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Break Out the Champagne at Chevron!

5:13 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Chevron Refinery Fire

The news reports were on the gee-whiz side this week as state job safety regulators announced nearly $1 million in fines–the largest ever!– against Chevron for its refinery blaze last August. But “largest ever” only means that the levy hit the state’s $1 million cap on such fines. For Chevron, whose yearly profits are measured in the tens of billions (second only to Exxon), $1 million is pocket lint. As with so much of California’s regulation of mega-businesses, such fines are baked into the cost of doing business. They have zero deterrent effect.

The Cal-OSHA fines were for Chevron’s carelessness and lax oversight at its Richmond. CA refinery–leading to a a burst pipe, a huge fire and a toxic smoke cloud that sickened thousands of residents in and around the Richmond, CA, refinery last August. Chevron also dithered and delayed a shutdown for more than two hours after finding the leak, guaranteeing a conflagration.

The blaze starkly illustrated how the energy industry and other polluters evade regulation and play off one regulator against another. The regulators sit in their little silos of fractured authority, disclaiming responsibility for this disaster or that disaster.

Chevron, as the fine was issued, also listed how it would make the aged Richmond refinery safer in the future. The list is a joke–it promises not one cent in capital spending to upgrade and make safer the parts of the plant that didn’t burn down. All of the promises amount to “we’ll keep a closer eye on things.” Keep in mind as you read that Chevron’s inspections and safety training, before the August fire, were considered state of the art in the industry.

Chevron said it was:

  • Enhancing inspections of piping components potentially susceptible to sulfidation corrosion since carbon steel components with low-silicon content can corrode at an accelerated rate. This inspection program is being applied throughout our refinery system worldwide.
  • Strengthening reliability programs for piping and equipment, and enhancing competency requirements for leaders, inspectors and engineers.
  • Strengthening leak response protocols and reinforcing the authority that everyone has to shut down equipment.
  • Creating more management oversight and accountability for process safety and re-emphasizing focus on process safety.

Judy DuganThat all sounds like more of the same, vulnerable to the same human error, reluctance to shut down and cost-cutting that led to the August disaster.The badly corroded pipe that burst, for instance, was skipped in a Nov. 2011 inspection of the unit destroyed by the fire. The deliberate omission was in violation of Chevron’s own safety policies.

Chevron will obviously have to replace the pipes (and everything else) in the processing unit that failed. But even that is in question–the new pipes that Chevron insists it will usewill use are the same as the piping that corroded at a BP refinery in Washington State, leading to a similar huge blaze that shut down the refinery. Richmond’s City Council, which has final say over how Chevron does its repairs, is largely staying out of the dispute between Chevron and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board over the pipe replacements.

Could it be because Chevron spent $1.2 millon on the city’s municipal municipal election last November, putting two of the three candidates it backed onto the council and fighting off progressive candidates? The company is also pouring millions into pet projects for city leaders.

There are endless ways that a company the size of Chevron can spend relative pennies in order to keep all of its billions in profits. Fines make more economic sense than upgrades. Building parks and meddling in local elections is cheaper than protecting the overall health and safety of local citizens. Spending more millions on state officials and elections is also cheaper than suffering coordinated official scrutiny.

California’s governor and Legislature could easily improve both safety and consumer protection with some reasonable changes:

  • Put oversight and regulation of oil refineries under a single independent body, funded through a tax on oil extraction.
  • Give the regulator the power and funding to inspect refineries regularly and follow up frequently to ensure that violations are fixed.
  • Require refineries to stagger routine maintenance shutdowns in order to prevent spikes in gasoline prices, and oversee routine shutdowns to ensure that they are not dragged out for financial reasons.
  • Require that refiners keep about three weeks’ worth of gasoline in stock to ease price spikes after events like the Richmond fire. This could include stronger oversight of refiners’ exports outside the U.S.

Sounds pretty simple. But Chevron, Exxon and friends see such regulation as interfering in their freedom to profit. Gov. Jerry Brown could lead the reforms above and probably win with major public backing. It’s all a matter of whether anyone, even Brown, will stand up to the oil industry. Early on, he didn’t show much backbone. But with the economy recovering slowly and the state’s debt looking more manageable, the still-popular Brown could successfully lead the charge to make refiners operate safely and in the public interest.
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director emeritus for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Our New Years Resolution

3:37 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Carmen Balber

What an inspiring 2012! Together, we exposed and stopped false MPG claims by automakers, shamed health insurance companies into lowering outrageous rate hikes and moved closer to the day when technology companies can’t collect and sell our private information online and on our phones without consent. This year we’ll continue these fights, and more.

