OAKLAND, Calif.— Communities for a Better Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity sued Contra Costa County on Tuesday over its rushed approval of two proposed biofuel refineries in the Bay Area using incomplete and misleading environmental reviews.
The lawsuits challenge flawed environmental review processes for two giant oil refineries looking to convert from processing crude to producing biofuels from vegetable oil and animal fat feedstocks. The groups say the county’s fast-tracked review obscured, underestimated or ignored significant harms to community safety, air quality, public health, wildlife and the climate.
Neighboring communities are categorized as “disadvantaged” by the state of California because of their high exposure to pollution from existing industries. The proposed refinery projects would lock in continued pollution for these residents for decades to come.
“After wreaking havoc on the health of California’s communities for over a century, Big Oil is trying to squeeze any last bit of profit they can from these massive, aging, otherwise defunct pieces of polluting fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Connie Cho, an attorney at Communities for a Better Environment. “Retrofitting petroleum refineries to produce first-generation food system-based biofuels without a net climate benefit is a corporate oil scam, not a just transition plan.”
One refinery, Phillips 66 in Rodeo, would produce more than a billion gallons per year of biofuel products, making it one of the largest biofuel refineries in the world. The other, Marathon-Tesoro in nearby Martinez, would produce more than 700,000 gallons per year of biofuel products, making it one of the largest biofuel refineries in California.
Combined, the projects would require at least 82,000 truck trips, nearly 29,000 railcars, and more than 760 ship and barge visits annually, adding to pollution, traffic and the risk of spills and accidents.
“Trading one polluting industry for another isn’t beneficial to the climate or communities,” said Victoria Bogdan Tejeda, an attorney at the Center’s Climate Law Institute. “This is greenwashing by the oil companies and the county, plain and simple. The county hid the widespread harms from these projects, then approved them over strong opposition from community members.”
Generating and processing biofuels worsens the climate crisis. These first-generation biofuels require massive amounts of food system crops as feedstocks. Converting land to grow these crops both releases greenhouse gases and eliminates natural carbon “sinks” like wetlands that store carbon. Adding to these harms, the demand for biofuel feedstocks drives up food prices since crops are being diverted to refineries.
“The California Environmental Quality Act requires public agencies like the county to carefully scrutinize, disclose and minimize environmental harms of projects like these refinery conversions,” said Stephanie Safdi, an attorney and lecturer at the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic. “Instead, the county obscured the true nature of these projects, buried the impacts on local communities, and closed its eyes to the harms the refineries will create to food security and the climate. Nearby residents and vulnerable communities impacted by the upstream and downstream impacts will be the ones left holding the bag.”
“The reality is that these refineries are proposing relatively few changes to their aging petroleum infrastructure and would continue indefinitely to conduct their dirty business in the midst of low-income communities of color,” said Joseph D. Petta, partner at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP. “Unlike more modern production methods, which could reduce biofuels’ greenhouse gas emissions and air-quality impacts, the refineries’ preferred technology would perpetuate these facilities’ substantial health and environmental impacts. The county’s review hid this fact from the public.”
“Instead of leaving California’s future to the whims of the fossil fuel industry, the state and county should immediately establish a robust safety net for fossil fuel workers and communities,” Cho said. “Transition is inevitable, justice is not.”
The lawsuits were filed in the Superior Court of Contra Costa County.
The Stanford Environmental Law Clinic and Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP are representing Communities for a Better Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity. Communities for a Better Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity are also co-counseling.