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The Shell Refinery is seen in Martinez, Calif. on Monday, May 6, 2013. The Bay Area's five refineries have moved toward acquiring controversial Canadian tar sands crude through rail delivery. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

Discussions about reducing California's greenhouse gas emissions often become both heated and hyperbolic. But a plan being advanced by one of the East Bay leading refineries should be neither.

The management of Shell Oil's Martinez refinery has decided it can operate effectively at current levels without using heavy crude oil as a base in some of its operations. Heavy crude requires much more energy, water and heat to process than the lighter crude.

We were thrilled to learn that Shell has filed paperwork with the county regarding its intent to shut down its coker operation, one of its dirtiest processes. Shell plans to replace it with processes that handle lighter crude, but not the more volatile bakken crude.

That is, indeed, good news for Shell's neighbors in Martinez, but it is even better news for the environment.

Shell General manager Paul Gabbard told our editorial board that the process change will cut the refinery's greenhouse gas emissions by 700,000 metric tons a year, which he said is equivalent to taking 100,000 cars off the roads.

It is not insignificant, especially during a drought, that this process change also will cut Shell's water use by an estimated 15 percent. That works out to a savings of about 1,000 gallons of water a minute.

There also will be about 300 temporary construction jobs for local workers as the conversion is made.


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But the biggest news is that Shell officials believe this change, which they hope to have completed by 2018, will allow the refinery to meet the state's stringent standards for greenhouse gas reduction before the 2020 deadline.

In 2006 the Legislature passed AB32, California's landmark effort to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Most oil refiners in the state were not happy about the law.

After all, the legislation was designed to dramatically reduce the levels of six different emissions that are quite often associated with the manufacture of petroleum products.

Not only did it seek to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons emitted, it sought to do so by a whopping 25 percent statewide by 2020.

Many companies moaned that its target emissions were impossible to meet. The bill itself implicitly acknowledged that the goals were ambitious because it instructed the California Air Resources Board to develop regulations and "market mechanisms" that could allow for industrial operations that couldn't meet the standards to purchase pollution credits through an auction from operations that had excess credits.

But if Shell's reckoning is correct, and we believe it is, it won't need to do that and this action could blaze a dramatic new trail that others in the industry should consider following.