Chevron Corp.'s long-planned, highly contentious project to revamp its Richmond oil refinery has been thrown into doubt, with company executives and local officials unsure what will happen after a recent court ruling.
Judge Barbara Zuniga of the Contra Costa County Superior Court has thrown out a key environmental report on the project, siding with activists who sued to stop the project after the Richmond City Council narrowly approved it last year.
In her brief ruling, Zuniga said the report was too vague on a key question: whether the project will allow the 107-year-old refinery to process heavier grades of crude oil than it currently does. The report, she said, also did not analyze a significant piece of the project - new hydrogen pipelines.
Finally, Zuniga criticized the city for giving Chevron a needed permit before the company submitted a plan for limiting greenhouse gases after the upgrade.
The judge's ruling did not, however, say whether work on the project must stop. After winning the City Council's approval in July, Chevron started the renovations in September.
The project has long been the subject of protests and heated debate. Environmentalists and community activists call it a major expansion of a refinery that already sickens Richmond residents.
Chevron representatives call the project an upgrade, one that will modernize the aging plant. The refinery, one of California's largest, will process the same amount of oil after the renovations are finished, said company spokesman Sean Comey. But the changes will allow Chevron to make more gasoline from that oil, increasing gasoline production by roughly 7 percent.
Environmentalists who have fought the project for years want work halted immediately.
"My understanding is they're supposed to stop and dismantle any construction built so far," said Jessica Tovar, a community organizer for Communities for a Better Environment. The organization was one of four groups that sued to stop the project.
A Chevron spokesman, however, said the San Ramon company is still studying the ruling and isn't certain that construction must stop. And Richmond's city attorney said the city is awaiting clarification from the judge.
"I presume there will be a further order from the court that addresses that issue," City Attorney Randy Riddle said.
Critics say the project will allow Chevron to process heavier grades of crude oil, containing higher levels of toxins such as mercury, that could increase air pollution.
Chevron insists that the refinery will still use the same types of crude oil that it does now. Once the four-year upgrade is finished, however, the refinery will be able to process larger amounts of the heavier grades of crude already used there, Comey said.
But that distinction wasn't clear in the project's environmental report, Zuniga wrote in her decision released Friday. The report "is unclear and inconsistent as to whether (the) project will or will not enable Chevron to process a heavier crude slate than it is currently processing," she wrote. As a result, the report does not adequately assess the project's effects on the environment and "fails as an informational document," she wrote.
At a glance
What happened: A Contra Costa County Superior Court judge threw out a key environmental report on Chevron's project to revamp its Richmond oil refinery.
What it means: The decision throws the project into doubt. Opponents say must Chevron stop and dismantle any construction built so far. The company says it isn't sure construction must stop.
What's next: Richmond's city attorney expects a clarification from the judge.
E-mail David R. Baker at email@example.com.