes and petroleum gasses refined in the Bay Area. If you want to learn more about the fire, I highly recommend the refinery fire website at http://www.csb.gov/chevron-refinery-fire/ and watch the narrated animation. Also check out the report at http://www.csb.gov/assets/1/16/Chevron_Final_Investigation_Report_2015-01-28.pdf.

Now let’s look at the statement that the fire and the resulting plume of rather nasty refinery-fire smoke “sent 15,000 neighbors to local hospitals with respiratory ailments.” Sounds like local hospitals were suddenly swamped by 15,000 crowding through the doors gasping for breath. This is a suspect statement right of the bat when you consider hospital capacity in the bay area. You can get an idea of Bay Area hospital capacity from the number of hospital beds available. There are approximately 14,000 hospital beds in the Bay Area (ref: http://www.issuelab.org/resources/8547/8547.pdf) – that’s for the whole region, not just the northeast end of the Bay up by Richmond, which is actually rather deprived of hospital facilities compared to the rest of the Bay. Frankly, 15000 people trying to get to get to a hospital would flood the roads and cripple the health care response ability of East Bay hospitals. So what is going on here with this statement?

Here’s where I think the journalist who wrote this article got his information: right out of the Chevron Final Investigation Report cited above, which states:

“In the weeks following the incident, approximately 15,000 people from the surrounding communities sought medical treatment at nearby medical facilities for ailments including breathing problems, chest pain, shortness of breath, sore throat, and headaches. Approximately 20 of these people were admitted to local hospitals as inpatients for treatment.”

I will leave it up to the readers of this blog post to make your own decisions as to the author’s use of the information on respiratory complaints during and after the fire, and will keep my personal assessment of misleading hyperbole to myself.

Here’s one more gem from this article. Let us go back to the statement:

“In response, a coalition of groups….are pushing to make the San Francisco Bay Area the first place in the world to place limits on oil refineries’ overall greenhouse-gas (GHG) and particulate-matter emissions.”

I do believe, based on my knowledge of California and US EPA regulations, that there isn’t a standard on CO2 emissions - but in reading this statement, If I didn’t know better then I might think that Bay Area refineries were not subject to particulate-matter emissions. Given that I at one time was working on the environmental remediation of spills at the Navy’s no-longer extant fire fighting school in the middle of the Bay on the Buena Vista, and got my fill of air quality control board and water board regs for the Bay Area, I know better. Particulate matter regulations are very old news. With the proviso that California’s air standards for the Bay Area are much more strict, you can look up the more lenient (but still stringent) US EPA standard for particulate matter at: https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/2012-national-ambient-air-quality-standards-naaqs-particulate-matter-pm

Now given the number of misstatements listed so far in just the first five paragraphs of the twenty-seven paragraph article, would you now give credence to the rest of it as it argues that a new emissions regulation is the way to prevent tar sands dilbit from being shipped by rail to California? Frankly, I find it rather insane that no one is even suggesting better ways to go about this, like bans on rail shipment of crude in urban areas; or regulating the stock-piling, storage and sale of the incredibly filthy pet-coke that’s produced by the refinery cokers that are required to refine dilbit; or taxing the importation of high-sulfur crudes. No, it seems clear that the author of this article and the people he supports believe that more emission regs are the way to hurt Big Oil. Whether you agree that such tactics are salutary and worthwhile instead of finding ways to build more alternative energy infrastructure to replace our dependence on fossil fuels is your own business.

In case it wasn’t obvious, grumpy science nerd is grumpy today.