Big Oil in Little Richmond 

Whose interests will the city council serve as it considers Chevron's latest upgrade proposal?

Page 4 of 5

Nonetheless, the auditor, who has worked for the county for thirteen years, said he's seen a noticeable change in the way that city officials interact with the oil company, and is expecting councilmembers to display surprising brawn at the upcoming meeting: "I think some of the Richmond City councilpeople want their pound of flesh next to Chevron's heart," he said.

And indeed, several councilmembers have said they would like to see Chevron contribute more money to the city. In 2007, the refinery reportedly contributed about $1 million in charitable donations to county organizations. While Butt appreciates that generosity, he said $1 million is just a "drop in the bucket," and believes the company can do better. For comparison, he noted that the much smaller Murphy Oil Corp. dedicated $50 million in college scholarships for students from its tiny hometown of El Dorado, Arkansas.

In a recent interview on NPR's Forum, Chevron representative Dean O'Hair responded to questions about Chevron's contributions to Richmond: "Could we do more? Maybe. But what needs to happen is that we do that in partnership with the city. One of the things I think we can try to help do is economic development with projects like these and maybe more." The company says that the project will contribute 1,200 construction jobs and ten permanent new positions at the refinery.

Some observers say Chevron might be able to rekindle its relationship with Richmond given the right investment of time, money, and personal attention. That kind of charm offensive is certainly within the means of a company that reported record profits of $18.7 billion in 2007. Others say that nothing can make up for putting the health of the community at risk. Most people at least agree that if the refinery is there to stay, it should install up-to-date equipment. As for Reverend Davis, he just hopes that city officials do their homework. "Don't just rubber-stamp this project," he urges the council. "Study it. Know what's going on."

But that will be easier said than done. For the city's decision-makers, wading through all the local, state, and federal environmental regulations — many of which are still new and yet to be implemented anywhere — has been a complex, time-consuming, and altogether nerve-racking experience. "There's a lot at stake, and a lot of regulatory bodies involved," said Councilwoman Viramontes. "We could end up with a lawsuit from both ends." If the city council approves the project, it not only runs the risk of lawsuits and endangering the public, but it also risks further corroborating its reputation as the company's lapdog. On the other hand, if it disapproves the project, it could marginalize the operations of the city's chief employer, benefactor, and taxpayer.

The recommendations of Ranajit Sahu will definitely carry weight with the city council, as they did with the planning commission. Sahu was Richmond's $60,000 investment in objective advice about the project. But there was one hitch. He was the only outside consultant given access to Chevron's "proprietary data." So when he presented his findings to the public and city officials — some of which flew in the face of what Karras had found — his suggestions were met with some backlash. For instance, Sahu says that most of Karras' concerns about the project's potential environmental effects are based on speculative data. "Karras' theory is that by increasing sulfur content, you would generate more acid gases, which could in turn cause more potential for shutdowns due to erosion of equipment," said Sahu. "But that presupposes that you cannot design around these issues." Karras said he won't buy any of Sahu's rebuttals until he can see Chevron's secret data, and he thinks Richmond's city council should demand the same.

Councilwoman Viramontes said she and her peers are pulling out all of the stops to sift the facts of the project by studying the most recent edition of the environmental impact report, which thanks to months of updates and revisions is now approximately the size of three hefty phone books.

Most councilmembers are hesitant to make predictions about the final vote. Mayor McLaughlin and Councilmembers Butt, Jim Rogers, and Tony Thurmond will most likely cast their votes in opposition. Butt predicts that Viramontes, Nathaniel Bates, Ludmyrna Lopez, John Marquez, and Harpreet Sandhu— known by some as the "Viramontes Five" because their agreement on major city decisions since 2006 has given them control of the council — will ultimately make the final decision on the matter. Then, he says, the decision will likely go straight from council chambers into litigation. If the council's thinking is anything like that of the planning commission — and it must be since councilmembers confirm those commissioners — then there's a good chance the council will eventually approve the project with conditions. There's also a good chance that both Chevron and community groups will respond by taking the city to court.

Still, some members are convinced that the council will come together. "I think that Chevron has managed to do the nearly impossible task of unifying the council in opposition," said Councilman Jim Rogers, who has a mixed track record when it comes to voting with or against the interests of Chevron. He said Chevron's proposal, as it currently stands, is "dead in the water, R.I.P., good riddance." Rogers believes the council reached its wits' end with Chevron when the oil company took its "leaner, meaner" attitude in recent years. "It's like any relationship," Rogers said. "If you feel like you're not getting anything out of it, you're bound to get fed up eventually."


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