RICHMOND -- As Chevron looks to restart a long-delayed refinery overhaul, a draft environmental report released this week concludes that the $1 billion project would allow the company to process dirtier oil without increasing air pollution.
"At its core, this is a reliability project that replaces some of the oldest processing units with new and modern technology," Chevron spokeswoman Nicole Barber said.
The 4,440-page report details the project's sweeping scope, including replacing its 1960s-era hydrogen plant with new equipment that will process higher-quality hydrogen more efficiently and provide more flexibility to process crude oil blends and gas oils containing more sulfur. The project also calls for safety upgrades to piping systems and replacing three Chevron SuezMax ships with two cleaner-running vessels that can carry about 1 million barrels of crude each.
In addition, it would create an investment fund of $3 million per year for 10 years to pay for ventures in Richmond and North Richmond to lower greenhouse gas emissions and create local green jobs. The modernization would not increase maximum production at the 257,000-barrel-per-day refinery.
The proposal promises to spark public debate over the coming months, continuing a nearly 10-year odyssey to modernize the century-old refinery, the largest in Northern California and second-largest in the state.
Richmond's City Council green-lighted a more expansive version of the refinery project in 2008, and Chevron began work.
But environmental groups sued, and the following year, a judge threw out that project's environmental impact report, saying it didn't address key questions about whether the improvements would let Chevron process heavier grades of crude oil and increase emissions.
With the new version, Chevron scaled back the project, dropping elements that would have allowed the refinery to expand production of gasoline; replace its catalytic reformer, which increases gasoline octane levels, and power plant; and add storage tanks.
The report concludes that the increased processing capabilities from the project would come "with no net increase above baseline period emission levels." It also concludes that if the project is approved, "the maximum daily amount of crude oil processed at the facility would not be increased."
But environmental activists are not assuaged.
"Chevron has zero credibility," Andres Soto of Communities for a Better Environment wrote on his Facebook page Thursday. "This haystack of documents means folks are going to have to examine this EIR closely to find the needles."
The revamped project will not enable the refinery to process heavier crudes such as the controversial Canadian tar sands blend, Barber said. But the refinery will install sturdier piping to handle the corrosive sulfur and add equipment to strip sulfur from the refinery's exhaust to keep emissions from rising.
U.S. oil refineries will be required to purchase new equipment to reduce sulfur in their products in the next decade, a step Chevron hopes to get a jump on as part of the modernization.
"The sulfur-removal improvements will allow us to refine higher-sulfur crude and produce lower-sulfur fuel," Barber said.
In August 2012, a fire at the refinery broke out when a corroded pipe that had thinned to the thickness of a penny sprung a leak, sending thousands to area hospitals complaining of respiratory problems and other discomforts. In a subsequent report on the incident, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found that Chevron repeatedly failed over a 10-year period to replace corroded piping in the crude oil-processing unit and that the pipe rupture was caused by sulfur corrosion resulting from low silicon content. The city has sued Chevron for damages stemming from the fire.
On Tuesday, hours after the report's release, hundreds packed the City Council chamber, many of them union workers wearing pro-Chevron T-shirts, and urged the council to not delay the project.
Councilman Corky Boozé said he has not reviewed the full EIR, which was prepared by the city and consultants Environ, Holland and Knight, and Urban Planning Partners, but is generally supportive of the project, which could generate about 1,000 construction jobs.
"What I don't want is for the city to block it," Boozé said. "We need the safety upgrades and the jobs, and we've been playing with this thing for too long."
But skeptics say the scrutiny has only begun.
"Yes, we want an EIR passed here, but it's the city's job in this negotiation to make sure that the refinery is safe, it's clean and it provides jobs for Richmond residents," said Mike Parker, a resident and mayoral candidate.
The city has set a 45-day comment period ending May 2, with a public workshop April 2 and a study session for city leaders April 3. Another public hearing is scheduled for April 17, and the planning commission should review the EIR in June, Barber said. If the planning commission decision is appealed either way, the matter will go to the City Council.
"It's safe to say either way that the decision will be appealed," Barber said, noting that the last EIR was reviewed by the council and then the courts.
At best, construction could begin next year, Barber said, and completion would take about two years.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.
Several public meetings are planned in coming weeks to discuss the draft environmental impact report for the Chevron refinery modernization project:
April 2: Public workshops from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium, 403 Civic Center Plaza.
April 3: Study session at Planning Commission meeting, 6:30 p.m., at the Richmond City Council chamber, 440 Civic Center Plaza
April 17: Public comment hearing, 6:30 p.m., at the Richmond City Council chamber, 440 Civic Center Plaza
Copies of the report are available online at ContraCostaTimes.com/extra and chevronmodernization.com and also available for review at the following locations: Richmond Public Libraries, Main Branch, 325 Civic Center Plaza; Bayview Branch, 5100 Hartnett Ave.; West Side Branch, 135 Washington Ave.; and city of Richmond, Planning and Building Services Department, City Hall, 450 Civic Center Plaza.