Big things are going to happen in 2013, and we’re glad you’re here with us to see them through. We’ll be asking in the coming days your thoughts on what Consumer Watchdog’s priorities should be in 2013.

For now, here are some of our pledges for this year. We will:

What do you think of our resolutions? At Consumer Watchdog we know that when public opinion is on our side, we can make big things happen. So be on the lookout for our survey next week, and let us know your opinion on what our priorities should be in 2013.

Your ideas, actions and complaints were behind some of our biggest consumer protection victories. We need your input again to make this year as big as the last.

Happy New Year!
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Posted by Carmen Balber, Executive Director of Consumer Watchdog.

Ford’s Fusion and C-Max “47 MPG” Claims Under Scrutiny

4:29 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Ford's False Promises

If your 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid or C-Max Hybrid is not getting gas mileage anywhere near Ford’s advertised 47 MPG, you probably are not alone.

And Consumer Watchdog would like to hear from you.

Following our letter one year ago to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calling for an audit of Hyundai’s MPG claims, the EPA retested the carmaker’s fleet and, for the first time in history, ordered changes to multiple models with falsified stickers. Now Ford is on the hot seat.

For both the Fusion Hybrid and C-Max Hybrid, Ford promises a fuel economy trifecta of 47 MPG city, 47 MPG highway, and 47 MPG combined city and highway. According to new data from Consumer Reports, neither car comes close to 47 MPG under any conditions:

In our tests, the Fusion Hybrid delivered 39 mpg overall and 35 and 41 in city and highway conditions, respectively. For the C-Max Hybrid, we got 37 mpg overall, with 35 and 38 for city and highway. These two vehicles have the largest discrepancy between our overall-mpg results and the estimates published by the EPA that we’ve seen among any current models.

The information triggered the EPA to initiate its own investigation of Ford’s Fusion Hybrid and C-Max Hybrid fuel economy claims.

Consumer Watchdog is investigating the auto industry’s practices related to fuel economy claims, and we’d like to hear from you. Have you experienced gas mileage problems with a Ford Fusion Hybrid, Ford C-Max Hybrid or any other vehicle not living up to the advertised MPG?

Tell us your story here.

The good news is that the EPA is finally looking more closely into the MPG claims of carmakers, which self-test their own vehicles. It appears to be a new day for the auto industry and the claims they make on their window stickers. The big question for consumers is how much will car manufacturers have to pay them for falsified stickers. Consumer Watchdog wants to hear from you to make sure consumers get all they are entitled to.

Senators Add Fire to Scandal Over Phony California Fuel Crisis

6:55 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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Today, senators from California, Washington and Oregon joined our call to investigate refineries, asking the Department of Justice to comb through California refineries one by one to see whether market manipulation or false reporting by oil refineries had something to do with record $5 a gallon prices at some California gas stations last month and near record prices earlier in the year.

Read our letter to California Attorney General Kamala Harris here.

“We are requesting a Department of Justice investigation of possible market manipulation and false reporting by oil refineries which may have created the perception of a supply shortage, when in fact refineries were still producing,” wrote six Senators, including California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

The Senators cited the same report we did by McCullough Research concluding that price spikes in May and October happened while crude oil prices were declining, and inventories were increasing, possibly in conjunction with misleading market-making information.

The Senators called on Attorney General Eric Holder to use existing authority to prevent and prosecute fraud and collusion, and to draw upon the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit fraud or deceit in wholesale petroleum markets, and on the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to exercise their power to prevent the use of any “manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance.”

Read the Senators’ entire letter here.

Consumer Watchdog wrote California Attorney General Kamala Harris on November 15 calling for a criminal investigation of possible market manipulation or false reporting by refineries to drive up the price of gas to the highest in the nation, based on the McCullough report.

Between the Justice Department and its collaboration with other agencies in Washington and the California Attorney General on the West Coast, consumers should be getting some answers about why wild gyrations in the price of gas cost them $1 billion dollars extra in a short span of time in October, adding up to a 66-cent-per-gallon windfall for oil companies, or about $25 million a day, according to the McCullough report.

Refueling California

1:17 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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$5-a-gallon gas is a wake-up call. Let’s change the way oil companies operate here.

