Fossil Fuel Pollution

Oil Refineries

Refineries turn crude oil—the thick, dark liquid pumped up from oil wells—into products that include gasoline, motor oil, jet fuel, and asphalt.

There are five refineries in the north Bay, two in Martinez and one each in Richmond, Rodeo, and Benicia. We still depend on these refineries for now, but they’re relics. For life on our planet to thrive, these dinosaurs must go extinct, and be replaced by cleaner sources of energy.

Oil refineries endanger the Bay and local communities in many ways, from the localized threat of oil spills and wastewater pollution, to climate breakdown.  

There are five oil refineries around the Bay in Richmond, Rodeo, Benicia, and Martinez. Oil refining is a highly dangerous and polluting industry that endangers the ecosystem, communities, and the climate.

Chevron oil spill
A spill at a Chevron oil refinery tanker terminal in Richmond in February 2021 (Photo: Baykeeper).

Oil Spills

One the largest spills in San Francisco Bay’s history, the Cosco Busan spill of 2007, killed thousands of birds and caused untold damage to the ecosystem. Since then, we’ve worked to safeguard the Bay from oil spills in collaboration with local partners and independently to:

  • Stop refinery expansions in Richmond and Pittsburg and stop the increase of new oil tankers to Phillips 66.
  • Block oil tankers from carrying sinking heavy tar sands on the Bay.
  • Evaluate and challenge biofuel conversions at two local refineries, one of which has shut down completely. Depending on the source feedstock, biofuel processing can be as harmful to the Bay and nearby neighborhoods as traditional oil refining.
  • Sponsor and pass more than a dozen laws that protect the Bay from oil pipelines and trains. The laws also provide the Bay with both oil spill prevention measures and cleanup when spills occur. And they apply to waterways across the state.
The Cosco Busan ship with a tear in its hold that spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay
The Cosco Busan container ship with its torn fuel hold visible on the left. The ship spilled 53,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay in November 2007 (Photo: Baykeeper).

Selenium

At trace levels, selenium is an essential micronutrient. But selenium is also a byproduct of oil refining. At moderate levels in water, it’s a potent toxic pollutant. Selenium inhibits growth and causes gross deformities in fish and wildlife, and it can kill bottom-feeders.

In the North Bay, downstream from the region’s oil refineries, monitoring conducted throughout the drought by scientists at the US Geological Survey and the San Francisco Estuary Institute found dangerous levels of selenium in wildlife. During the drought, selenium levels in fish and clams were high enough to harm or kill larger species that eat them. One species living in these waters, the threatened green sturgeon, is especially susceptible to selenium poisoning.

Baykeeper is continuing to push for tighter controls on selenium discharges to the Bay, as well as enhanced monitoring of selenium levels.

Selenium poisoning can cause gross deformities and death in native species like the Sacramento splittail, pictured here, and green sturgeon. Illustration by Fiorella Ikeue in collaboration with Baykeeper.
Featured case

Petcoke Pollution in Benicia

In late 2021, we captured damning evidence of pollution at the Port of Benicia, at a site owned and ​ operated by Amports and Valero. Our drone footage documented streams of black dust floating into the air, and black plumes of soot spreading into the Bay. The pollution was petroleum coke, a toxic and carbon-dense fossil fuel that is a by-product of Valero’s petroleum refining and is loaded by Amports at the Port and sent overseas to be burned for power. So, we took action.

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Coal and Petcoke

Thanks to longtime advocacy by Baykeeper and grassroots partners, the only active coal terminal in the Bay Area is the Levin export terminal in Richmond, which transports over 1 million tons of coal every year from its facility onto ships bound for Asia. In 2012, we successfully got the terminal to clean up its facility after Baykeeper witnessed pollution from its loading piles blowing into the Bay. We also stopped a proposal to open a new coal terminal in Vallejo.

But the Levin terminal continues to be a significant source of pollution. So we worked alongside local community partners to help the City of Richmond craft and approve an ordinance to phase out the storage and handling of coal by the end of 2026, in a major victory for the Bay and Bay Area communities.

We’ve also worked with coalition partners to stop a planned coal export terminal in West Oakland. If plans for coal export go through, up to nine million tons of coal would arrive each year in freight trains from Utah, shedding dust along tracks that run near the San Francisco Bay shoreline and residential communities.

And in 2023, we joined a nationwide effort to get the EPA to rein in coal pollution from the trains that serve facilities like Levin.

No coal protesters with a "no coal" sign with Baykeeper staff in Richmond
Baykeeper and No Coal in Richmond staff before a Richmond City Council meeting in support of the city’s coal ban (Photo: Roger Cunningham)

take Action

Stop Coal Train Pollution

Coal dust is incredibly toxic. It pollutes people, wildlife, and the environment.

But the federal government allows uncovered coal trains to travel all over the country, spilling thousands of pounds of coal dust into the air, soil, and water.

Act now to stop the pollution. Join a growing movement to protect people and the environment from coal dust here in the Bay Area and across the US. When you sign on, we’ll fight on your behalf to get the government to stop pollution from coal trains.

Do you believe people and the Bay should be safe from coal pollution? Sign your name!