This California license plate, “Gas Pain,” might be the sly joke of a gastroenterologist, but it’s not on a Mercedes. So let’s stipulate that it means pain at the pump, with a gallon of regular gas stuck for months at around $4.40. This kind of price is as usual fueled by investor speculation and an oil industry that cuts supply to drive up profit. But the license plate could just as well be about a different kind of gas–a big increase in greenhouse gas emissions by the state’s oil refineries.
California refineries “emit 19–33% more greenhouse gases (GHG) per barrel [of crude oil] refined than those in any other major U.S. refining region,” according to a recent report for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The reason is a corresponding increase in the amount of heavier, dirtier crude oil processed, including dark, sticky tar sands oil from Canada. The gasoline produced at the end of the process is no dirtier–but the gases that could otherwise come from your tailpipe are going up the refinery smokestack instead.
A story in Inside Climate Today points to requirements that refiners remove sulfur pollutants from gasoline and diesel fuels. Such scrubbing is harder to do with the cheaper, dirtier tar oil, and refiners may emit more carbon pollutants during a longer refining process, especially as they try to squeeze out more fuel from every barrel of oil.
California isn’t yet capping refiinery pollution, and this week delayed putting financial teeth in planned emission caps. Pardon us for thinking oil industry lobbying could have had something to do with it.
No one is forcing refiners to buy Canadian tar oil–refiners want because it’s cheaper than lighter oils and produces a bigger profit. It’s the same reason oil companies are demanding their high-volume Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas, which could make California refinery pollution look like a clear day in spring. Exxon Mobil officials won’t even admit that the tar oil is dirtier to refine. From a Texas story on the pipeline:
An ExxonMobil spokesperson refused to specify how much heavy crude the company’s refineries are already processing in Texas or might process if the pipeline is completed. Nor would the company respond to questions about how refining tar sands oil affects the amount of air pollution created by the plants.
Extra profit also comes from U.S. refiners exporting gasoline and diesel fuel at record rates. Fuel is now America’s top export, even as refiners import the dirtiest oil to make it. Domestic pump prices go up and the refinery pollution burden on Americans goes up while other nations reap the clean fuel.
Californians are already buying and driving cleaner cars and cutting consumption. All families prize clean air, but those who live near refineries are suffering more, not less, pollution. There’s “gas pain” for everyone except the oil industry and its servants in government, as in a Congress that won’t even trim the industry’s billions in corporate welfare.