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Dirty Substance From California's Oil Refineries Burned Overseas

BENICIA (KPIX 5) -- California prides itself on being one of the most environmentally conscious states in the nation. Some are calling that green promise hypocritical, because a dirty substance from the state's oil refineries is being burned overseas.

Refineries in California have begun processing a heavier, dirtier type of crude in the last decade. At the same time, there's a mandate to produce cleaner burning fuel. So what happens to all the dirty dregs?

One wouldn't know about it unless they lived near it, like Marilyn Bardet of Benicia. She said fine black dust settles on everything, from cars to windowsills. It's called petroleum coke, or petcoke for short, a byproduct of the oil refining industry. It's dirtier than coal.

Yet the Valero refinery near Bardet's home is one of three Bay Area refineries that produce tons of petcoke.

"It's a dirty secret, it's a really dirty secret," said Greg Karras, a senior scientist with Communites for a Better Environment.

"California is the worst," Karras said. "California is by far the major refinery center of the Western U.S. but it's also refining the heaviest, densest, closest to tar average crude input anywhere in the country," he said. As a result, they produce the most petcoke.

Since the state and the federal governments consider petcoke a byproduct, not a waste, California's strict emissions law does not apply. "It does not account for petroleum coke," said Karras.

Refineries can produce as much of it as they want. But state and federal regulations for burning it are really strict because it's so dirty. That makes it hard to sell in the U.S.

So what to do with it? Chris Howe of Valero told KPIX 5: "Much of it right now is sold overseas."

We asked Howe if there are any concerns about the pollution it causes overseas. He responded, "I am not aware of those concerns."

California exports 128,000 barrels of petroleum coke a day. Most of it goes to China, where it's burned to generate electricity, and where it emits five to 10 percent more carbon dioxide than coal. That adds to China's notorious bad air problem, and eats away at the world's ozone layer.

So California sends our pollution problem overseas. While Gov. Jerry Brown makes statements about the environment such as this: "The disruption of the climate patterns on which all human beings depend is the greatest problem that mankind has ever faced."

Last month, Brown signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China, pledging, of all things, to reduce greenhouse gases. "I see the partnership between China and the state of California as a catalyst and as a lever to change policies in the U.S. and throughout the world," Brown said.

KPIX 5 asked Gov. Brown: "Why are we sending petroleum coke over to China to burn in those power plants?"

"That's a very good question," said the Governor. "California will do its part and Washington has a lot of catching up to do."

Karras predicts exports are just going to increase. "This is a problem at the state level, this is a problem at the federal level, this is a problem at the global level," he said.

For instance, Valero is lobbying to bring in more dirty crude to the Bay Area by rail that will produce more petcoke.

Bardet and many of her neighbors are fighting that. "We don't want more of this stuff," she said. "You have to say this is a line and we don't cross it and you have to be firm."

Thanks in part to Bardet's group, the city of Benicia now plans to do an environmental impact report before allowing the trains to come through. Valero claims the rail project won't bring in any dirtier crude than what is being currently refined.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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