This chart, using federal data, shows how quickly PBF Energy annual lobby budget has grown in recent years
Source: The non-profit Center for Responsive Politics
The owner of the Torrance refinery spent more than $600,000 on lobbying last year, more than three times as much as it spent in 2016, according to federal records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit government watchdog.
The increase came as the public debate intensified over the plant’s continued use of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid, which the South Coast Air Quality Management District has proposed phasing out. The district’s governing board is expected to take a position on the issue in the coming weeks and PBF Energy, which owns the refinery, is lobbying hard against the proposal.
“The increase to which you refer is primarily due to the fact that we opened an office in Washington, D.C., in January 2017 to focus on federal issues,” said Michael Karlovich, PBF’s vice president of corporate communication said in an email.
Half of the eight reports generated by PBF’s lobbying last year discussed the issue of the Environmental Protection Agency’s refinery risk management plan (RMP) for hydrofluoric acid, which creates a toxic, ground-hugging gas at room temperature, the nonprofit reported.
The agency released a safety report early last year that concluded errors in the refinery’s RMP underestimated the amount of hydrofluoric acid that could be released accidentally and “there was no clear basis” for the conclusion that it could form a toxic cloud of just 3.2 miles when, in fact, it could be larger.
The report corroborated findings made by local grass-roots group the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance and came just as the Torrance City Council was set to debate a proposed resolution endorsing the phase-out of the dangerous chemical. In the end, the panel merely endorsed additional and improved safety measures at the plant, but Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and the county Board of Supervisors all have voted to support the phase-out.
PBF has fought hard against the idea, saying the cost of converting the aging refinery would be so expensive the company would likely shut it down, costing Torrance and other levels of government millions in lost tax revenue and throwing hundreds of highly paid union workers out of their jobs. PBF has mobilized its union work force to pack recent government meetings and argue against a ban.
But some financial analysts believe the company is deliberately inflating the cost of converting to a different technology and wouldn’t walk away from a plant it purchased in 2016 for an investment of tens of millions of dollars.
PBF also has publicly said that the AQMD process should be allowed to continue without the issue being politicized, but TRAA President Sally Hayati contended Friday the chart shows that PBF itself has no qualms about trying to influence government officials on the subject.
“Claims by elected officials and candidates that the AQMD process must be allowed to continue in a bubble of pure science, uncontaminated by political influence, are irresponsible and misleading,” she said. “The refining industry has aggressively, effectively, and without scruples used its resources and influence to promote profits over public safety in respect to HF.
“Community mobilization can win this battle against big oil,” Hayati added. “Our lives depend on it. Politicians who claim residents must stay uninvolved represent the interest of the refineries, not the public.”
In total, PBF spent $610,000 on lobbying expenditures last year compared to just $190,000 in 2016. As recently as 2013, the company spent just $50,000 on lobbying.
A refinery fire and explosion in February 2015 that crippled the plant, suspending oil refining and almost causing a catastrophic release of modified hydrofluoric acid federal officials said could have killed or injured thousands, ignited the debate over HF.
One financial analyst, who requested anonymity, was not surprised by PBF’s increased lobbying expenditures against the backdrop of a possible HF ban in a lucrative market for the company.
“The Torrance refinery has really struggled since the 2015 fire, but significant improvements were finally reported by PBF Energy last quarter,” he said via email. “The Torrance refinery is now a billion-dollar asset for the company and management is going to fight hard to minimize HF mitigation or phase-out costs as much as possible.”
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