Public Safety Victory in California over Pet-coke Plant Dispute

Carson, California was recently on the path to becoming home to a pet-coke power plant, situated conveniently next door to the BP Carson refinery. The project, though touted as the “cleanest and greenest of energy plants possible,” would really have been an environmental and possibly a public safety nightmare. Luckily the project was scrapped, largely due to the activities of the Wilmington Coalition for a Safe Environment and other grassroots organizers.

Pet-coke, short for Petroleum Coke, is a petroleum by-product that can be burned to produce energy in a manner similar to coal. The proposed plant, which would have been built by BP America in conjunction with Edison International, would burn pet-coke as a means of producing energy — hydrogen. 90% of the carbon dioxide used would be pumped into the Wilmington oil field (This is a common method of enhanced oil recovery. The CO2 pushes the oil closer to the surface, making recovery more economic), which is a massive oil field stretching through Los Angeles county from San Pedro Bay to Long Beach. Needless to say, much of the land above this oil field is heavily populated with Los Angeles residents.

Recently I was able talk with Jesse Marquez, founder and Chief Director of Wilmington Coalition for a Safe Environment, about his victory over BP and Occidental and why this proposal was such a bad idea. He pointed out that burning pet-coke releases vast amount of pollutants into the air including the one million tons of CO2 that was going to be stored under Los Angeles County.

He pointed out that the hydrogen that was would’ve been created was going to be a huge fire hazard. He anticipated that millions of gallons of hydrogen (which is highly flammable and explosive) would be stored on sight. He was also quick to point out that oil refineries are by nature huge fire hazards and BP Carson refinery only recently had to deal with an underground fire caused by the over-heating of an underground conveyor system. This illustrates why it is highly inappropriate to store hydrogen in the vicinity of an oil refinery. The public safety risk is made worse by the fact that factory is located in a heavily populated part of Los Angeles.

But the safety risk from hydrogen storage only represents a part of the problem. The proposal also involved pumping millions of tons of CO2 under high pressure below Los Angeles County. Exposure to high concentrations of CO2 is deadly to living things, and there have been multiple cases in which people and animals have been killed by CO2 emitted from the earth by volcanoes and other geologic anomalies.

Marquez said the CO2 that was going to pumped under Los Angeles was going to be in a liquid state, called carbonic acid — which, coincidentally, eats through limestone. Unfortunately the oil field is actually encased in limestone — the only thing that would’ve protected CO2 from exiting to the surface. The matter is made worse by the fact that the oil field is covered with abandoned wells from nearly a century of oil exploration. Many of the oil wells have been plugged, but there is an unknown amount of oil wells that have yet to be plugged. This issue is complicated by the fact that the ones that have been plugged were plugged with cement which is also corroded by carbonic acid. The Los Angeles valley is known for being a place where smog and other pollutants become concentrated. If large quantities of CO2 were to leak from the oil field, it would remain concentrated in the valley for a long time and constitute a public health disaster.

Luckily for the people of Carson and the rest of the Los Angeles area the plan was canceled. The companies cite geological concerns as the reason for abandoning the project, but Marquez says that the role of grassroots organizing by groups such The Wilmington Coalition for A Safe Environment, its parent organization California Communities Against Toxicity (which has 70 member groups), and by concerned citizens in general, played a central role in getting this project scrapped.

Marquez warns that the same companies have already announced that they plan do implement a similar proposal in Kern county near Bakersfield. It will need a strong citizen resistance to get the project moved. These experiences go to show that carbon sequestration schemes do not necessarily make pet-coke plants safe or environmentally sound.