California Refineries’ Plans to Convert to Soy Raise Doubts About Biofuels

By Gary Graham Hughes, Biofuelwatch

 

The recent announcements from Phillips 66 and Marathon to convert their San Francisco Bay Area refineries from processing crude petroleum to processing high deforestation-risk feedstock, such as soy, are getting an increased amount of scrutiny from California climate activists.

This elevated questioning of the supposed benefits of bioenergy liquid fuels is an indicator of the sophistication of the long environmental justice campaign to address the public health threats and climate damage from fossil fuel processing facilities in the North Bay ‘refinery corridor.’

Phillips 66 San Francisco Bay Area Crude Petroleum Refinery Source; Gary Graham Hughes, Biofuel Watch.

When Phillips 66 and Marathon both made their high profile public announcements last summer that they would be repurposing their Bay Area refineries to process vegetable oils, such as soy, to manufacture alternative ‘drop-in’ biofuel diesel and jet fuel products, there was a fair amount of skepticism expressed from stakeholders experienced in global and state energy and climate policy — as well as from activists versed in protecting the San Francisco Bay itself from industrial threats.

This skepticism is justified, and it extends beyond the well-documented direct and indirect land use changes associated with the expansion of monoculture agriculture in endangered ecosystems around the world. 

On top of exacerbating dynamics driving global deforestation, there are many concerns about what these proposed biofuels projects really mean for California and the communities living near these facilities. 

For instance, the announced pivot to biofuels encouraged San Francisco Baykeeper to examine the Phillips 66 biofuels proposal in the context of the oil giant’s recent pursuit of permits to more than double the number of oil tankers delivering crude to the refinery over their San Pablo Bay marine terminal. 

Looking closely at the scant publicly available documentation on the Phillips 66 biofuels project, Baykeeper discovered that the company is indeed still pursuing the exponential increase in marine deliveries of crude oil to their refinery while they engage with the supposed technical transition to manufacturing biofuels.

This stated interest by Phillips 66 to increase deliveries of crude petroleum by oil tanker, as part of a project whose announced purpose is a pivot to animal waste and soy-based liquid fuels, is not the only counterfactual indication embedded in the green spin of converting refineries to biofuels. 

Energy experts working with climate activists have also looked hard at the proposed biofuels refining process itself. 

Greg Karras, an energy system and refinery safety consultant with Community Energy Resource, noted that the hydrocracking processing of soy-based feedstock would require immense amounts of hydrogen from fossil gas. 

Karras concluded that utilizing hydrogen from natural gas would mean the greenhouse gas emissions from processing soy for making diesel and jet fuel could be as high — if not higher — than processing crude oil.

Local activists living in the refinery corridor feel that they have seen enough over the years from companies like Phillips 66 to not take their new glittery green spin at face value. 

Nancy Rieser, a local organizer with the group Crockett Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (CRUDE), was up front with her analysis. “We need to be mindful of ‘greenwashing’ during these times when refineries look for ways to prolong their life cycles while the world moves toward solar energy and electrified transportation.” 

“This project, in particular, bears closer scrutiny,” she insisted, “the first press release about this project stated that used cooking oil would be the primary feedstock and was silent about the need to turn millions of acres into soybean production.”

The role of subsidies in laying the terrain for the proposed shift to high deforestation risk commodities like soy is one that 350 SF Bay organizer Jed Holtzman elevates as central to the problem. “If it were not for the huge subsidies available to Phillips 66 and Marathon from the Low Carbon Fuel Standard these projects would probably not be happening,” shared Holtzman at a recent community meeting.

The California Environmental Quality Act review process for the Phillips 66 refinery conversion has already completed scoping. The scoping of the Marathon refinery conversion proposal is to be completed this spring. 

Contra Costa County is the lead agency for both projects. The individual draft Environmental Impact Reports for both projects are anticipated to be available late in 2021 or in early 2022. 

Stakeholders have their guard up against any attempts to fast track permitting and environmental review of refinery repurposing, something that Governor Gavin Newsom himself has indicated that he is willing to consider. 

It is a broadly shared position among the stakeholders tracking these refinery matters that such a shortcutting of environmental review and public participation would be a tragedy.

The enormity of what is at stake will certainly extend far beyond the frontline communities living with the industrial pollution from the refineries, as is the case whether liquid fuel manufacture is based on petroleum or on high deforestation-risk commodities like soy. 

There is no question that these proposed refinery conversions merit exhaustive and thorough environmental review as well as the attention of the residents of Northern California, who are intended to be the primary consumers of these products.

Gary Hughes works as the California Policy Monitor with the international organization Biofuelwatch. Visit their website at biofuelwatch.org.uk to sign up for updates and learn more about the false promises of bioenergy.