How can a power outage at a refinery spark $5-a-gallon gasoline at some L.A. stations? Why would the fact that California had to switch to the winter-blend fuel at the end of October — a fact known all year — raise gasoline prices to record levels?

This price surge is not a freak phenomenon or the result of a convergence of refinery problems, as the oil industry has argued. It’s happened before (only the $5 level is new) and will happen again and again because California oil companies can make more money by making less gasoline.

California’s under-regulated gasoline market resembles our briefly deregulated electricity grid during 2000-01, when energy pirates such as Enron manipulated prices. Why? The market is geared to shortages and scarcity. So when an inevitable problem occurs to shock the system, such as a refinery outage or pipeline problem, gasoline prices and company profits go through the roof in tandem.

The state’s gasoline, the lifeblood of our economy, is priced by an under-regulated commodities market largely controlled by a handful of companies. Over the last decade, Californians have consistently paid prices that are 10 to 20 cents a gallon higher than the rest of the nation, and we have lower inventories. The rest of the continental U.S. has about 24 days of gasoline on hand; California’s average is 10 to 13 days. Not surprisingly, over the last 10 years, refineries on the West Coast consistently have been among the most profitable in the continental U.S.

Memos from West Coast oil refiners from the 1990s and released years ago by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) suggest that this is a deliberate business strategy. An internal Chevron memo, for example, stated: “A senior energy analyst at the recent API [American Petroleum Institute] convention warned that if the U.S. petroleum industry doesn’t reduce its refining capacity, it will never see any substantial increase in refinery margins.” It then discussed how major refiners were closing down refineries. Oil company profit reports show each dramatic gasoline price spike over the last decade has been mirrored by a corresponding corporate profit spike.

This situation is well known to policymakers in California. About a decade ago, after some sharp, unexpected price hikes, then-Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer formed a gas pricing task force that included industry experts and me. We viewed industry documents and cross-examined industry representatives. Among the conclusions: “Supply disruptions that contributed to major price spikes of 1999 are likely to continue … because (1) California refiners have little spare capacity to cover outages; (2) California refiners maintain relatively low inventory levels.” The report also noted: “Refiners have significant market control.”

The task force recommended a series of measures, including building a strategic gasoline reserve that could flood the market when supply is most scarce. But the Legislature didn’t listen. And now we are near 5 bucks a gallon.

There’s a simple policy fix to the gasoline woes in California: more regulation and less consolidation.

If the state doesn’t have the wherewithal to build a strategic gasoline reserve, a simple requirement that refiners keep at least three weeks of inventory on hand will do.

Rapid oil company consolidation has also been a driver of high gas prices. A handful of refiners control 14 state refineries. It had gotten so ludicrous that in 2005, my consumer group teamed up with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Lockyer and succeeded in getting Shell Oil to reverse its decision to bulldoze its Bakersfield refinery, and to instead sell it. Internal documents showed that the refinery was making among the highest profits of all Shell refineries. That indicated the company wanted to make supplies even tighter, driving prices artificially higher.

The greatest challenge for competition may be ahead. Tesoro is seeking to buy the low-cost Arco brand and its California assets from BP. More than 800 stations carry the Arco brand. If state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and federal regulators approve the merger, two refiners — Chevron and Tesoro — will control 51% of the refining capacity in the state. That would be like writing a blank check from California drivers to the oil industry.

Let’s hope that $5-a-gallon gasoline is a wake-up call that came in time to head off greater refinery consolidation and higher prices. Fourteen refineries now power the world’s ninth-largest economy. It’s time Sacramento stepped in to keep them running at full speed, producing enough inventory to fuel the state, and from falling into even fewer corporate hands.

Jamie Court is the president of Consumer Watchdog and author of “The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell: How to Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws and Get the Change We Voted For.”

First printed in the October 12, 2012 edition of the Los Angeles Times

Did ‘Don’t Shut It Down’ Mentality Cause Chevron Refinery Disaster?

4:04 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

More than two hours passed at Chevron’s Richmond, CA, refinery between the discovery of a leak and the ignition of a blaze that threatened the health of thousands of nearby residents and sent hundreds to hospital emergency rooms Monday night. At any point during those hours, shutting down the big crude-oil processing unit in which a pipe was leaking could have prevented or greatly limited the disaster.

A massive plume of smoke over Richmond, CA.

