Residents of Bakersfield breathe some of the most polluted air in the nation, thanks to a confluence of vehicle exhaust, industrial operations, and stagnant valley air. In an effort to combat pollution, air quality advocates are now targeting a potential source of emissions that, at the moment, is not even operating.
Ride your bike along the Kern River just west of downtown Bakersfield, and you pass joggers and people walking dogs. To one side of the trail, families play Frisbee golf in the grass. To the other side, a symbol of Kern County’s economy looms silently.
“Immediately to the north of us, you see a lot of smoke-stack-type towers and tanks,” says Tom Frantz, a Kern County almond farmer and air quality activist. “It's actually an oil refinery.”
Frantz is pointing to a refinery that’s been idle for years. Smokestacks are smoke free. The rail yard is empty and still. It looks downright peaceful—but looks can be deceiving.
“They're proposing to reactivate a large part of this refinery,” Frantz says, “to process crude, and to become a huge receiving station for crude oil from the Alberta tar sands and the Bakken North Dakota crude oilfields.”
The refinery has a permit to restart its operation and significantly expand it. Its refining capacity would double and it would take in oil by rail from all over North America.
Frantz’s concern is air quality; the emission of more particles and volatile organic compounds into an atmosphere already saturated with them. Frantz and advocacy groups have sued. But they didn’t sue the company that runs the refinery—they sued the EPA. Kassie Siegel is with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. She says the refinery’s technology is out of date and the permit doesn’t adequately address how it would minimize pollution.
“The EPA was supposed to come in and review it and fix these problems,” Siegel says. “But the EPA just didn't do anything. And that's why groups like ours are able to come in and bring this lawsuit in order to just force the EPA to do its basic job here.”
The EPA declined to comment on this story.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, who issued the permit, sticks with it.
“I would say that the District very carefully analyzed the project in the context of the very stringent rules and regulations that we’re required to abide by,” said Annette Ballatore-Williamson, an attorney with the air district. “The permits are appropriate for the type of operation that has been proposed.”
But here’s the big elephant in the room: none of this may matter, because the refinery is struggling. It’s been shuttered since 2008, and it was ailing long before that. The company that currently owns the refinery, called Alon USA Energy, is its third owner in 15 years. Alon also declined to comment on this story.
“The fact that it hasn't restarted after several years of efforts, which were potentially more favorable than current conditions,” says Berkeley-based energy consultant Ian Goodman, “indicate to me that it certainly can't be ruled out, but that this refinery may not be starting anytime soon or possibly ever.”
The refinery is old, and without the expansion, it’s on the smaller side. That makes it vulnerable to fluctuations in the oil industry, like an increasing demand for hybrid and electric vehicles that use less petroleum. Today’s low oil prices are just the latest of Alon’s economic misfortunes.
“The economic downturn starting in 2007 hit California and especially the Central Valley very hard, and that was a difficult time for refineries,” says Goodman. “Things have now turned around, demand is stronger, but it's still the situation that the California refinery market's very competitive.”
That’s partly because crude oil doesn’t need to be refined where it’s extracted. Even though Kern County still produces a lot of crude, refineries here are at a disadvantage compared to those near the coast, with access to shipping routes by sea.
And there’s another trend impacting refineries all over the state, says Goodman: lengthy environmental reviews and lawsuits.
“This happens frequently with large complex energy projects, which tend to be controversial; they have sizeable impacts, there's frequently opposition and litigation,” says Goodman. “It becomes higher cost, more difficult, and that at some point discourages proponents from moving forward.”
Whether or not the refinery reopens, and whether or not this lawsuit was a factor, Tom Frantz says it will have been worth the trouble.
“This is never in vain to try to get the Clean Air Act enforced,” he says. “The Clean Air Act is about health. So any polluting industry realizing that they’re going to get sued if they try and skirt the rules of the Clean Air Act, this lawsuit sends that kind of message.”
Even if that message is an aggressive one, Annette Ballatore-Williamson from the air district says advocates like Frantz are, in a way, doing their civic duty.
“The public obviously has an interest in projects that impact the environment,” she says. “This process of airing their grievances, it’s kind of the way the process is supposed to work.”