Oil lobby pressure dooms state bill aimed at curbing refinery pollution

Oil lobby pressure dooms state bill aimed at curbing refinery pollution

A bill that would have tripled the fines paid by oil refineries for emitting toxic pollutants, like those released last year in Martinez, has stalled in the California Legislature.

The bill would have served as a way to hold companies accountable for incidents like the one last November in which residents woke up to a layer of fine white dust on their gardens and cars from a toxic chemical release by the Martinez Refining Co. Instead, the bill, AB 1465, was unceremoniously pushed to 2024 after Democratic Sen. Nancy Skinner sent it to the “inactive file” last Thursday. Skinner’s senate district includes cities in Alameda County and Contra Costa County along the 880 corridor, but not Martinez.

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, an Oakland Democrat who sponsored the bill, requested the delay. “Over the past week it became apparent that we were going to need more time to work on AB 1465 with our sponsor, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and with opposition groups who engaged us on the possibility of additional amendments,” Wicks said.

Wicks said the move would give her more time to negotiate and “weigh the important factors at play.”

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the regional agency that regulates air pollution, said the “factors at play” primarily refer to opposition from the Western States Petroleum Association. The powerful corporate fossil fuel lobbying group has spent millions trying to influence policy decisions by the California Legislature and state officials over the past half decade.

Officials with the air quality agency said Wicks agreed earlier this year to expand the bill from exclusively covering refineries to include any facilities with the potential to emit a large amount of pollutants, a change sought by the petroleum group.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District agreed and submitted that revised language, along with additional wording they believed strengthened the bill’s protections. But the bill soon ran into further difficulties when the petroleum association demanded language that would protect refineries from being subject to potentially higher penalties after releases like last year’s in Martinez, said Kristine Roselius, the district’s communications director.

“In our view, the purpose of the bill is to strengthen penalties for those types of events, not to protect (the companies responsible for them),” wrote Roselius in an email.

Representatives with the Western States Petroleum Association had not responded to requests for comment by press time.

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The future of the bill is unclear, although its sponsors and supporters still have hope for it. AB 1465 is now considered a “2-year bill”, meaning it can continue forward next year in the second year of a two-year session. The bill, which had been on the second reading in the State Senate, can also be picked up at the same point next year and may face fewer deadline pressures.

But for residents of Martinez living under the threat of toxic emissions like the spent catalyst release last November, even a year delay is unacceptable.

“Once again, it’s business as usual – refineries will continue to pollute at a discount rate,” said Heidi Taylor, a member of Healthy Martinez, a local activist group that formed in the wake of a toxic release from a nearby refinery on Thanksgiving evening. “It’s disgusting. We shouldn’t have to wait for clean air and water.”