What’s In Your Oil?: Report Suggests Oil Composition Data Can Help State Continue Leading on Climate Change

Screenshot of the report’s oil environmental risk graph for the South Coast region.

Two new publications calling for greater transparency when it comes to the composition of oils being refined in California facilities were released Wednesday, revealing that the state’s varying types of oil have led to inconsistencies in pollution types and levels.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a global network of policy research, published Need to Know: The Case for Oil Transparency in California and Drilling Down On Oil: the Case of California’s Complex Midway Sunset Field, which focus on the challenges and opportunities the state has in developing a more open-data approach to its oil sources.

California is the country’s third-largest producer of oil and has the country’s third-largest refining capacity and is also looked to as a leader in climate change policies. Deborah Gordon, Carnegie’s Energy and Climate program director and co-author of the report, said that in order for the state to measure its climate impacts with any certainty it must know what its putting into its facilities.

“We found for both global [supplies] and California that there are very wide ranges in emissions, greenhouse gas emissions between barrels of oil both globally and in California as well,” Gordon said. “And those differences are large enough to matter.”

Carnegie examined the state’s crude oil supply using an oil-climate index (OCI) which tracks greenhouse gases (GHG) through the supply chain. It helps experts determine if the types of oils being used are rich in benzene, sulfur, methane or other potentially harmful elements.

Of the 75 fields analyzed, Long Beach fields did not place among the worst in total greenhouse gas emissions, but neighboring Wilmington ranked 10th and the Midway Sunset oil field in the San Joaquin Valley placed third.

Gordon explained that the state is home to some of the cleanest oils but also home to some of the dirtiest oils, which produce the highest levels of GHGs when processed.

The Midway Sunset field falls into the latter classification, and combined with the volume at which it’s processed, it has helped contribute to Kern County being one of the worst polluted regions in the state.

The oil fields in and around Long Beach fall into much less volatile categories of the report’s scale of oil climate risk. Long Beach fields fell into “potential regional risk,” however, the neighboring Wilmington field was classified as a medium risk with high GHG emissions.

Gordon warned that the only thing keeping the Wilmington field from joining the ranks of Midway Sunset, South Belridge and Kern River fields—all listed as the highest environmental risk due to the oil’s high GHG production and volume at which it’s refined—is an increase in the quantity being refined.

“The concern would be, with high GHG, if that production is enhanced in any way and you’re not careful about lowering its intensity then it’s going to become red,” Gordon said.

She noted that the discrepancies are due to composition, but also due to the fact that California keeps most of its oil in house. Oil assays—chemical analyses of the composition of the oil— are typical in oil markets as they give buyers a better picture of the product they might purchase, but California regulators do not collect them and the public cannot access state catalogue of that data.

The variable geologic makeup of the state, which changes conditions in oil fields and sometimes alters the composition, combined with the importation from other states has led to a more heterogeneous mix of oils being refined than is publicly acknowledged. This has led to an uneven distribution of pollutants that are largely dependent on what kind of oil is being processed.

The report states that often times comparing oils across the state is like looking at paint thinner and peanut butter. The latter being the thick crude oil that’s extracted from the Midway Sunset field that resembles the peanut spread in consistency and is similar to the oils extracted from the Canadian Tar Sands.

California had discouraged the use of Canadian Tar Sand oil by implementing stringent Carbon Fuel Standards that required the blending of crude oils to meet state requirements.

In September, Congressman Jared Huffman (San Rafael, CA) introduced the Know Your Own Oil Act in Congress which would require companies nationwide to disclose field-level oil data. Long Beach Congressman Alan Lowenthal co-sponsored the bill.

Even though these high GHG-emitting oils are relatively far away from Long Beach, byproducts like petcoke (a solid carbon material that resembles coal and can pose serious health risks affecting the heart and lungs ), often end up at the Port of Long Beach to be shipped to other countries that use it as an energy source.

A report published earlier this year demonstrated that although California may export some of these petroleum products to other markets, the pollution they cause—especially in Asia—eventually finds its way back to the Golden State.

The Carnegie report recommends a detailed collection of assays be kept to help manage oil-related climate emissions.

What that could cost the state is uncertain, as assays are a sort of boutique business, that due to a current lack of competition, can cost thousands of dollars per assay.. Gordon believes that if a more robust effort is taken to document oil composition in the state it would create an economy of scale, bringing more operators into the market and driving down the cost as competitors are introduced into the market.

The report’s authors suggest that it could be mutually beneficial for those in the industry, as they can better figure out how to extract oil from the ground if they know what it's composed of and better equip refineries to handle those nuances. It could also benefit residents and policy makers whose interest lies in striking a balance in public safety, environmental justice and keeping the wheels of local economies turning.

But the cost of not knowing what’s in its oil could come with a heftier price, especially as climate change speeds up with the increase of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere.

“By simply knowing more about its oil, California has an opportunity to further transform a critical sector that must rapidly respond to the realities of a warming world,” the report said. “Other states and nations would again be poised to follow California’s lead—if policymakers rise to meet this challenge.”



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