Written by Ngoc Nguyen
California’s long-running campaign to reduce air pollution has indirectly helped create a new problem: its oil refineries now produce more greenhouse gas emissions than refineries anywhere else in the country.
On average, California refineries emit 19 to 33 percent more greenhouse gases per barrel of crude oil when stacked up against comparable gas-producing regions in the United States, according to a recent study commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The study analyzed national and California-specific refinery data, and combined it with the author’s own data based on observations of actual refinery operations over a number of years.
California began mandating cleaner burning fuel in the mid 1990s, in an effort to combat some of the worst smog levels in the country and comply with federal clean air laws. That spurred oil refiners to expand their facilities and install technology to remove pollutants like sulfur, so car tailpipes would spew out less of it.
In the last decade, however, oil refineries have begun processing a heavier and dirtier type of crude oil, which requires more cleaning to meet California’s standard. And that extra cleaning means that refineries now use more energy and emit more CO2 than before.
“With respect to emissions intensity, California officials have been running around claiming California’s oil refineries are so much more energy efficient, that they are just cleaner… Obviously they were wrong,” said Greg Karras, the study’s author and a senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, a California nonprofit that advocates for residents who live near oil refineries.
The study’s findings emerge as California is taking another groundbreaking step to reduce global-warming gases. A.B. 32, a climate change law passed in 2006, aims to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent by the end of this decade and 80 percent by 2050. One of the ways it will do that is by capping emissions at oil refineries and other industrial facilities.
Under a market-based mechanism known as cap-and-trade, refineries must gradually lower their emissions or buy or trade “allowances” to meet the new standard. Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the agency tasked with implementing A.B. 32, said the emissions cap, which will gradually be lowered over time, will reduce greenhouse gases across key industrial sectors, including oil refining.
Clegern hasn’t seen the new study, but he said he’s “not terribly surprised to hear” that the state’s oil refineries use more energy and emit more greenhouse gases than facilities elsewhere.
Part of the problem, he said, is that “there’s a large age discrepancy” among California refineries. “Some are old and some are not,” he said.
Oil refineries produce 10 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions and up to 40 percent of its industrial emissions, according to a 2009 report by Communities for a Better Environment.
Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), said he was surprised to learn that California’s refineries are processing so much heavy crude oil. A nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, EIP was founded by attorneys who had worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and now advocate for more effective enforcement of environmental laws.
Schaeffer said the study presents the state with an even bigger challenge right at a time when it is trying to tamp down on industry emissions, especially from this key sector.
“Turns out, it is a little more daunting [to curb emissions] in California” than people thought, he said.
Photo from Thomas Hawk via flickr
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