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Planning Commission Sends Project Back to have Holes Patched

According to the West County Times today, the Planning Commission gave staff until June 5 to “address the holes that critics have pointed out” in the EIR and conditions of approval for the Chevron Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project.

By recognizing these “holes,” some of which you could drive a truck through, Planning Commissioners confirmed what the public has been trying to tell Richmond managers for nearly a year.

The continuing saga of deficient characterization and review of this project highlights a fundamental failure of leadership at the highest levels of Richmond government – the city manager and the city attorney. Why they can’t get this right after spending well over a million dollars in consultants, not to mention the free but accurate advice they received from the attorney general, CBE and the public, is highly disappointing.

The EIR and the recommended conditions of approval that staff has cobbled together are beginning to resemble an old pair of pants that has more patches than original fabric – and there are still holes in the knees.

I missed most of the meeting last night, but near the end I was intrigued by a response Planner Lamont Thompson gave to a question from a planning commissioner. “We pushed, and Chevron pushed back; we pushed some more, and they pushed back.’ Those may not be the exact words, but they capture the gist of the response, and they highlight the basis of the failure of the City to process this project effectively. This is not a criticism of Thompson, who has been remarkably honest about the politics of the process. His response points out what has been, in effect, a collaboration between Chevron and City leaders, with the public largely frozen out. For all practical purposes, Chevron has an office in the Richmond City Hall while the public has two minutes at a microphone late at night.

If this doesn’t make you cynical about municipal government in Richmond, nothing will.

Commission postpones decision on Chevron refinery upgrades

By Katherine Tam
Staff writer

Article Launched: 04/10/2008 10:55:24 PM PDT


RICHMOND — A decision on Chevron's proposal to upgrade equipment at its Richmond refinery has been postponed until June while city officials revise the project's environmental impact report and address the holes that critics have pointed out.

The Richmond Planning Commission told city staff Thursday to find a way to accurately determine what kind of crude the refinery would be able to process, a point that has been widely debated in the community.

In addition, city staff will formally declare the project's estimated maximum greenhouse gas emissions of 898,000 metric tons per year to be significant. A series of measures have been outlined to reduce those emissions to zero.

The hearing on the Chevron project will pick up where it left off June 5, when the Planning Commission will meet once again to determine whether the environmental report is complete and permits should be granted.

The project has been the subject of a hefty and emotional public debate since it was proposed three years ago. Chevron contends that the proposal would mean a safer and more efficient facility while creating 1,200 construction jobs and 10 permanent jobs.

But opponents have urged officials to hold off until there is a guarantee that the oil company will not refine heavier crude, which they say can lead to air pollution and health problems.

Chevron wants to replace its hydrogen power plant and reformer at its refinery. The company would process the same amount of oil as it does now, but new equipment would allow it to refine a wider range of crude and produce 6 percent more California-grade gasoline, according to the environmental report.

The West County Toxics Coalition and Communities for a Better Environment say Chevron will have equipment to refine heavier crude than the oil company has stated publicly. Refining heavier crude could increase air emissions by five to 50 times, they said. The groups as well as the attorney general's office seek a cap on the kind of crude that would be processed.

"The cap would ensure the truth of what Chevron claims," said Adrienne Bloch, an attorney with Communities for a Better Environment.

Mike Coyle, general manager of the Richmond refinery, maintains that Chevron lacks all the equipment necessary to refine heavier crude.

"Processing heavier crude would require us to shut down our base oil production," an essential part of refinery operations, Coyle said.

Critics say the environmental document is deficient in several areas, including in the discussion of the crude that would be processed, greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation measures. Chevron disagrees.

Annual emissions in three categories of air pollutants would drop, according to the project's environmental report. Emissions in two categories would increase, but at levels deemed to be less than significant after mitigation measures, the report states.

Meanwhile, advocates for the Bay Trail want Chevron to provide land to complete the trail at the edge of the refinery and help pay for its design and construction. Planning commissioners discussed making that a condition of approval for the project.

Commission Chairwoman Virginia Finlay said Chevron agreeing to complete the trail "would do a whole lot of community building."

Reach Katherine Tam at ktam@bayareanewsgroup.com.