RICHMOND -- Two weeks after issuing a 10-page letter critical of a draft environmental impact report detailing Chevron's proposed $1 billion refinery modernization project, California Attorney General Kamala Harris' office issued a second letter last week expressing support for an alternative plan that would mandate "no physical increase in greenhouse gas emissions from refinery operations."

"The alternative is environmentally superior to the proposed project," the letter reads.

The modernization, scaled down from a previous iteration that was halted by a judge in 2009, has been subjected to public scrutiny for much of the year, as city leaders and critics comb through more than 4,000 pages of reports and notes. Chevron has long maintained that the new project will not result in any "net increase" in emissions, but critics say it uses mitigation measures and other offsets to mask an increase in some emissions.

The Chevron refinery and storage tanks are seen from Crescent Avenue in Point Richmond, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group
The Chevron refinery and storage tanks are seen from Crescent Avenue in Point Richmond, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group Archives)

The new letter, issued Friday, focused on an alternative proposed by the city's EIR consultants that would require Chevron to keep emissions of greenhouse gases "at no higher than baseline levels" and allow no increases in greenhouse gas emissions from any production of hydrogen for export.

Chevron Richmond spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie released a statement Wednesday saying the company appreciates the office's letter and will review and evaluate its favored alternative, but she signaled that there were concerns with the emission limits.

"The letter expresses the Attorney General's support for the modernization project if Chevron accepts an alternative project case that would significantly limit the refinery's requested flexibility," Ritchie wrote.


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Richmond mayoral candidate Mike Parker, a Chevron critic, wrote in an email this week that "Chevron has not weighed in as to whether it is willing to accept this alternative. But if Chevron were to agree, it would be a giant step forward for both the project and for the health of Richmond."

In her first letter, Harris emphasized that the central point of the project is that Chevron plans to process higher sulfur crude, which caused the corrosion that sparked a fire and explosion at the refinery in August 2012.

Facing a more than $5 million budget deficit, the City Council earlier this month urged the Planning Commission to complete its review so that the council could weigh in on any appeals before its August recess. The modernization project promises around 1,000 jobs and could restore tax revenues from the refinery, which plunged after the 2012 fire.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to hold a hearing on the environmental report July 9. If it is appealed by either side, the council will weigh in. A subsequent court challenge by either environmental activists or Chevron is likely, observers say.

Councilman Tom Butt said Wednesday that the attorney general's letter carries significant weight in the process.

"There's a presumption that the city will put (Harris' suggestions) into its requirements," Butt said. "The Planning Commission has the power to put this into the conditions of approval."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.