Advocates vow a fight as Utah OKs big oil refinery expansion
A West Bountiful oil refinery won state approval Monday to greatly expand its operations to process the waxy crude pouring out of the Uinta Basin.
The permit obligates Holly Refining and Marketing Co. to install costly retrofits that could cut air emissions, even as it doubles its capacity to some 60,000 barrels a day, but environmentalists vow to fight the permit in court and seek an injunction while the case is litigated.
Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and other groups came out swinging, calling Holly's plans to minimize emissions "utterly disingenuous" because some measures were already required under a consent decree settling a dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Project critics are dismayed with Holly's use of an untested factor (or mathematical equation) for estimating the upgraded refinery's future emissions for fine particulates, the soot pollution that contributes to the Wasatch Front's most pressing air-quality problem.
"They found a new emission factor that is 15 times less than the standard emission factor. We are not buying that at all," said Brian Moench, founder of the physicians groups. "They chose the factor depending on which favors their situation. There couldn't be a greater lack of integrity. To us, it's incredulous."
State officials defend using the new emissions factor from the EPA, known as the National Emissions Inventory, and say they have built safeguards into the permit. Holly is required to hire outside experts to conduct stack tests that quantify the plant's actual emissions and if they exceed the permit's thresholds, Holly must take steps to reduce emissions to acceptable levels, according to Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.
The proposed expansion's first phase upgrades pollution controls on existing equipment and installs a second fluid catalytic cracking unit, which would be dismantled and moved from New Mexico. When up and running, the new unit will add 45 permanent jobs to Holly's current workforce of 200, according to Holly's environmental manager, Mike Astin.
"We think it's a win-win because we will be bringing in more jobs and more business and doing things to improve our air quality," Astin said. "The community is a concern for us. We are going beyond environmental regulations."
The refinery, a subsidiary of the Texas-based HollyFrontier Corp., is spending $10 million to convert the power source for four compressor pumps from natural gas to electricity, among other steps to reduce its emissions. The plant is also investing in a wet-gas scrubber to capture sulphur-dioxide, a precursor to fine particulate pollution, known as PM2.5.
While regulators estimate the expanded refinery will see a seven-ton increase in annual PM2.5 emissions, they predict substantial reductions in sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, by 150.7 and 21.5 tons, respectively. Bird contends this will help Salt Lake and Davis counties get into compliance with federal standards for particulate pollution.
But the permit allows for big increases in emissions of carbon monoxide and hazardous air pollutants, or HAPs, not to mention climate-changing carbon dioxide, environmentalists say.
"They are also ignoring all the emissions from the trucks bringing in the substrate," Moench said. "They are cherry-picking the data. It's an excuse to give this industry powerhouse a permit and give them priority over public health."
The crude pulled from eastern Utah's Uinta Basin congeals as it cools upon leaving the ground, thanks to its high paraffin content, so it is usually trucked quickly in insulated tankers to refineries not far from the oil patch.
Production is expected to swell from Duchesne and Uintah counties in coming years. Holly recently signed a 10-year deal with Newfield Exploration Co., the state's largest oil producer, to take up to 20,000 barrels a day.
"They are figuring out how to produce more and we are figuring out how to process more," Astin said. "The two have to be done in conjunction. If they produce more and we can't handle it, they would have to ship it much further away."
But this waxy crude must be processed locally because of the difficulties of shipping it by pipeline or rail, Astin said.
Others on Salt Lake City's refinery row are eying expansions to take Uinta crude. Moench's group is already appealing the permit Tesoro won to expand daily capacity by 4,000 barrels.