The Chevron Refinery Fire in Richmond, CA (Photo: Daniel Parks / Flickr)

The San Francisco Chronicle reported details of that excruciating delay Wednesday morning, along with very different accounts of why it happened. The plant’s emergency response managers vaguely said they saw the leak as too minor–just “20 drops a minute” at first, to trigger an emergency or notify anyone. Until, of course, it suddenly got bigger and exploded into a blaze. But workers on the ground saw it differently and told their story to their union’s safety experts:

 

“From the time they did see the leak, they debated what to do,” said Kim Nibarger, who has investigated refinery accidents nationwide. “It was not so much whether to fix the leak, it was about what could they do to keep the line running and get it fixed.”
Nibarger based his opinion on Monday’s incident after discussions with union representatives at the refinery. The choice, he said, should have been clear.

“When you have hydrocarbons outside the pipe, you are no longer running at a normal condition. It’s time to shut the thing off and fix it, not to try to figure out a way around it.”

The last big fire at the Chevron Richmond refinery, in 2007, started the same way: a leak in the same refining unit, No. 4. Two employees were injured and the refinery was shut for months.

What one local resident said in 2007 sounds like it was today:

Read the rest of this entry →

Senator, Energy Investigators Slam Refinery Price Manipulation

7:22 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Refineries

The energy investigators who nailed Enron for energy price manipulation that nearly bankrupted California just took aim at oil refining giants including Chevron and BP. May the refiners’ gasoline-price schemes now come crashing down in an Enron-style heap.

We’ve known for years that California and West Coast refiners find endless ways to shut down some of their gasoline production, cutting supplies and jacking up pump prices. They actually make more money from making and selling less gasoline. It explains why West Coast drivers are stuck paying $4-plus a gallon while pump prices take a dive in the rest of the country. Now a credible study and a U.S. Senator have reached the same conclusion–and trying to put some muscle on the oil industry.

Washington State Sen. Maria Cantwell is probably the best-informed on the petroleum industry of all federal legislators, at least among those not joined at the hip with Exxon. She is calling on the the Federal Trade Commission to investigate six major refiners–Alon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Tesoro and BP. It’s a smart move, because the oil lobby has a stranglehold on Congress and most state legislatures. President Obama has tried at least twice to reduce the industry’s billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, and gotten nowhere.

Here’s the gist of the story by McClatchy news service’s Kevin Hall:

Read the rest of this entry →

“Gas Pain” At Pump and Smokestack

3:59 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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This California license plate, “Gas Pain,” might be the sly joke of a gastroenterologist, but it’s not on a Mercedes. So let’s stipulate that it means pain at the pump, with a gallon of regular gas stuck for months at around $4.40. This kind of price is as usual fueled by investor speculation and an oil industry that cuts supply to drive up profit. But the license plate could just as well be about a different kind of gas–a big increase in greenhouse gas emissions by the state’s oil refineries.

California refineries “emit 19–33% more greenhouse gases (GHG) per barrel [of crude oil] refined than those in any other major U.S. refining region,” according to a recent report for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The reason is a corresponding increase in the amount of heavier, dirtier crude oil processed, including dark, sticky tar sands oil from Canada. The gasoline produced at the end of the process is no dirtier–but the gases that could otherwise come from your tailpipe are going up the refinery smokestack instead.

A story in Inside Climate Today points to requirements that refiners remove sulfur pollutants from gasoline and diesel fuels. Such scrubbing is harder to do with the cheaper, dirtier tar oil, and refiners may emit more carbon pollutants during a longer refining process, especially as they try to squeeze out more fuel from every barrel of oil.

California isn’t yet capping refiinery pollution, and this week delayed putting financial teeth in planned emission caps. Pardon us for thinking oil industry lobbying could have had something to do with it.

No one is forcing refiners to buy Canadian tar oil–refiners want because it’s cheaper than lighter oils and produces a bigger profit. It’s the same reason oil companies are demanding their high-volume Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas, which could make California refinery pollution look like a clear day in spring. Exxon Mobil officials won’t even admit that the tar oil is dirtier to refine. From a Texas story on the pipeline:

An ExxonMobil spokesperson refused to specify how much heavy crude the company’s refineries are already processing in Texas or might process if the pipeline is completed. Nor would the company respond to questions about how refining tar sands oil affects the amount of air pollution created by the plants.

Extra profit also comes from U.S. refiners exporting gasoline and diesel fuel at record rates. Fuel is now America’s top export, even as refiners import the dirtiest oil to make it.  Domestic pump prices go up and the refinery pollution burden on Americans goes up while other nations reap the clean fuel.

