Aviation ‘Net Zero’ Bill Advances in California Legislature as Irregular Permitting of SF Bay Area Refinery Conversions to Biofuels Receive Legal Challenges

The California Legislature’s Senate Standing Committee on Environmental Quality has advanced a bill that aggressively promotes the creation of an incentives plan to massively increase the quantities of so-called “Sustainable Aviation Fuel” (SAF) produced and consumed in the state.

The bill, AB 1322, promises to be a public relations gift to the aviation industry. The bill codifies the aviation industry narrative that setting ambiguous goals for achieving ‘net zero’ by the year 2050 qualifies as a viable climate action plan. Aviation is increasingly recognized as the world’s most inequitable form of travel, and the travel mode that causes the most climate damage, while the concept of ‘net zero’ is being debunked by the world’s leading climate scientists as a ‘dangerous trap.’

To meet those ambiguous ‘net zero’ goals the bill proposes exploring a handful of measures that have been exposed as being technologically immature, such as unproven electric or hydrogen powered flight, while specifically promoting a massive and rapid scaling up of the production and consumption of SAF in the state.

Ironically, in the days just prior to the June 8 hearing of the Senate Environmental Quality committee that discussed the SAF bill, two lawsuits were filed challenging the legality of the environmental review of the conversion of two refineries in the San Francisco Bay Area to manufacturing ‘drop in’ biofuels such as ‘renewable diesel’ and ‘sustainable aviation fuel.’ Nevertheless, not even Senator Nancy Skinner, in whose East Bay district one of the refineries in question is located, the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo, was interested in considering how the legal challenges to the inadequate environmental review of the refinery conversions show that the evidence of the problems with liquid biofuels is being ignored by local and state authorities in their rush to rubber stamp the projects.

These issues regarding the irregular governance of the permitting of the refinery conversions to biofuels were raised in the letter that Biofuelwatch submitted to the committee in opposition to AB 1322.

Also communicated in the letter, but ignored by Senator Skinner and the other leading Democratic Senators on the committee, namely Senator Ben Allen of Santa Monica, Senator Bob Wieckowski of Fremont and Senator Mike McGuire of the North Coast, is the dubious history of one of the supporters of the bill, Red Rock Biofuels. Red Rock Biofuels, as Biofuelwatch has reported on previously, is a company that has received hundreds of millions of dollars of public money to build a facility in Lakeview, Oregon to ostensibly manufacture liquid aviation biofuels from the utilization of woody biomass — yet they have never finished the construction of the facility, and they have never produced even one gallon of fuel.

Unfortunately, the committee staff analysis of the AB 1322 actually included not only inaccurate information about the name of Red Rock Biofuels, calling the company instead “Red Rock Energy” (a totally non-existent entity), the analysis also insinuated that Red Rock Biofuels was already successfully providing liquid fuel products to market, when the truth is completely different.

The real truth about Red Rock Biofuels is found in the manner in which their website has been completely scrubbed since last summer, removing any of the substantive information about the history of the company from their webpages and eliminating the entire timeline published since their trumpeted initiation of construction to obfuscate how the company has still not yet finished building the plant or produced even one gallon of fuel, essentially attempting to wash from the internet their own sordid history of over promising and under delivering.

These dubious practices of wasting public money not withstanding, AB 1322 makes direct reference to the promise of ‘reducing wildfire risk’ for communities by having the state Low Carbon Fuel Standard create specific pathways to qualify the utilization of woody biomass feedstocks for making liquid aviation fuels as being lower in carbon intensity, disregarding the body of science that shows that biomass energy is neither climate friendly nor ‘carbon neutral.’

In that sense, not only does this bill greenwash the aviation industry, it perpetuates a Trumpian approach to wildfire that suggests that wildfire issues in the state can best be addressed by logging our forests into submission.

Even if it were technically possible to scale up the production of liquid aviation biofuels from the utilization of woody biomass, an increasingly imaginary outcome considering the formidable technological obstacles that have never been overcome despite the phenomenal amounts of public money thrown at the concept, the idea of massively scaling up the extraction of woody material (i.e. trees) from our forests to provide bioenergy feedstocks for manufacturing liquid aviation fuel is one that by definition directly threatens wildlife, biodiversity and water resources.

To make matters worse, the bill AB 1322 is a product of one of the most inequitable legislative governance mechanisms in existence, that of ‘gut and amend.’ AB 1322 actually passed out of the Assembly in 2021 as a bill about ‘housing.’ Yet, once the bill made it into the Senate it was sent over to the Environmental Quality committee where the language regarding housing was ‘gutted’ from the bill, and the language about ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ was ‘amended’ into the bill — hence, ‘gut and amend.’ The bill is allowed to continue forward as though it was always about the amended language. To be clear, ‘gut and amend’ is prohibited in the US Congress.

This is the same notorious ‘gut and amend’ mechanism that was used to advance and pass the infamous AB 398, the 2017 bill cooked up between then Governor Jerry Brown, the oil industry, the agricultural industry and the timber industry — with the support of corporate NGOs — to extend the cap-and-trade program out to 2030 with many industry friendly provisions. AB 398 was opposed by every grassroots environmental justice organization in the state, but it was slammed through by the Democrat lead legislature and signed into law under great fanfare about California’s bold climate leadership. The ‘gut and amend’ process to achieve these controversial political ends was totally ignored in the cacophony of back slapping about the success of having secured the extension of the controversial pollution trading regime.

That a bill supported by the biggest aviation interests in the country, such as Amazon, Boeing, Southwest, United, LAX, and SFO, among others, would rely on an anti-democratic trick like ‘gut and amend’ to avoid normal legislative processes and escape scrutiny from legislative committees, and thus be shielded from public engagement, is indicative of the way that climate policy in the state of California is designed and advanced first and foremost to protect polluting industry, not the public interest.

AB 1322 is now in the opaque Senate Appropriations committee awaiting assignment to a hearing. If it were to pass from Appropriations it will go to the Senate Floor. If passed from the Senate the bill would have to return to the Assembly for concurrence, but it would face no committee scrutiny in the Assembly, despite the fact that the bill originated in the Assembly as a bill about housing — not aviation.

This is the process by which the ‘gut and amend’ mechanism removes a bill from public scrutiny. This is how wealthy and powerful interests like Amazon and Boeing can advance their agenda by short cutting normal legislative processes.

This aviation greenwash bill and the legal challenges to the flawed governance of the San Francisco Bay Area refinery conversions to high-carbon high-deforestation risk liquid biofuels will continue to be strong priorities for the reporting of Biofuelwatch from California.

Stay tuned for more updates and opportunities for public engagement.

For background please check out:

Resist The Siren Call of Aviation Biofuels

KPFA Terra Verde — Tucking at Your Heartstrings: How the Aviation Industry Works to Hide Their Climate Damage