The saga of the repurposing of two of the refineries in the San Francisco Bay Area to manufacturing liquid biofuels from high deforestation risk commodities like soy took another anti-democratic twist this week. Local authorities sped through a hearing on January 16, 2024 on the revised environmental review of the massive Phillips 66 biofuel refinery project in the unincorporated community of Rodeo on the northern shores of the Bay, rushing to keep the $1 billion investment moving forward while taking measures to curtail public participation in the process.
As background, in May 2022 the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors had previously hosted back to back hearings on both the Phillips 66 biofuel refinery project in Rodeo and the Marathon-Neste joint venture biofuel refinery project in Martinez. That day-long session of hearings was held only because community, environmental and climate justice organizations had appealed the County Planning Commission approvals of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) environmental reviews of the refinery conversion projects earlier that year.
On that day in early May 2022 the Contra Costa County Supervisors unanimously denied the appeals and wholeheartedly green lighted both of the biofuel refinery projects. Following those decisions by local elected officials, the Center for Biological Diversity, in partnership with Communities for a Better Environment, and with the legal and technical expertise of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, filed parallel lawsuits challenging the simultaneous approval of the environmental review of both unprecedented refinery conversion projects. The court case on the Marathon/Neste joint venture at the Martinez refinery resulted in a partial decision exposing flaws with the environmental review, focusing singularly on the flawed odor management plan, an unsatisfactory result for climate justice advocates. That lawsuit has already been sent on to the state appeals court, and will be heard in the coming year.
However, in the case of the Phillips 66 biofuel refinery project, the same judge ruled that the original environmental review of the biofuels project was illegal and had failed to address serious questions of cumulative impacts, while embarking on the illegal tactic of piecemealing — the illegal breaking up of the entirety of a project into discrete pieces, thus averting the legally required review of the project as a whole.
This court ruling prompted county authorities to rush forward with a Draft Revised Environmental Impact Report, which was released and opened to public comment in the autumn of 2023. Biofuelwatch reported extensively on the dynamics around this public comment period in our previous post Court Orders, Refinery Fires and Deforestation Drivers: California Push for Liquid Biofuels Ignores Red Flag Warnings.
Despite being presented with more evidence about the dangers of characterizing the conversion of the more than century old Phillips 66 Rodeo refinery to making biofuels as a climate solution, the county proceeded with great haste to finalize the revised environmental review during the holiday. Precisely four weeks after the close in early December 2023 of written public comment on the draft the county announced the January 16 public hearing to approve the final revised version.
The newest final version of the project review once again roundly dismissed all the evidence and information provided by community members and the organizations that engaged on the public comment. Despite the requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act to assess how new information can influence the veracity of the entirety of the environmental review, the county discarded new factual information provided in the public comment that in essence further substantiated the record of evidence that had resulted in the court of law ruling that the original environmental review was illegal in the first place.
Neither the Board of Supervisors nor County Staff expressed any sort of contrition nor leadership self reflection when faced with the fact that they had previously rubber stamped an environmental review that the court had later found deficient.
Of the evidence presented to the county by community members regarding the safety concerns with the processing of feedstocks like soy was the existence of the most recent draft of what is known as a Flare Minimization Plan (FMP), presented by Phillips 66 on an annual basis for the Rodeo refinery to the local Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). The FMP is an annual requirement, the review of which is buried in the opaque processes of BAAQMD staff and not easily accessible to the public. The late 2023 version of the FMP for the Phillips 66 Rodeo refinery apparently still remains confidential. However, the 2022 ‘nonconfidential’ version of the FMP was shared with Biofuelwatch.
Remarkably, despite the fact that Phillips 66 has been making liquid biofuels at their Rodeo refinery since April 2021, more than a year before receiving final approval for their project from the County in May 2022, an anomaly that the court saw as being relevant to the illegal piecemealing of the environmental review of the project, their most recent ‘nonconfidential’ version of their Flare Minimization Plan from October 2022 does not even mention biofuels. As a matter of fact, scrutiny of the 2022 FMP document reveals absolutely no mention of the refinery conversion project at all.
In essence, Phillips 66 has received lucrative Low Carbon Fuel Standard credits from the California Air Resources Board for producing ‘renewable diesel’ from feedstocks like soy and canola with a hydrogen intensive ‘hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids’ hydro cracker technology at their Rodeo refinery, but the most recent publicly available version of the FMP for that same refinery regulated by the local air district BAAQMD does not even mention the words biofuels, renewable diesel, hydrotreated vegetable oils, HEFA, soy, canola, animal tallow or any of the terms that are directly associated with making these products. As far as the BAAQMD supervised Phillips 66 Rodeo Refinery Flare Minimization Plan goes the biofuel project apparently does not even exist.
Notably absent from the recent county supervisors hearing on the revised environmental review were any representatives from BAAQMD, neither to provide comment or to be available to answer questions from decision makers, once again raising questions about to what extent the local air district is fulfilling their responsibility to implement regulatory activities within the context of current and future operations.
This incongruence of biofuel production not even existing in a recent Phillips 66 FMP was brushed aside by county authorities, who also appeared completely unconcerned about the recent devastating fire at the Marathon-Neste biofuel refinery in Martinez. At the same time, the County was obligated in their documentation to recognize that there exist numerable ‘significant and unavoidable environmental impacts‘ from the project. Those impacts were dismissed because of the economic significance of the refinery project.
Notably, and not surprisingly, labor organizations representing workers at the Phillips 66 refinery came out in strong force in support of approval of the project, celebrating the opportunity to keep the refinery operating into the foreseeable future to make ‘renewable’ fuels with ‘renewable’ feedstocks to provide the state with the ‘low carbon’ energy sources that are central to aspirations to achieve ‘decarbonization.’
Adding a particularly grotesque dynamic of inequity to the proceedings was the manner in which the local authorities conducted the review hearing.
After having spent two hours celebrating the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in commemoration of the treasured annual federal holiday, the Board of Supervisors reconvened to hear the agenda item on the Phillips 66 biofuel refinery environmental review. Remarkably, after an abbreviated 15 minute staff presentation that reasserted the urgency of approving the project again, the chair of the Board stated that public comment would be restricted to 1 minute. Though the audience in attendance was predominantly labor and company representatives in Phillips 66 uniform, there were hoots of disbelief from advocates that instead of the traditional 3 minute time allowed for public comment at most public hearings, in this instance an individual speaker would get only one minute. That an individual public comment on an issue of such magnitude and technical complexity would be limited to 1 minute is unheard of with such a small audience.
That the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors would come out of a ceremony dedicated to elevating the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr to immediately open an agenda item on the permitting of a controversial polluting industrial facility owned and operated by a company worth ~$60 billion dollars, and with a long legacy of conflict with affected communities, and tell concerned community members that their time to address the board would be abbreviated in this manner was roundly seen as outrageous — to put it in polite terms.
Even county staff knew, after all they had done to ram the project through, that limiting public comment at the hearing was simply a ‘very bad look.’ The clear obstruction of the public right to meaningful participation that was manifested by the limitation on public comment at the hearing on the Phillips 66 biofuels project clearly accentuates the corporate impunity facilitated by the irregular and industry friendly governance of not only the biofuel refinery issue specifically but of the energy sector in the state more broadly.
It made no difference to the acquiescent and beholden to industry Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, who rapidly moved to approve the Phillips 66 project with a unanimous 5-0 vote.
For more media inquiries contact Gary Hughes (firstname.lastname@example.org), who is the Americas Program Coordinator with Biofuelwatch.