Hearing Set for Appeals of Flawed Permitting of San Francisco Bay Area Refinery Conversions to Make Fuel From Food

Though the environmental reviews of each refinery fail to even mention the existence of the other biofuel refinery project, the appeals of the approval of the flawed permitting of two massive and high emissions liquid biofuel refineries are set for the exact same day.

As armed conflict and environmental stresses disrupt staple grain and vegetable oil supply chains world wide, exacerbating a growing global food crisis, state and local authorities in California continue to bend to the will of the transnational energy sector to facilitate the conversion of refineries in the San Francisco Bay Area to manufacturing ‘drop in’ liquid diesel and aviation biofuels from food.

Both the Marathon-Neste joint venture at the currently shuttered Martinez refinery and the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo announced their refinery conversion projects in summer of 2020, in the wake of the demand destruction of the pandemic shut down in spring of that year that witnessed dramatic, but ultimately temporary, reductions in the consumption of liquid fuels. In nearly simultaneous fashion both projects have been guided through the required environmental review process under the California Environmental Quality Act, bureaucratically overseen by Contra Costa County land use authorities while closely managed politically by the administration of Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Air Resources Board, the primary agency responsible for implementing climate policy in the state.

The permitting process for the conversion of these century old petroleum refining facilities to processing food and a variety of other feedstocks into liquid fuel is now in the final stages.

In late March local planning authorities approved the final environmental reviews of both the Marathon-Neste Martinez refinery and the Phillips 66 Rodeo refinery conversions to carbon intensive biofuels. Those decisions by the Contra Costa County Planning Commission to ‘certify’ the Final Environmental Impact Reports (FEIR) of the biofuel refinery projects have now been appealed to the Board of Supervisors, the highest governing authority in the County. The hearings of both appeals for the two separate and extremely significant projects have been set for the exact same day, May 3.

It may seem absurd to any observer with a basic understanding of standards for transparent and democratically accessible environmental governance that both huge projects would be considered simultaneously at the same hearing. Unfortunately, putting both massive projects on the agenda of the same appeals hearing is typical of an environmental review process that has refused to take a hard look at the evidence presented exposing the inadequacy of the environmental review and the erroneous assumptions in the flawed calculus of soy-based liquid biofuels as a climate solution.

Instead, the objective of the review process has always been to move the refinery projects through as rapidly as possible.

Adding a touch of upside down world character to the simultaneous review of the two huge biofuels refinery projects is that neither of the environmental impact reports for each individual project actually even mention the existence of the other project, as though the refinery conversion projects do not even exist in parallel. This stubborn refusal to assess the impact of these biofuel projects in tandem is a brazen dismissal by the companies of the legal requirement to do adequate cumulative impacts analysis, and a flagrant violation of regulatory authorities responsibility to hold up the rule of law and protect the public interest.

The only reason the appeals of the certifications of the FEIRs for these two projects are happening is because community and global concerns about these projects have been totally ignored by regulatory authorities.

Chief among the concerns raised by concerned parties such as Biofuelwatch, which has maintained an active presence for the duration of the environmental review process, beyond the disturbing and anti-democratic irregularities in the review process itself, are those regarding the greenhouse gas intensive fossil gas requirements in the ‘hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids’ (HEFA) refining technology, as well as the documented risks to global forests from the increased demand for commodities such as soy as feedstock.

Despite corporate public relations gestures towards the utilization of exceptionally constrained feedstock supplies such as ‘used cooking oil’ (UCO), all evidence points to soy and other vegetable oils as being the primary feedstock for the production of high emissions and high deforestation risk ‘renewable diesel’ and, eventually, ‘sustainable aviation fuel.’ It is well documented that it is the increased demand for high deforestation risk commodities like soy that is driving the global deforestation crisis.

Only about 35% of the worlds original primary forest remains.

Losing more forest to an avaricious corporate agriculture model is no longer an option if stabilizing the global climate and averting further biodiversity loss is indeed a desired outcome. The sad fact, proven by the need to appeal the granting of permits to these refineries, is that through out the environmental review process, as well as in other proceedings regarding the development of state climate policy, California climate authorities have proven to be totally and completely immune to the consideration of the evidence regarding the global deforestation crisis, the role of commodity market forces in driving forest loss, and how increased demand on the scale of what is pursued with these refinery conversions to biofuels will inevitably exacerbate these dynamics driving deforestation.

Other glaring weaknesses in the environmental review of these refinery conversions include the failure to provide an adequate project description, the failure to provide adequate baselines and emissions estimates, a failure to provide adequate assessment of potentially increased refinery system upsets, an unlawful delay in addressing odor mitigation, failure to provide evidence to substantiate the information provided in the review, a failure to address and respond to public comments, and a failure to adequately inform the public about changes made in the projects as the environmental review proceeded, undermining the public right to know about the project under review, among other pressing issues.

Contributing to the crisis of climate governance embodied in the irregular environmental review process is the remarkably scant media coverage of these developments since they were announced in the summer of 2020. The poor performance of the corporate media in reporting on these major energy sector developments is severely affecting the public’s ability to even be informed that this significant conversion of Bay Area refineries to liquid biofuels is occurring, much less contribute to an open and transparent discussion of the ramifications of these projects in order that the review of this refinery pivot to high emissions biofuels receives the scrutiny they merit.

As an example of the absence of active Bay Area based journalism around these issues is how the transnational company Neste announced in early 2022 that they would invest one billion dollars to form a joint venture for the Marathon Martinez biofuel refinery — yet not one of the major San Francisco Bay Area media outlets has reported on this huge refinery investment right here in their home region.

All of these dynamics will come to a head on May 3 when the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors hears the appeals on the flawed and inadequate environmental review of these projects. It remains to be seen whether regulatory authorities will continue to stick their heads in the sand and gloss over the documented human rights, environmental and climate harms that are associated with the increased reliance on making fuel from food, or stand up to enforce bedrock environmental law that requires evidentiary and fact-based review of industrial scale energy projects. Nevertheless, the rubber stamps are visible from a distance. If current trends prevail local regulators and California climate authorities are going to push the permitting of these ill conceived projects through to the finish line, confirming what environmental justice and grassroots stakeholders have assessed as the current reality in the governance of supposed decarbonization in the state: that when it comes to protecting polluters and their profits California is going to bend over backwards to get the job done.

See the appeal on the Marathon-Neste Martinez Refinery biofuel project: Appeal to Board of Supervisors – Marathon 3.24.22[91].

See the appeal on the Phillips 66 Rodeo biofuel project: Appeal to Board of Supervisors 4.7.22.

For background see:

Opinion: East Bay refineries’ biofuel plans are dangerous diversions

Biofuelwatch joins scathing take down of draft environmental review of proposed biofuel refineries in California

California refinery pivot to soy-based diesel threatens forests and communities in Paraguay

Biofuelwatch sounds alarm on sudden pivot to soy-based diesel in California refinery sector

KPFA: Terra Verde – Feedstock demand for biofuel creates high risk for global forests