Suncor’s Outdated Air Pollution Permit Is Up For Renewal. Here’s What’s At Stake

April 30, 2021
Suncor Refinery Ean Thomas Tafoya Green LatinosSuncor Refinery Ean Thomas Tafoya Green LatinosHart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Suncor refinery in Commerce City on Thursday, July 16, 2020.

Over the next few days, environmental justice advocates plan to pack a pair of virtual meetings concerning Suncor Energy, which operates Colorado’s only oil and gas refinery in Commerce City. 

The question is whether state air regulators should grant the company draft permit to operate its main refinery unit. 

“This is basically like a driver’s license,” said Jeremey Nichols, head of the climate and energy program for WildEarth Guardians, an environmental advocacy group. “It basically allows Suncor to be behind the wheel of this large source of air pollution.” 

For many advocates like Nichols, the public hearings on May 1 and May 4 are an overdue reckoning for the Canadian oil and gas company. Air regulators have allowed Suncor to operate on expired permits for years. Over the same period, malfunctions have sent clouds of orange smoke and ash over the largely Latinx neighborhood near the facility, sometimes forcing residents to take shelter at their homes. 

Those permit violations have turned the refinery into a symbol of environmental injustice. 

Lucy Molina, a Commerce City resident and frequent Suncor critic, has spent the last few days knocking on doors in neighborhoods near the refinery, asking people to testify. She said many people plan to send a clear message to air regulators: Deny Suncor’s draft permits outright. 

“We’ve been poisoned for too long. We’ve been exploited for too long. It’s time to give this community a break,” Molina said. 

Suncor has also prepared for the re-permitting process. The company recently released an improvement plan it hopes will help avoid future pollution violations and rebuild trust within the community. 

Given all the moving pieces, here are some answers to common questions about what’s coming next. 

Why is the refinery in such a populated area? 

Historical records show the oil refinery dates back to the 1940s. The facility at the junction of the Sand Creek and the South Platte River grew alongside Commerce City and neighborhoods in north Denver. Those facilities eventually developed into a pair of refineries owned by ConocoPhillips and Valero Energy Corp. 

Suncor purchased both sites in 2003 and 2005. The population of Commerce City has grown substantially since then, but most of the new housing is in the northern parts of the community, far from the Suncor refinery. Just south of the facility, chic apartments and restaurants in the RiNo arts district have popped up along Brighton Boulevard in Denver

That doesn’t mean the facility has only recently become a concern to its neighbors. In 1978, an explosion at the Conoco refinery sent a 500-foot fireball into the sky, according to newspaper reports at the time. Three people died and more than 40 homes and businesses were damaged. 

What is currently happening at the Suncor facility? 

The Suncor facility is now the only major petroleum refinery in Colorado. 

According to state documents, it’s a major supplier of gasoline and diesel fuel in the state, along with almost all of the jet fuel for Denver International Airport. The refinery also supplies most of the asphalt in Colorado. 

What is going to be considered at the upcoming public hearings? 

The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission is planning to hear testimony on a draft permit from the Air Pollution Control Division.

To break down the players, the air quality commission is a nine-member panel appointed by the governor. It oversees the air pollution division, which contains technical staff and enforcement officials. While the panel will hear and record comments, the air pollution division both writes the draft permit and decides whether or not to issue it. 

If the division approves, Suncor would be licensed to operate its main oil process unit, known at Plant 2, for another five years. The state does not expect to consider permits for other parts of the facility until a later date. 

Wait, didn’t Suncor’s existing permits expire a while ago? 

Yes.

Under Title V of the federal Clean Air Act, operating permits for large pollution sources should be renewed every five years. The deadline for the Plant 2 permit passed in 2011, but state air regulators have allowed Suncor to continue operating the unit under the expired permit. Other permits for the facility expired in 2017. 

According to state documents, the original permit did not expire since the company submitted an application for a new permit by the "appropriate deadline." The state is obligated to consider the new application while the old permit serves as a placeholder. The extended timeframe is necessary “due to staff shortages” at the Air Quality Control Division.

Could Colorado deny or revoke Suncor’s operating permit? 

Yes, but state air regulators say it’s unlikely. 

In a statement, Andrew Bare, a spokesperson for the air pollution division, said regulators are obligated to issue a permit if a company meets certain application criteria and technical requirements. 

Nevertheless, if regulators did revoke Suncor’s permit, Bare said the company could choose to shut down the refinery. It could also pursue legal challenges and continue to operate the facility while the litigation moves through the court system. 

Nichols, the advocate with WildEarth Guardians, said the question isn’t complicated. In his view, regulators face a legal obligation to not to issue a permit if a company exceeds pollution limits, which he said happens on a regular basis at the Commerce City refinery. In April, the company filed eight reports including events where the Plant 2 exceeded its permitted emission limits. If a permit can’t be issued to assure compliance, it shouldn’t be approved. 

“At the end of the day, it’s supposed to be a black and white issue,” Nichols said. 

Will Suncor’s improvement plan be part of the new permit? 

Potentially. Advocates say the new permit could be one way to hold Suncor to its promises. 

Last year, Suncor agreed to a $9 million settlement after a string of air pollution violations, including releasing ash that fell on surrounding neighborhoods that forced schools into lockdown. The agreement required a third-party investigation into the main causes behind the repeated pollution violations and recommended changers. 

Suncor ended up paying Kearney, a private consulting company, to complete the investigation. It found the facility “is designed to meet environmental permits and is adequately funded.” 

The firm also recommended multiple improvements, including an automatic shutdown system to prevent future dust releases. Suncor said it already installed one system in Plant 2 and plans similar updates for its other main refining unit.

Nichols said improvements are welcome, which is why environmental justice advocates are pushing the state to either deny the draft permit or make it more stringent. More forceful regulation could hold the company to account. In either case, he said the ultimate goal is for the company to set a date to retire the facility, just as electric utilities have come up with plans to shutter coal plants. 

“The real solution people want here is a transition. A transition away to a cleaner, healthier community and a transition away from fossil fuels,” Nichols said. 


This story has been updated to clarify the time frame of the renewal process.

Editor’s Note: Suncor is one of CPR’s financial supporters.

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