Before an overflow crowd at Richmond's City Hall on Thursday night, Chevron refinery officials described their plans for a nearly $1 billion renovation project, then listened to hours of criticism from a skeptical audience.
The Richmond Planning Commission, after hearing testimony on the environmental impact report for Chevron Corp.'s contentious upgrade project for its Richmond refinery, scheduled a special meeting April 10 to continue fielding comments before it considers whether to approve the final report.
The commission heard more than five hours of testimony at the Thursday night hearing, where a standing-room-only crowd filled council chambers. About a hundred more, including dozens of Chevron employees and protesters, watched the proceedings on TV inside a large tent set up outside City Hall.
Refinery manager Mike Coyle and others described the project and tried to dispel objections and what they called misperceptions about the project, which would replace aging equipment, improve energy efficiency and give the refinery more flexibility in the "slate" of crude oil it can process.
Opponents said the dangers from pollution connected with the upgrade are far graver than Chevron contends, and that the company needs to supply more information. The project's opponents, including Communities for a Better Environment, the West County Toxics Coalition, and the Service Employees International Union, would like to see the city recirculate all or portions of the environmental impact report (EIR).
Approval of the report would pave the way for a conditional use permit for Chevron to go ahead with the upgrade, which is reported to cost $800 million to $1 billion.
The city's California Environmental Quality Act attorney, Ellen Garber of Shute Mihaly & Weinberger, explained that under CEQA the city could recirculate all or a portion of the EIR based on the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, which are considered a major cause of global warming.
In the final EIR, the city said it did not make a legal finding of the significance of greenhouse gases from the project because it did not have a baseline or an applicable threshold from which to work. Instead, the city decided to disclose that the five main project components would generate total new greenhouse gas emissions of 898,000 metric tons per year.
"The conservative approach would be to recirculate" the EIR, Garber said.
Chevron contends that the project would emit that total emission number only if one large component of the project, a new hydrogen plant that is to be built and operated by the Connecticut specialty gases company Praxair Inc., operated at full capacity 24/7, rather than producing only the amount of hydrogen necessary to run the refinery operation. Post-project, the hydrogen plant would account for 698,000 metric tons of new greenhouse gas emission per year, according to the final EIR. Praxair is planning to produce excess hydrogen and export it through an as-yet unbuilt 21-mile pipeline that would connect to other area refineries.
Some of the mitigations proposed by Chevron, including smaller furnaces and domes on storage tanks, will reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds to less than significant levels, Coyle said. The EIR states Chevron will mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. But it gives the company a year following approval of its conditional use permit to hire an expert to make an inventory of greenhouse gases at the plant and for the refinery to submit to the city a plan for achieving complete reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the measures that could be approved in the plan include measures outlined for refineries by the California Air Resources Board under AB 32; identifying energy savings through energy efficiency; replacing certain diesel engines; retrofitting certain other equipment such as process heaters with higher efficiency burners; and initiating carbon capture and sequestration measures.
Another big issue of the night was the sulfur and pollutant content of the slate of crude oil the upgrades would allow Chevron to process. Chevron contends the refinery cannot process the heaviest grades of crude oil that are the most polluting, and the upgrade will not enable it to do so.
Greg Karras, staff scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, asked the planning commission to impose a condition on Chevron that would place an enforceable limit on the types of crude oil it can process. CBE would like to see Chevron supply more-specific data about the current types of crude oils it processes so the planning commission can make a better-informed decision about the ultimate and cumulative effects of the project, including more information about the exact slate of crude oils that are being processed and that will be processed, the sulfur content of those crude oils, and direct measurements of certain other pollutants.
"Chevron has not given us the most fundamental, basic information to determine how much pollution would increase," he said.