Harmful soot unchecked as Big Oil battles EPA over testing

A deadly form of soot pollution from US refineries has been unregulated for decades due to a row between the US oil industry and federal environmental officials over how to measure it, according to documents from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Delays in addressing so-called condensable particulate matter emissions mean this pollutant is being released by dozens of facilities across the country unchecked, adding to a slew of other pollutants from oil refineries that researchers say are doing disproportionately significant damage to health. the poor. and minority communities living nearby.

The lack of a federal standard has led at least one regional air-quality regulator in California to try to suppress these emissions, an effort that sparked a lawsuit from the oil refineries located there.

Condensable fine particles are a form of soot that leaves the chimney as a gas before it solidifies and turns into particles when it cools. The Environmental Protection Agency first proposed a way to measure it in 1991 amid evidence that it was at least as harmful to human lungs as natural soot, which is solid when emitted.

Even short-term exposure to tiny soot particles can lead to heart attacks, lung cancer, asthma attacks and premature death, the agency says. Scientific research cited by the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that when condensate and solid soot combine it causes more than 50,000 premature deaths annually in the United States, findings disputed by industry.

But the Environmental Protection Agency has refused to impose restrictions on the condensable form of the pollutant. The oil industry and its main lobby group, the American Petroleum Institute (API), allege the agency failed to come up with an accurate test to identify it, according to EPA disclosures and interviews with independent testing companies, API officials and the trade group. Individuals.

The industry says the test currently in use can overstate the amount of condensable soot emitted by refineries under certain conditions, a flaw the EPA has acknowledged.

“There should be no need for costly retrofits or new controls based on results from the wrong way,” US oil major Chevron Corp said in a statement.

Setting a national limit on pollutant emissions without a consensus on how to measure those emissions is not feasible because it could invite legal challenges from the industry, according to regulators and testing stack analysts.

The Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement that it was still conducting research on how to reliably measure condensable soot, but did not comment on a timeline for ending the effort.

The delays are serious, said Greg Karas, an environmental scientist who has worked with nonprofit groups seeking to reduce emissions from the refining industry.

“It is inappropriate to wait more than 30 years to protect people from this type of contamination while you are trying to master a test,” Krass said.

If condensable soot is eventually regulated, it will force nearly all of the country’s 135 oil refineries to invest in new pollution-control equipment, based on current emissions estimates using the EPA’s contested testing method.

San Francisco is taking drastic measures

Soot consists of particles many times smaller than a grain of sand that can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream if inhaled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates solid forms of soot, which are easy to measure by filtering stack emissions. But since condensable soot is gaseous in chimneys, it is difficult to determine its quantity.

The current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) test for condensable soot, called Method 202, uses probes and glass tubes placed inside refinery stacks to collect samples from the gas stream. It shows that individual US refineries can emit up to hundreds of tons of pollutants annually, sometimes accounting for nearly half of a refinery’s total soot emissions, according to a Reuters review of regulatory documents filed by oil companies.

The materials examined by the news agency date from 2017 to 2021 and include results of Method 202 tests that were commissioned by some refineries to meet local requirements or as part of litigation.

However, the API says, the test can produce falsely high readings of condensable soot if the samples react with other chemicals normally found in the refinery.

The EPA has acknowledged that pollution levels can be overestimated using Method 202, the agency’s disclosures show. The EPA revised Method 202 in 2010 in an effort to eliminate this bias. But the review did not fully address industry concerns about possible skewed results due to the presence of other compounds in refinery stacks, particularly ammonia, according to a 2014 EPA memo.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory, which is responsible for finding scientific and engineering solutions to environmental problems, is now working with API to solve problems with Method 202 while exploring an alternative methodology, they said.

The long-running issue surfaced last year when regulators in the San Francisco Bay Area, which includes nine counties around San Francisco, passed the nation’s strictest soot regulations in an effort to reduce pollution in neighborhoods around the cluster of oil refineries. .

US states and territories are often given the power to enforce their own pollution limits provided those rules are as strong or stronger than federal regulations.

The new boundaries of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) include condensable soot and require industry – despite its objections – to use Method 202 to determine such soot emissions. The agency confirms that the test is accurate and that measurements of condensable soot are not affected by the presence of ammonia in stacks if the filter is operating properly. A more stringent soot standard comes into effect in 2026 to give oil companies time to adjust.

Refiners Chevron and PBF Energy Inc are fighting BAAQMD’s new regulations in Contra Costa County Superior Court, according to a civil complaint filed in September. The companies say the rules will force them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on pollution control equipment for Gulf region refineries.

“API and our members support policies at the federal level that follow the science to drive emissions reductions, but the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is using the wrong approach,” Ron Chetem, vice president of downstream policy, said in a statement.

Chevron estimates it will cost $1.48 billion (171 billion yen) to install the so-called wet scrubber at its Richmond, California, refinery, an approach to pollution control that BAAQMD wants the company to use.

BaAQMD estimates that its restrictions will cut the region’s annual death toll from soot by up to half. The regulator currently estimates up to 12 deaths per year from the Chevron Richmond refinery and up to six deaths per year from the PBF Energy refinery in Martinez, California.

Refiners contested these figures in comments provided to BaAQMD employees. The industry says the numbers do not take into account the deceased’s lifestyle choices, such as smoking, and maintains that the health benefits from reducing soot production are overstated.

A BAAQMD spokesperson declined to comment further, citing ongoing litigation.

New standard?

It remains to be seen whether other air quality regions in California, regulators in other states or the federal government will follow the Bay Area’s lead.

Democratic President Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency said it was considering whether to lower its current limits on soot pollution after the administration of former Republican President Donald Trump refused to do so. But the agency did not specify whether it plans to combat condensable soot.

A spokesperson for the Texas Environmental Quality Commission said in Texas, which has the largest number of refineries in the country, it has no plans to tighten restrictions on particulate matter.

Elsewhere, results of recent tests at two refineries have shown that condensable soot accounts for a significant portion of the total soot from those processes.

In Delaware, at a PBF-owned Delaware City refinery, 48% of the measured soot was condensable soot, according to results of a May stack test conducted by an outside consulting firm as part of the facility’s routine compliance with federal air quality regulations.

PBF declined to comment.

At ExxonMobil Corp.’s refinery. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 17% of the measured soot was condensable, according to an August stack test registered with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

Exxon declined to comment on the battle over the 202 method. The company said it was “constantly working to improve our operations to reduce emissions and enhance energy efficiency.”

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