Oil refineries are under siege in Los Angeles County.

The newly assertive South Coast Air Quality Management District, responding to pressure from community and environmental activists, is taking several steps to clamp down on emissions from local refineries.

The air quality agency is ending its industry-supported cap-and-trade program and will replace it with stricter pollution control. It’s also proposing rules to limit flaring at the six major refinery operations in the county and will likely eliminate the use of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid at two of those facilities.

Now the agency is coming under increasing pressure to force a more thorough environmental review of a proposed massive merger of two refineries owned by Tesoro Corp.

Environmental and community activists said the air district’s actions are long overdue and don’t go nearly far enough.

“These are actions that should have been done decades ago,” said Julia May, senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment of Huntington Park, one of the activist groups pushing for more oil refinery regulations.

But oil industry representatives and experts said the crackdown will add costs and possibly deter new investment in the region’s aging refineries.

“No question these AQMD actions will crank up the costs for refineries to do business here over the next decade,” said David Hackett, president of Stillwater Associates, an Irvine energy industry consulting firm. “That certainly won’t be consumer friendly, though exactly how much this will raise the cost of gasoline will depend on what new regulations result from all this.”

Hackett said these actions might also prompt some refinery operators to evaluate their options, including scaling back refining or selling the operations.

“Some may conclude it’s no longer cost-effective to operate here,” he said.

Crackdown

The air quality agency began taking a more aggressive stance against refineries last year after a series of explosions, flaring incidents, and other health and safety problems, principally at ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery, which is now owned by PBF Energy of Parsippany, N.J.

A more forceful district governing board also has taken shape with the addition of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who took her seat in December. The district oversees air pollution in Orange County, and the urban portions of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

“Neighborhoods adjacent to refineries bear a disproportionate pollution burden and requiring updated technology will help mitigate some of the health and quality of life impacts nearby residents and businesses have had to bear,” Kuehl said in an email.

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