Chevron plays a major role in the politics and the economy of the city of Richmond. But that relationship is anything but harmonious, as an audience at the UC Berkeley School of Law heard on Wednesday.
Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia and oil and energy policy analyst Antonia Juhasz described the long history of conflict and cooperation between the third-largest revenue-earning corporation in the country and the Richmond community.
“There’s always been a love-hate relationship between the city and Chevron,” said Gioia.
There are people in Richmond who are unwaveringly skeptical of Chevron for its environmental impact, he said. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are people who think the jobs and tax benefits of the refinery outweigh any costs. But most people are somewhere in the middle, he said.
“The vast majority are skeptical of Chevron, but believe it provides benefits that exceed the costs,” he said.
But the group sympathetic to having an oil refinery in town has been shrinking in recent years, Gioia added.
“Public support is at an all-time low.”
Last month, Chevron pleaded no contest in a criminal lawsuit brought by the county and the attorney general to six counts, including failure to perform needed repairs on equipment and for negligent emissions.
The $2 million fine was hardly a penalty for the company which made $26 billion in profits last year, Juhasz said, who has written extensively on the impact and operations of major oil companies.
“In California, Chevron is the most powerful player,” she said. “The cost-benefit analysis of the company ends up being to break the law.”
Several factors have contributed to the decline in the public support for Chevron. First, there have been an increasing number accidents at the refinery, the most severe incident being last year’s fire on August 6. Another factor is that fewer Richmond residents are working at the refinery. According to Gioia, the last time a refinery manager lived in Richmond was in the 1970’s.
A rising community awareness of the environmental impact of greenhouse gases has also prompted more criticism of the refinery. Over the past few years, Chevron has increased its influence over local politics, Gioia said. The company is now the largest funder of political candidates’ campaigns in Richmond, he said.
“I think that’s also created a lot of skepticism of the company,” he said.
Chevron was asked to provide a representative on the panel, but the company declined, said Boalt Lecturer Jamie O’Connell, the event’s moderator. The Richmond Chamber of Commerce and the Western States Petroleum Association also declined to participate, he said.
According to Chevron’s website, the company is committed to increasing local hiring at the refinery by 50 percent over the next five years.
The lawsuit brought by residents in response to last year’s fire may not pay handsomely to the individuals, but it is creating pubic awareness, Juhasz said. Many local groups, including Communities for a Better Environment, are also creating dialogues and partnerships in the city to work towards holding Chevron accountable, she said.
Communities for a Better Environment is hosting a “Community Update: Chevron Fire One Year Later” event tonight to discuss the response to the fire, what else should be done to hold Chevron accountable and how to make Richmond a healthy community. The event will be held from 6:30-8 p.m at the Bobby Bowens Progressive Center at 1021 MacDonald Avenue.