Chevron Corp.'s long-delayed, $1 billion effort to upgrade its Richmond refinery won the blessings of the city's Planning Commission late Thursday, moving the controversial project closer to construction.
The commission unanimously certified the upgrade's latest environmental impact report, adopting several safety and pollution-control measures sought by the project's opponents. The modernization effort still needs approval from the City Council before construction can begin. Council hearings are scheduled for July 22 and 29.
The project has split the Richmond community, and Thursday's vote provoked mixed feelings on both sides.
Opponents, who have complained for years about the refinery's pollution, thanked the commission for tacking on conditions designed to address greenhouse gas emissions and improve safety. A major fire at the refinery in 2012 spread a plume of smoke across the East Bay and sent 15,000 people to hospitals complaining of breathing problems.
"Our vision is to build our long-term clean energy jobs future with the safest, least-emitting refinery that we can have while it's still here," said Greg Karras, senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental justice group. "The victory tonight is a huge step toward reaching that goal."
Chevron welcomed the commission's approval but expressed "grave concerns" about the new conditions.
One would force the refinery to replace many pipes throughout the facility in an effort to prevent a repeat of the 2012 fire, which started when hydrocarbons leaked from a badly corroded pipe. Another would limit the amount of oil that could be processed daily in the refinery's fluid catalytic cracking unit, said Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie. Chevron may ask the City Council to remove several of the planning commission's conditions.
"With some of those conditions, I think we can assume we'll have to appeal them," Ritchie said.
Chevron has been trying for years to revamp the refinery, which opened more than a century ago. Construction began on an earlier version of the upgrade plan in 2008, but a judge stopped it the following year after ruling that the company had not answered key questions about the work in its environmental impact report.
The original plan would have allowed the refinery, the second largest in the state, to produce more California-grade gasoline. But Chevron, based in San Ramon, dropped that element of the upgrade, because gasoline use is falling in California.
Instead, the project will replace the hydrogen plant and allow the refinery to use crude oil blends with higher sulfur levels. It will add equipment to strip sulfur from the refinery's exhaust to keep emissions from rising.