New EPA Refinery Emissions Rules Linked to Environmental Justice

refinery emissionsThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just issued proposed new rules for refinery emissions that will affect a total of 149 facilities and millions of residents who live nearby. According to the EPA’s demographic analysis, of the individuals most at risk from refinery emissions, about half are currently classified in minority groups. According to the EPA, that’s about twice the percentage of the general population.

We’re waiting to hear ExxonMobil’s take on the environmental justice angle — after all, none other than CEO and chairman Rex Tillerson recently joined a lawsuit seeking to block a relatively modest fossil fuel-related project in his neighborhood — but in the meantime the American Petroleum Institute had this to say about the proposed new rules:

… EPA has already concluded the risks associated with refinery emissions are low and the public is protected with an ample margin of safety.

ExxonMobil, environmental justice and refinery emissions risk

The Tillerson angle is particularly interesting in the context of environmental justice, when you consider that an episode at an ExxonMobil refinery back in 2012 clearly illustrates the need for tighter regulations.

According to an article last week in the Times-Picayune of Louisiana, the proposed new rules settle a lawsuit against the EPA by environmental groups, which aimed to force the agency to update its refinery rules as required by law.

The 2012 episode involved the accidental release of benzene. ExxonMobil initially characterized it as a minor 10-pound incident. Here’s what really happened, as described by reporter Mark Schleifstein:

… repeated complaints from residents led to an investigation that revealed that a failure of a storage tank allowed napthalene containing benzene to leak into the refinery’s sewer complex, knocking its treatment plant off line, and resulting in the release of more than 31,000 pounds of benzene.

That certainly amps up the risk factor. Schleifstein notes that 59,000 people live within 2 miles of the refinery, and there are also 38 schools and daycare centers in that area.

Getting back to Tillerson’s lawsuit, the project that touched off his complaint was a proposed new 160-foot water tower. The water would be used to supply a nearby fracking site, hence the fossil fuel connection.

Aside from the aesthetic concerns about a 160-foot water tower in the vicinity of his $5 million home, Tillerson is apparently concerned about introducing noise nuisances and increased traffic in a formerly quiet, rural area.

These are perfectly legitimate concerns, but in terms of the overall risks of fracking they are relatively minor, and they are certainly a far cry from being exposed to potentially dangerous levels of benzene without your knowledge.

Proposed new rules for refinery emissions

The American Petroleum Institute got a bit ahead of itself in characterizing the EPA’s refinery emission risk assessment as “low.” Previous assessments were based on industry self-reporting, which as the ExxonMobil episode demonstrates are not necessarily reliable.

More to the point, the EPA is required to periodically update its residual risk assessment periodically. Residual risk refers to the risk remaining after the application of existing emissions control and monitoring technology.

Since that technology has improved considerably since the last update, a new risk assessment is required.

Also making the case for updating the rules is a long list of recent refinery emissions enforcement actions, conveniently compiled by the EPA. In the introduction to that list, the agency also anticipates the API statement with these observations:

Leaking equipment is the largest source of HAP [hazardous air pollutants] emissions from petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities.

Recent monitoring shows that facilities typically emit more HAP emissions than they actually report.

Improper operation of an industrial flare can result in hundreds of tons of excess HAP emissions.

Here’s some additional snippets from the EPA fact sheet for the proposed new rules.

One major element of the new rules is the first ever fenceline monitoring requirement for accidental or unintentional releases. That would provide communities with more information about episodes like the ExxonMobil benzene release. A public disclosure requirement is also part of the rule. Current monitoring applies only to stacks, flares and other points of release.

Another major improvement is that the new rules would also eliminate a current exemption for emissions related to startups, shutdowns and malfunctions.

In terms of the numbers, the new standards for cokers and storage tanks would reduce HAP emissions including benzene, tolulene and xylene by about 1,800 tons per year, and volatile organic compounds (VOC) by about 19,000 tons per year.

In addition, a new standard for improved combustion of waste gas flaring will reduce HAP by 3,800 tons per year and VOC by 33,000 tons per year. That’s a low estimate, and the EPA states that the actual reduction could be “significantly higher.”

As for carbon emissions, the EPA estimate on that is the elimination of about 700,000 metric tonnes per year of CO2 equivalents.

While the EPA does not foresee a significant impact on the cost of refined products to consumers, the agency does estimate that improvements in emissions control and monitoring will cost the industry $240 million up front and $40 million per year.

In effect, the rules bring us another notch closer to accounting for the full cost of fossil fuel consumption.

Image credit: Dan DeLuca

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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