The city of Richmond’s planning commission is in the middle of a contentious debate about approving the renovation of a Chevron oil refinery that has sat on the Bay Area city shores for over 100 years.
After hearing over five hours of public comment at its standing-room-only Mar. 20 meeting, the planning commission scheduled a special meeting for Apr. 10 to continue receiving public input. The commission will then vote on whether to approve the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and conditional use permit, allowing the project to proceed.
In April 2005, Chevron applied to Richmond for permission to proceed with its proposed $1 billion equipment upgrade, which includes replacing the existing hydrogen plant, power plant and reformer.
The new equipment would improve the refinery’s reliability, [energy] efficiency and add environmental controls, said Lamont Thompson, Richmond’s senior planner.
Opposition to the project from various environmental groups centers around the concern that the upgrades will increase greenhouse gas emissions and allow the refinery to process a higher polluting grade of crude oil. The project will increase emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide by up to 898,000 metric tons annually — largely from increased hydrogen production, according to the city’s EIR.
Additionally, the refinery currently processes crude oil with an average sulfur content of 1.7 percent, whereas the upgrades would allow it to process crudes with sulfur contents between 2.5 and 3 percent.
The city faces a problem in determining whether 898,000 metric tons is a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions, because there are no predetermined applicable thresholds of significance for greenhouse gases for California, said Ellen Garber, the city’s California Environmental Quality Act attorney.
The city felt it was not able to draw a numerical line and say this is the number above which greenhouse gas emissions are significant and below which they are not significant, Garber said. That is the type of thing that needs to be done by an air quality agency or the state.
The state Attorney General’s office suggested in a letter to the city that it simply determine the number of new emissions to be significant without reference to any specific threshold in light of the serious effects of greenhouse gas emissions. The Attorney General’s office said projects like this make it more difficult for the state to combat global warming and the city must require Chevron to mitigate the additional emissions.
Because the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels is so carbon intensive, Chevron could consider a hydrogen plant that uses at least partially renewable sources to produce hydrogen, wrote Jamie Jefferson, deputy attorney general in the letter to the city. We request that the city not approve this project unless these significant issues are addressed.
Richmond city staff compiled a list of mitigation strategies Chevron would need to undertake in order to reduce all new greenhouse gas emissions generated by the project to net zero. The mitigation strategies were added to the final draft of the EIR, which is now up for certification.
Should the city choose to deem the additional 898,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions significant and that mitigationis required, it would need to recirculate the new draft of the EIR for further review and comment before the project could proceed.
The commission is expected to make a decision at its special Apr. 10 meeting.
ALYSOUN BONDE can be reached at email@example.com.