Biofuelwatch Joins Coalition in Demanding Exhaustive Environmental Review of San Francisco Bay Area Biofuel Refinery Project

A broad coalition of local, national and international organizations have together submitted comments on the initiation of the review process for a proposed biofuels refinery in the San Francisco Bay Area. The letter, facilitated and coordinated by expert legal staff with the Natural Resources Defense Council, includes the support of Community Energy re-Source, Interfaith Climate Action Network of Contra Costa County, Sunflower Alliance, Rodeo Citizens Alliance, Stand.Earth, 350 Contra Costa, the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, San Francisco Baykeeper and Biofuelwatch.

Marathon Petroleum Company is now the second Bay Area refiner, after Phillips 66, to engage with environmental review processes before Contra Costa County land use planning authorities for establishing a biofuels refinery, in this instance for what Marathon Petroleum Company is calling the Marathon Martinez Renewable Fuels Project. These are among the largest ‘renewable energy’ projects in California, and indeed, the world.

At the far back end of San Francisco Bay, on the shores of the tide water at the western edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, in an area of unincorporated Contra Costa County that is known as Avon, sprawls an industrial complex of concrete and steel that was first built in 1913, under the name Avon Refinery, built owned and operated by the Associated Oil Company.

Also known over the decades as the Tesoro Refinery, Ultramar Golden Eagle Refinery, Tosco Avon Refinery, and Phillips Avon Refinery, the refinery was suddenly closed in April last year, with the current owner Marathon blaming flaring incidents on a “significant decrease in market demand” and thus requiring a shut down of processing at the plant.

The principal fuels produced at the refinery have been gasoline and diesel, as well as propane and butane, and ammonia and elemental sulfur for agricultural markets.

Continually expanded over the past century, the refinery has changed ownership many times. It was purchased by Tosco in 1976. By the 1990’s, a history of poor maintenance and under-staffing gave the refinery a reputation for being a hazardous workplace. Throughout the 1990s it led the US refining industry in the number of environmental and safety code violations.

These poor conditions culminated in two catastrophic accidents, a 1997 hydrocracker explosion that killed one worker and a 1999 naphtha explosion that resulted in four fatalities.

The worst incident of the last decade took place in February 2014, when the facility was run by Tesoro. Two workers were burned and tens of thousands of pounds of sulfuric acid were released. This incident and others lead to an investigation by the US Chemical Safety Board that raised concerns about the refineries safety culture.

The last several years have seen a series of ownership changes, the most recent being the acquisition by Marathon Petroleum Company of the refinery in October 2018.

After announcing the sudden closure in April 2020 due to the commodity markets crashing from the pandemic, in July 2020 Marathon announced that the closure of the Martinez refinery would be permanent.

But, then, a month later in August, Marathon Petroleum Company informed county and regional authorities that they were evaluating the possibility of building a biodiesel refining facility at the same site.

By the beginning of October of 2020 Marathon had applied for permits, and in February 2021 Contra Costa County issued a formal public Notice of Preparation for a “Draft Environmental Impact Report” for beginning the California Environmental Quality Act process for approving the land use permits for the Proposed Marathon Martinez Refinery Renewable Fuels Project.

The proposed project would produce, as would the similar but much larger Phillips 66 refinery conversion project, an animal fat and vegetable oil-based “drop in renewable diesel” as well as aviation biofuels. What makes the “drop in renewable diesel’ different from typical “biodiesel” is that it does not need to be blended with any petroleum based fuel, and it does not require any retooling of the diesel engine. Hence the term ‘drop in.’

What it does require is massive amounts of hydrogen in the refining process, making these proposed facilities potential high intensity sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

These projects would also continue to require significant amounts of marine tanker traffic, for delivering feedstocks and for the shipping of refined fuels, marking a significant evolution of long-standing tanker spill risks in the San Francisco Bay Area and along the California coast.

There are many crucial questions that must be addressed in the environmental review of the Marathon Martinez refinery project. Authorities must be thorough in evaluating exactly what these refinery conversion proposals mean for the San Francisco Bay and for the coastal ecosystems of California. The must be diligent in evaluating what kinds of economic, public health and environmental risks emerge from these developments. Principal among those risks for review are the local and global cumulative impacts of increased market demand for refining a high deforestation risk commodity for manufacturing liquid fuels.

The closure in Spring 2020 of the Marathon Martinez refinery was a historical watermark — the refinery had been in operation for more than a century, and was suddenly closed. Clearly the closure of this facility is a significant California energy sector event — what does it mean that this refinery would literally come back from the dead by announcing a new business plan of processing animal wastes and high deforestation risk commodity feedstocks such as soy?

These questions and more will remain central to Biofuelwatch engagement on this crucial global and local issue.

Review the letter sent by the coalition to Contra Costa County land use planning authorities on scoping the Marathon Martinez refinery conversion proposal: Marathon scoping comments 3.22.21

Listen to the KMUD report and interview with staff from San Francisco Baykeeper on the the biofuel refinery issue.

Listen to the KPFA report on the public hearing for scoping the Marathon Martinez project that features an informative interview with campaign staff from Stand.Earth.

Listen to the KPFA report with Sunflower Alliance on the politics and proposals of converting refineries in the north SF Bay Area to soy-based diesel and jet fuels.