As clean-energy advocates begin to imagine a world without the Suncor Energy oil refinery north of Denver, the Canadian fossil fuel giant is pushing back.
In a presentation to the Commerce City Council on Monday, August 5, Donald Austin, vice president of the refinery, defended his company’s track record on air-pollution issues and community engagement, touting the investments it has made in the plant to make its fuel products cleaner and reduce emissions of hazardous pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides.
“The majority of these are about environmental improvements, reducing the footprint of the refinery,” explained Austin, who said the company had invested nearly $1 billion in such efforts since 2005. “We still have work to do. We’re not perfect. We’ll continue on this journey of continuous improvement. We want to get better for our neighbors here.”
Located just a few miles from central Denver, the Suncor refinery is one of the largest sources of air pollution in Colorado, spewing a chemical cocktail of ozone precursors, particulate matter and even toxins like hydrogen cyanide gas into the air near neighborhoods like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea — low-income, predominantly Latino communities that have dealt with a long history of industrial pollution. A 2017 study ranked the zip code just south of the Suncor plant as the most polluted in the country.
To many residents of these fenceline communities, which still experience elevated rates of asthma and other chronic health conditions, Suncor’s presence is a continuation of that legacy. But Austin said that the company is engaging with the state’s Regional Air Quality Council to develop strategies for emissions reductions, and promised to continue working with state and local officials in the future.
“I think you could say we’ve grown up together,” said Austin of the city and the refinery, which first opened in 1931. “We’ve learned to work together over the years, and there are many more years I’m sure we’ll work together to make this better for Commerce City.”
The long-term outlook for oil refineries like the Suncor facility, however, is becoming less and less clear, and not just because of local pollution issues. Global efforts to reduce the emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases have increasingly targeted the transportation sector, and demand for the fuel products pumped out by the world’s oil supply chain may soon begin to decline. The United Kingdom, France and at least a dozen other countries have announced bans on new gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles that will go into effect by 2040 or sooner; clean-energy experts, including officials in Colorado, stress that the world’s entire light-duty vehicle fleet must transition to electric and battery power in roughly the next twenty years, if governments hope to meet their climate goals.
Some activists want Colorado to help accelerate that transition by working to close the Suncor refinery altogether. In recent months, environmental groups including Friends of the Earth and 350 Metro Denver have canvassed impacted neighborhoods in north Denver in support of shuttering the facility, and they plan to deliver a petition to state lawmakers, demanding that they “choose a side.”
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“Unless the Suncor refinery is shut down, it will emit dangerous gases which harm people and impede the rest of the world’s ability to manage a climate-safe, equitable decline of oil and gas production,” reads the petition. “It’s time for our elected officials who represent us to take a stand: Choose a clean, fossil free future with a Green New Deal and shut down the toxic Suncor refinery.”
With the Front Range experiencing another summer of high ozone levels and unhealthy air quality, there has been no shortage of scrutiny of Suncor’s operations. The environmental group WildEarth Guardians last month published documentation of the 88 separate malfunctions, leaks and other incidents that the facility had reported to state regulators between January and July of this year. The Denver Post reported in May that Suncor’s hydrogen cyanide emissions had exceeded the limit allowed by its state air-quality permit — a limit that the company had been allowed to set for itself, thanks to a loophole that Representative Diana DeGette, who represents communities impacted by Suncor pollution, has introduced federal legislation to close.
During his presentation Monday, Austin maintained that the refinery’s emissions of hydrogen cyanide are far below concentrations that could pose health risks to nearby residents, and said that Suncor would continue to work with officials in the region to reduce ozone levels, which are currently out of compliance with federal air-quality standards.
“We’re looking at ways of bringing that down,” he told councilmembers. “We’re looking at changing fuel specifications, looking at the options. Suncor is part of that process. We believe we have a part to play here. We want to play it.”