Metro Vancouver is being warned its plan to tighten the limit on sulphur dioxide air pollution in the region could threaten the viability of the region’s last local oil refinery.
Chevron says its Burnaby refinery is being unfairly targeted by regional district staff, who have proposed a reduced ambient air quality guideline for sulphur dioxide that could force costly upgrades.
Chevron has been reducing the sulphur content of the fuels it refines – in compliance with low-sulphur requirements – and that has increased the amount of sulphur that the refinery must try to remove from its emissions.
“It is important that the competitiveness impacts, capital requirements and long-term refinery viability are considered relative to the benefits and timing of proposed local policies,” Chevron health, environment and safety manager Jill Donnelly wrote in a letter to Metro.
Metro is proposing to slash the maximum acceptable level of sulphur dioxide from 174 parts per billion, averaged over any one-hour period, to 75 ppb.
Regional district officials say the existing limit, which has been in place since the 1970s, may be too low to protect human health.
Exposure to high levels of sulphur dioxide – most of which comes from ships – can aggravate asthma and other respiratory problems, and contribute to smog.
The pollutant also acidifies soil and surface water, damages crops and trees and can damage or discolour structures and property.
Metro has measured occasional exceedances of the current 174 ppb limit at the monitoring station closest to the refinery in north Burnaby and many more would be triggered under a 75 ppb limit.
The new Metro standard would be an interim one at least until possible new national or provincial regulations are drawn up, Metro’s climate action committee heard Thursday.
Chevron’s Donnelly argued the move is hasty and the region should wait for a national decision currently being crafted by environment ministers from across the country.
That national proposal is expected to be a 70 ppb standard but averaged over a three-year time frame with the worst one per cent of readings excluded, while Metro’s proposal is a more stringent “never to exceed” standard that Chevron officials said might force production cuts during weather inversions that keep smog from dispersing.
The calculation method advanced at the provincial and national level could allow exceedances of the standard by Chevron of up to 70 hours per year, Metro air quality planner Laurie Bates-Frymel said.
“We believe it’s more prudent to adopt a more protective statistical form in this densely populated area, since there will be more people at risk,” she said.
The company argues it should only have to make the major investments required to comply with a final approved standard, not an interim one that might prove too tough.
Metro officials say the new regional standard would initially apply only to new or significantly modified industries, so Chevron would be grandfathered for a couple of years until the policy is reviewed.
The committee sent the plan back to staff to gather more information.
Also objecting to the tightened regulation is the Business Council of B.C.
“The Business Council is concerned about Metro Vancouver’s undue preoccupation with industrial air emissions – a preoccupation that fails to take account of their relative (and diminishing) impact on air quality in the Lower Mainland,” executive vice-president Jock Finlayson said in a letter.
Finalyson noted long-term air quality trends show generally declining concentrations of most pollutants despite steady population growth.
Chevron is the only Lower Mainland producer of gasoline. It tried but failed to win priority access to crude oil from the oversubscribed Kinder Morgan pipeline and brings some oil in by rail and truck to ensure adequate supply.