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Tar sands refining in Southern California needs scrutiny, say environmentalists



Environmentalists say tar sands take more work to process. They're worried that semi-solid petroleum trucked to Southern California refineries could add to air pollution.
Environmentalists say tar sands take more work to process. They're worried that semi-solid petroleum trucked to Southern California refineries could add to air pollution.
Pipe Dreams/Leslie Iwerks

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Oil refiners are sending greater amounts of an especially dirty crude oil product called “tar sands” to their Southern California refineries.

Now environmental groups want regulators to take a closer look

Tar sands hold a kind of semi-solid petroleum. To refine it enough for California standards takes more processing. Oil companies - including Valero, Tesoro and Conoco Phillips - say they’re bringing in more of this raw material because liquid petroleum in California is drying up.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Communities for a Better Environment have written to the South Coast Air Quality Management District asking for an investigation, saying that refineries are "speeding up and expanding deliveries of one of the world's dirtiest crude oil products to California refineries." They say tar sands deposits are more corrosive on refining equipment – and that escalates the safety risk for workers at the refinery. And they argue that refineries that process tar sands will spew more air pollution in Wilmington and other South Bay communities. More greenhouse gas emissions could make it harder for refineries to comply with state laws combating climate change.

Refiners say they’re operating within state and federal law.

Air officials are under no obligation to take action on a request for an investigation. A spokesman for the AQMD, Sam Atwood, pointed out in an e-mail that pipe corrosion and workplace safety may not be directly within the district's regulatory authority.  At its next meeting, the South Coast Air Quality Management District board could take up the environmental groups' request for a closer look at tar sands refining.