Chevron spent $3 million to elect a city government in Richmond that would show proper respect for the company and its sprawling oil refinery, but came up short.
Despite outspending their political opponents 20-1, three Chevron-bankrolled candidates for the city council and one for mayor were defeated, giving progressives a 6-1 majority. Councilman Tom Butt was elected mayor and Jovanka Beckles, Gayle McLaughlin and Eduardo Martinez won council seats. McLaughlin is the outgoing mayor and Beckles is an incumbent.
Butt gave all the credit for his victory to Chevron. “I’ll be honest,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “When I got in this race, I wasn’t sure I could win it. But I felt I needed to give people a choice . . . and it looks like Chevron shot themselves in the foot.”
Chevron spent about $72 per registered voter in the city of 107,000, blasting out TV ads, papering neighborhoods with mailers and decorating the town with billboards. The company directed its political fire, and money, at the candidates and the Richmond Progressive Alliance through three political action committees. It also educated residents about the issues at the Richmond Standard, a company-owned “community news” PR website that looks just like a real news source.
Chevron isn’t the only large moneyed interest Richmond progressives are tangling with. Last year, the city proposed an innovative relief plan for homeowners facing possible foreclosure—using eminent domain to “refinance” troubled mortgages. That incurred the wrath of major banks, mortgage bond investors and the federal government. So far, the council has been unable to muster the necessary two-thirds support on the council or gather support from alternative financing partners to execute the plan.
Chevron has a history of aggressive political participation in the city, where it is a major employer, but amped up its activities after a 2012 refinery fire ignited a groundswell of opposition to a $1-billion expansion project. The disastrous fire blackened the sky and sent 15,000 people to hospitals with breathing problems. The fire started after a badly corroded pipe leaked.
The council ended up approving the project 5-0 over the objections of the city planning commission, which wanted Chevron to put in more pollution controls, replace its piping and contribute a quarter billion dollars to local green projects through 2050. The commission also wanted Chevron to reduce all toxic air contaminants, put domes on its storage tanks and upgrade its tug boats. The mayor and vice mayor abstained.
Chevron wants to replace a 50-year-old hydrogen plant at the 100-year-old facility with technology that would give it the ability to refine dirtier oil with higher-sulfur content. The deal caps greenhouse gas emissions by limiting how much high-sulfur oil can be processed.
Chevron denies that it will be will bring in oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, or fracked oil from North Dakota’s booming Bakken fields. Tar sands are the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet and Bakken crude is plenty filthy. Both would have the added disadvantage of arriving by rail, an ever-more-popular and dangerous prospect as fracking operations expand in the West.