Californians are already buying and driving cleaner cars and cutting consumption. All families prize clean air, but those who live near refineries are suffering more, not less, pollution. There’s “gas pain” for everyone except the oil industry and its servants in government, as in a Congress that won’t even trim the industry’s billions in corporate welfare.
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Hyundai Elantra’s Poor MPG Frustrates Eco-Aware Drivers

5:43 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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Consumer Watchdog has been highly critical of the gap between the Hyundai Elantra’s posted 29 city/40 highway MPG numbers and reality. We’ve asked the Environmental Protection Agency to re-test the Elantra, because even the most eco-aware drivers say they can’t reach those numbers, or the company’s 33MPG combined MPG.

Hyundai has responded that only people who “drive like maniacs” can’t equal the posted MPG, but here’s a complaint from the opposite of a maniac driver. Marc, an East Coast driver, told us:

I read your articles on the Hyundai Elantra with great interest.  While I really like the [Elantra], I have consistently had the same experience as you noted regarding gas mileage.  My combined mileage has never exceeded 29 and is usually between 26 and 28, my city mileage is in the low 20′s and highway mileage in the low 30′s at best.  What makes all of this troubling are a two factors.

First, I always drive in ECO mode and I drive with the goal of keeping the green eco light on all the time.

Second, I rarely drive in city rush hour traffic, rather most of my city, really suburban,  driving is in light suburban traffic, and it is a rare trip where I ever wait more than one light cycle to get through an intersection and travel speeds are typically between 35 and 45 mph.  On the highway, I am usually in free flow, tho 2-3 miles of my daily commute may be as low as 30-35 mph on some days – otherwise it’s 55.  I typically drive between 55-65 and don’t exceed that top speed with any regularity.  I recently returned from a 180 mile highway trip, using cruise control from 60-65 and my mileage was 33.7.  I’ve driven extremely steady highway trips of 40 miles and it’s always between 34 and 37.

So I’ve never seen the advertised mileage, no matter how carefully I drive.  It’s very frustrating because the city mileage is barely better than the what I was getting on the Audi A4 I traded in so I could get a high mileage vehicle.

People who don’t drive like Marc obviously get even worse mileage. Hyundai says that other cars also don’t meet their listed MPG in real-world tests, but our analysis of independent tests shows that the Elantra is at the bottom of the heap. And that is what we wrote Wednesday in a letter to Hyundai’s U.S. CEO. If even the most careful and light-footed driver can’t get to the listed MPG, Hyundai is deceiving the very people who its advertising targets.
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

“Fracking” for natural gas gets some attention, but so far it’s just yakking

5:45 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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ExxonMobil, which is making big bets worldwide on hydraulic fracturing for deeply buried natural gas, is also making big bets on its sincere, earnest advertising about clean, safe natural gas. The ads turn me into a crazy person, yelling at the television during halftimes and seventh-inning stretches.

Their claim that they ensure compliance with all “applicable environmental and safety regulations” is my personal turning point, because in the U.S. those regulation barely exist. It’s easy to comply with nothing, so Exxon can get away with telling us that fracturing bedrock thousands of feet deep, drilling through the aquifers that supply our drinking water, using scarce water supplies spiked with an unidentified slew of toxic chemicals, is as safe as braiding a a daisy chain.

Some other countries, however, are starting to act on their doubts.

France has outlawed this drilling, known as “fracking,” until doubts about what it does to water supplies and how its waste poisons the land are dealt with. Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority banned one of the Exxon ads, stating that its claim on liquefied natural gas as one of the world’s cleanest fuels is misleading.

In the U.S., enviro and consumer groups grumble, and SolarDave has made an on-target spoof of the Exxon ads, but our lawmakers and regulators are still mostly twiddling their thumbs. There isn’t a federal requirement that drillers tell us what chemicals they’re squirting into the ground, or a law to prevent dumping their wastewater into the rivers from which we drink.

After a slew of investigative reporting (special kudos to ProPublica) on the health and environmental fallout from fracking, government is starting to ask questions. This week, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico led off a Senate Energy and Commerce hearing on fracking, ticking off the water issues, land poisoning and air pollution issues, and adding on fracking’s release of highly potent climate-change gases, particularly methane. But a show of sympathy is a long, long way from effective regulation. Read the rest of this entry →