The nation's biggest oil refiner agreed yesterday to spend more than $525 million to clean up nine plants scattered across the country, effectively removing 47,000 tons of harmful pollution from the air each year.
Yesterday's pact between the federal government and ConocoPhillips, which will also pay a $4.5 million civil penalty and spend an additional $10 million on other environmental projects, is the largest refinery settlement in U.S. history. It also means that after years of resisting federal air pollution rules, companies responsible for half of the country's oil refining have agreed to comply with the Clean Air Act.
The consent decree, which affects refineries in California, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington state, will affect 10 percent of the nation's refinery production. Once it is in force, 53 percent of U.S. refinery capacity will meet federal air standards, compared with just 17 percent two years ago.
"This is a home run, to say the least," said Thomas L. Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's environment and natural resources division, in an interview. "To the average American, they're going to be able to walk outside and breathe much more easily and breathe much better air in seven states."
Refineries account for 5 percent of the country's dangerous air pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, releasing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide linked to lung and heart disease through stacks as well as cancer-causing benzene in waste water.
By comparison, coal-fired power plants, which have vigorously resisted complying with the Clean Air Act, emit five times more nitrogen oxide and 20 times more sulfur dioxide. But Eric Schaeffer, who directed the EPA's enforcement office between 1997 and 2002 and now heads the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group, said refinery pollution affects local communities more than power plants because it is released from short smokestacks and does not dissipate readily.
"People are living cheek by jowl with refinery pollution," Schaeffer said.
ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Lara Dilley said the nine plants' new pollution controls will cut their sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by 65 percent. The company has three other U.S. refineries that are already operating under a similar consent decree.
"ConocoPhillips is committed to achieving these significant emissions reductions," Dilley said. "These actions will improve environmental performance and support continued safe and reliable operations of the refineries."
The agreement marks the 13th settlement the EPA has struck with refineries since December 2000, when it launched an initiative to bring them into compliance with federal air standards. In all, companies have pledged to spend $2.6 billion to curb pollution, accepted $45 million in civil penalties and financed another $40 million in environmental projects, said Thomas V. Skinner, EPA's acting assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance.
John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the fact that the Bush administration has been able to make so much progress with refineries "is pretty extraordinary." But the environmental attorney added that some of the past settlements have failed to bear fruit because refineries have delayed installing cleaner technology or adopted ineffective pollution controls.
Skinner acknowledged there have been some problems with past settlements but said they should not detract from "an incredible accomplishment." Now that more than half of all refineries have agreed to adopt stricter pollution controls, he said, it will be easier for the government to pressure the companies still flouting federal law.
"Any time you're using new technology, there are some bumps in the road," he said.