Local meeting examines a possible future without Chevron

By Robert Rogers
Sunday, February 21, 2010

 

City leaders said the time has come to plan for a future without the company that has dominated the local economy for more than a century.

A future without Chevron, the city’s largest taxpayer and employer, was a reverberating theme at a community meeting Friday night held by the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a local activist group. About 50 people attended the meeting, which featured Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Councilman Tom Butt, and author Antonia Juhasz.

“Regardless of whether Chevron stays or leaves, the main thing is that we are an independent agency as a city, as a municipality,” said McLaughlin, a frequent critic of Chevron and the only Green Party mayor of a U.S. city of more than 100,000 people. “We are not under the domination of Chevron or any corporation and we cannot go back into that kind of thinking.”

During her short remarks, McLaughlin alternately compared the relationship between the city and the corporation to the “Stockholm Syndrome” and an abusive marriage.

But the city would no longer be a victim, McLaughlin said.

“They can co-exist with us if they pay their fair share of taxes and if they use the highest state of the art pollution controls,” McLaughlin said.

The featured speaker was Juhasz, an author and activist with expertise in petrol energy. Her most recent book, 2008’s “Tyranny of Oil: The world’s most powerful industry – and what we must do to stop it,” received rave reviews from leading critics.

Juhasz painted a grim picture of the multinational oil corporation, accusing it of flexing its legal and political power to pursue profitable – but environmentally devastating – operations spanning the globe.

The planned upgrades to the local refinery were the latest example, Juhasz said. She noted that Chevron has been documented as being the largest greenhouse gas producer in the state.

“The retooling that Chevron would like to do, which is the source of so much controversy, would significantly increase those greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention toxic pollutants,” Juhasz said.

Still, Juhasz said she believes the Richmond refinery, one of more than a dozen Chevron operates in the U.S., would not be selected for closure.

“If (Chevron) does close a U.S. refinery, it will probably be the one in Hawaii,” Juhasz said.

In January, the Contra Costa Times’ business editor declared that he expects Chevron to announce plans to close the refinery during a strategy unveiling in March.

Last year, Chevron was forced to halt work on a nearly $1 billion project to upgrade the refinery to allow for processing of a larger range of oil products when a state judge sided with environmentalists who’d filed suit. The suit alleges that an environmental impact report filed by Chevron was incomplete.

Chevron representatives have countered that the project has gone through proper channels and would generate jobs and revenue in the city.

Chevron spokespersons have been measured in their public statements since late last year, when they first publicly hinted at the possibility the refinery may close. In recent weeks, the company’s public stance has been noncommittal on the refinery’s future, but that there may be an “opportunity” for improving relations with local leaders and the public.

Public statements from Chevron’s representatives have emphasized the corporation’s 108-year relationship with the city, which was all-but-founded thanks to development by the company, then part of Standard Oil.

Chevron has also embarked on a stepped-up philanthropic program, including programs for underprivileged youth, funding more than $2 million in Richmond projects last year alone.

At the same time, company officials have attended community meetings and offered tours of the refining facility, including one that brought along a handful of leaders from the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council, in order to answer questions and clarify the company’s position.

Chevron employs about 1,200 workers at its local refinery, but for years the company has declined to specify how many of those workers are Richmond residents. Councilman Butt said he would guess only about 5 percent of employees at the local refinery live in Richmond.

Butt criticized the corporation, saying that Chevron “doesn’t have a heart” and exists solely to make money, which he said was “what business is about.”

“But, I also have a job, as a Richmond city councilmember,” Butt said. “My job is to get as much money as I can out of Chevron while they’re here, and to try to protect the safety and the welfare and the health of people who live in Richmond.”

Butt did acknowledge the possibility that Chevron will shutter its local refinery, the largest on the West Coast and the source of nearly half the city’s tax receipts, but said that decision would be unaffected by local politics.

“Whatever Chevron does is going to be a product of their internal economic and strategic planning,” Butt said. “They’re not going to do it because people in Richmond try to get too much taxes out of them. That has nothing to do with it, absolutely nothing.”

Butt said other possibilities include Chevron downsizing its local operations, which would also have significant public policy implications.

As Butt spoke, he drifted noticeably toward not only the likelihood that Chevron would leave, but the potential long-term benefits.

“My gut feeling is,” Butt said before a lengthy pause, “it may happen.”

Butt added again that it would not be because of local politics, but due to weakened global demand for petrol products.

By the end of his remarks, with the virtually unified crowd’s encouragement, Butt was ticking off a litany of possible benefits from the loss of the city’s largest taxpayer. They included: “no more (air pollution) sirens,” a new influx of residents to a newly-opened up “waterfront community,” and a cleaner and more diversified local economy.

He said the Feb. 23 City Council meeting would include a preliminary study session on planning for the possibility of Chevron’s departure.

Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a consistent Chevron critic, also attended the event.

Residents in attendance ranged from wanting Chevron’s outright exodus to calling for increases in taxes and regulation.

Resident Michael Beer said the time was now for solidarity among residents to help impose restrictions on the corporation’s local practices.

“Richmond for many, many years has been in this thrall,” Beer said. “It’s like a spell that Chevron had put on the city, and (Richmond’s) beginning to wake up.”


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