Tidal Wave of Draft Environmental Review Documents Released for California Biofuel Refinery Projects

Thousands of pages of draft environmental review documents for two massive proposed California refinery conversions to biofuels were released earlier this month, setting the clock ticking for public engagement on the permitting of these unprecedented bioenergy facilities.

Both Marathon Petroleum Company and Phillips 66 are proposing to repurpose their San Francisco Bay Area refineries to processing largely soy-based feedstocks to manufacture ‘renewable diesel’ and ‘sustainable aviation fuel.’ These projects were announced in the summer of 2020, and the initial ‘Scoping” of the environmental review process for both projects took place earlier this year.

Local activists knew that the draft documentation was to be released imminently, but no one anticipated the surreal situation of two energy sector juggernauts seeing the draft environmental review documentation for their biofuel refinery projects released essentially at the exact same time.

Within the space of 30 minutes on a quiet autumn day in the San Francisco Bay Area the land use planning authorities for Contra Costa County notified the public of the publication of the draft environmental review documentation for both the Phillips 66 “Rodeo Renewed” project and the Marathon Martinez “Renewable Fuels Project.”

Considering the enormity and the complexity of the projects there are serious questions raised regarding the release of the tidal wave of documentation and the subsequent parallel review of the two totally distinct but remarkably similar projects. Immediate concerns are being identified regarding the ‘cookie cutter’ style and superficial analysis offered by the draft documents, even as they amount to thousands of pages of material.

More worrisome is that review of the draft documentation indicates that the comments provided by concerned organizations in the initial ‘Scoping’ phase of the review have been largely ignored.

The project review process is being lead by Contra Costa County under the framework of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). With the formal publication of the Draft Environmental Impact Reports (DEIR) documentation having been established as October 18, the 60 day written public comment period on the draft documents for both projects will be open until December 17, 2021.

County authorities have not yet committed to a public hearing on either of these projects, with the notices of the release of the draft documentation for both projects ambiguously stating that a public hearing may be held at a later date. This means that, as it stands, the participating public will not get an in person opportunity to communicate concerns and provide feedback to county land use authorities during the public review of the DEIR documentation. Neither is there a guarantee that the public will have a chance to engage directly with decision makers until the project permitting is being finalized — nor even if local residents and the concerned public will be granted a public hearing opportunity at all.

Compounding the sensation that the local communities that will be living with these refineries are being shut of of the process, and that their concerns are being minimized, Reuters reported this week that one of the states leading agency executives on climate policy and air quality regulation is publicly denigrating the concerns that community members have about impacts from the bioenergy refineries on water quality, air quality, public health and safety, as well as the global climate.

Reuters reported that California Air Resources Board executive director Richard Corey, in comments to an industry conference this week, dismissed any opposition to the refinery pivot to biofuels as being from people “who don’t want any fuel.”

In the same article Mr Corey is also quoted as having told the industry conference, which took place over the course of several days at an exclusive club in Napa County, that “the worst outcome is that these investments don’t happen in California.”

Biofuelwatch interprets this one-two gut punch of statements by a public official expressing unquestioning support for industry investment while offensively dismissing the valid concerns of frontline community members about the risks inherent in a massive refinery pivot to climate destructive biofuels as an indicator of the way state and local officials have gotten out their rubber stamp and are prepared to use it for permitting these bioenergy projects. If there was any doubt about agency readiness to bend over backwards to serve industry in their pivot to ‘drop-in’ biodiesel and alternative jet fuel it was effectively eliminated with these frank and revealing statements by Mr Corey.

it is obvious that the responsible state agency is not interested in taking a hard look at these proposals or in protecting the right of local communities to have their say in the decision making.

To the contrary, state authorities and the Administration of California Governor Gavin Newsom are clearly doing all they can to bring these greenhouse gas intensive and high deforestation risk commodity based biofuel projects to fruition, regardless of the evidence that local residents and regional climate justice activists have been presenting that refutes the claims to climate benefits that the proponents of these projects trumpet.

In this way, the new boss of biofuels is literally the old boss of fossil fuels, packaged up in a fake green climate action spin and enjoying the support of the primary state regulatory agency responsible for the projects.

Our organization will not be deterred by these blatant signals that the authorities responsible for regulating these projects are more interested in protecting polluter investments and corporate profits than they are in protecting people or the planet.

Stay tuned for more reporting and action items as this refinery conversion review process in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to heat up.

To take a closer look at the review documentation see the Contra Costa County pages for the Phillips 66 Rodeo Renewed Project and for the Marathon Martinez Renewable Fuels Project.

For more background see these previously published items from Biofuelwatch:

–As California looks to soy-based ‘renewable diesel’ and ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ as a climate solution, Dr. Miguel Lovera, the featured guest in this special KMUD Redwood Community Radio public affairs collaboration with Biofuelwatch, describes the public health and environmental threats arising from the expansion of soy monoculture agriculture in Paraguay — and why Californians should be alert to the dangers of refiners like Phillips 66 and Marathon converting to soy-based liquid fuels.

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.

–An op-ed published in the Earth Island Journal: California Refinery Switch to Biofuels Not As Green As It Sounds