How Green is Green Apple Renewable Diesel?

How Green is Green Apple Renewable Diesel?

Tuesday November 12, 2019

By Alex Ramel, Extreme Oil Field Director

Whatcom County, Washington is no stranger to massive proposals for dirty energy projects. Between oil trains, coal terminals, planned gas pipelines, and various refinery expansions, this community has learned a lot about how to stand up and say no to the fossil fossil industry when they come knocking. The Big Oil bosses must have taken notice, because they are starting to promise that they will focus on clean energy. One such promise is being made about the proposed Green Apple renewable diesel facility that would be jointly owned by Phillips 66 and the Renewable Energy Group. Climate action is more urgent than ever, so we should be open to opportunities for real solutions, but we also need to be careful that we’re not being tricked by the same old polluters.   

Just weeks before the election, Phillips 66 donated $70,000 to a Political Action Committee focused on electing Tony Larson and attacking his opponent Satpal Sidhu. Larson had made reducing regulations on big businesses and ending the temporary moratorium on unrefined fossil fuel export some of his central reasons for running. The company’s support for Larson was one of the largest one-group political expenditures in Whatcom County history. Even worse, Phillips 66’s Local Director of Public and Government Affairs, Tim Johnson, served on the PAC’s board of directors. They were up to their necks in attacks ads and electioneering. At the exact same time, Phillips 66 was working with the Renewable Energy Group (REG) to submit an application (a State Environmental Policy Act Checklist) for the Green Apple facility to the County government. 

Phillips 66 was trying to buy new leadership for the county government while applying to the county government for permits.

The staff who review the permit applications are all under the purview of the County Executive’s office. This is the key point: Phillips 66 was trying to buy new leadership for the county government while applying to the county government for permits. What we should all be asking is: why did P66 want to avoid scrutiny on a project the public is being told is climate friendly? 

The Green Apple Renewable Diesel project – as it has been described in public documents and numerous conversations – hopes to produce 18,000 barrels per day of renewable diesel.  Renewable diesel is more refined than biodiesel, is chemically identical to petro-diesel, but can be produced from a variety of feedstocks ranging from used fry grease to soy or canola seeds to corn oil. Renewable diesel is particularly valuable in fuel markets with a mandatory low carbon fuel standard. Right now that’s California and Oregon, so those would be the likely destinations in the near term (but Washington’s legislature may pass a low carbon fuel standard soon).

The company claims that by displacing dirty petro-diesel, “the Green Apple facility will roughly reduce CO2e by the same amount as if removing all passenger cars in Whatcom, Skagit, Okanogan, and Chelan counties of Washington State.” That might be true, 18,000 barrels per day is a lot of diesel and replacing it could have a big benefit for the climate. And precisely because it is a lot, the math needs to be checked very carefully. This is an enormous project that could have significant impacts if executed improperly. 

Stand.earth and many others in the community have been approached by proponents with an opportunity to ask questions about the project, and we have been asked to support it. Not all of our questions have been answered. So for now, we are withholding judgement, waiting for the details. And we are urging others to withhold judgement too, while we wait for good answers to these questions:

  • What are the feedstocks? There is an enormous difference between used fryer grease and soy oil in terms of the life cycle impacts of the fuels. The company has listed some alternatives (and has said they won’t use the highly destructive palm oil, which is a good start). But they have not indicated which ones they will use the most. The answer that market forces in 2019 seem to support low carbon feedstocks is not enough; we want to know how they will be held to a high standard for the long term. 
     
  • How will the product and the feedstocks be transported? We all know that the fisheries in the Salish Sea, salmon, herring, and the Southern Resident Orcas are in trouble. Vessel traffic is a major cause of the problem, including the vessel traffic already to and from the refineries. The company has predicted that there will be an additional 144 vessel trips per year. These impacts must be carefully evaluated, understood and dealt with.  We simply can’t allow further degradation of the Salish Sea. We also should not allow our cities to be put at further risk of oil trains or hundreds of trucks filled with hazardous material. 
     
  • What’s this about a gas pipeline? The project application includes a proposal that Cascade Natural Gas would add a 7 ½ mile- long, 20-inch gas pipeline expansion across North Whatcom County. The pipeline would permanently increase the capacity to move fracked gas from British Columbia to Cherry Point. Much of the gas currently used by industries at Cherry Point is for two natural gas power plants, and --under state law-- will need to be phased out of use. So, I have trouble seeing why this increase in capacity is necessary. 
     
  • Will it really always be only renewable? More than one renewable fuel facility has been started with good intentions and big promises to the public, only to be turned over for fossil fuel use when business plans change or a new company buys it. The hydrogen facility proposed as part of this project is a particular concern as it could be repurposed to expand oil refining. Given the election results, I think we can say the community is opposed to new fossil fuel projects, and so the renewable fuel facility’s permits ought to be conditioned on an enforceable commitment that the equipment can only ever be used for renewable fuels. 

So is this a good project? 

It depends on the details. 

The project has pluses and minuses, and it may be that the project is more good than bad. We won’t know without these questions being fully answered. But it’s a bad sign that the company has invested so heavily to avoid the scrutiny that could leave us confident that the project is genuine. This is not, after all, the first time the company has spent big in the politics of pollution; last year they put $7.2 million into deceptive campaign to stop a state-wide price on carbon.  

We’re open to the possibility that this project will have a net positive impact on the climate and won’t harm the Salish Sea, but given the apparent attempt to avoid having anyone ask these questions, we think the answers are all the more important. While these questions are sorted out, we urge all the local policy makers to keep learning more, and to continue thinking critically about promises from companies with a long history of pollution.  And if we do move forward with the Green Apple facility, let's make sure we have ironclad, legally binding commitments that this apple won't go from green to rotten.

 

Alex Ramel is the Extreme Oil Field Director for Stand.earth, and is happy to answer any questions you may have about this project. You can reach him at alex@stand.earth.