Will Exxon Get Away Scot Free From California Before Making Torrance Safe?

It looks like ExxonMobil might just make a clean getaway and unload its Torrance refinery onto independent refiner PBF Energy without making the facility any safer before Exxon skips town.

Exxon came with a hair’s breadth of creating a Bhopal-scale catastrophe in February 2015 when an explosion and fire in its 12-story tall air pollution equipment tossed a heavy piece of debris close to a vat of tens of thousands of gallons of modified hydrofluoric acid (MHF) used to make gasoline.

According to the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, a spill of only 5,200 pounds of MHF from a single container would “cause a 2-mile radius of death.” The ground-hugging cloud can melt internal organs once it enters the body.

On March 19, the South Coast Air Quality Management District will decide whether the refinery refinery processing 155,000 barrels of San Joaquin crude oil a day can restart. Given the new Republican majority on its board, its support for weakening smog rules, and its pro-business stance (“clean air and good-paying jobs are both vital for public health”), the answer is sure to be yes.

First, Exxon will fire up the unit it uses to “crack” crude oil to make gasoline, violating air quality standards because not all of the repaired air pollution equipment will start up along with it. That may be good news for gas prices since the facility supplies 20 percent of the Southland’s gasoline. But it’s lousy for the air and terrible for Torrance because the refinery will remain a bodily threat to the community.

Exxon looks set for a double victory. First, the air district adopts the oil industry’s position on smog, despite sturm und drang in the Capitol. Next, it looks like Big Oil is sliming the Capitol once again—aiming for a win there too by deflecting a piece of legislation to ban refineries from using MHF. The substance is used at only two refineries in the state—Exxon Torrance and Valero in Wilmington. All the rest use safer, though still dangerous, Sulfuric Acid to make gasoline.

If Assemblyman Rob Bonta had his way, Exxon’s Torrance refinery would never threaten its residents again with the possibility of a Bhopal-type explosion. His bill, AB 1759, would require refineries using lethal MHF to convert away from it or cease handling, maintaining or storing it by January 1, 2017. The bill was supposed to be heard this coming Monday, but was pulled because the author had more questions to answer. Or was it Exxon that had all the questions? Or perhaps PBF whose executive Jeffrey Dill claims that there is no commercially viable alternative to MHF at the refinery?

Today, mandating that refineries switch away from MHF that threatens whole communities and Sulfuric Acid that kills refinery workers is both cost effective and protective of public health. That is because a whole new generation of solid-acid catalysts exist that are far safer than either one.

According to chemical engineers, solid-acid catalysts cost less to use than MHF because they don’t need the extremely high levels of maintenance to keep MHF operations safe. These catalysts don’t corrode critical equipment like emergency pressure-relief valves. And the cost of conversion is relatively low. Based on the size of the Torrance refinery, the cost is $66 million, using numbers laid out in trade publications. Converting to using Sulfuric Acid would be twice that price, chemical engineers estimate.

Whether California will make Exxon spend that money on behalf of everyone, including themselves, before skipping town is the real $66 million question.


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