Published on March 6,
Barnidge: Animus Bubbles to Surface
over Chevron Upgrade
By Tom Barnidge
Contra Costa Times columnist
EVEN IF YOU care nothing about oil refineries and have no
stake in the community, there is something strangely compelling
about the infighting over Chevron's proposed $1 billion upgrade
to its Richmond plant.
The bare-knuckles brawl that awaits a verdict is stunningly
similar to what's happening on the larger political stage.
Accusations, distrust and strident positions — sounds like
Congress, doesn't it? — have characterized the relationship
between opposing interests.
For the moment, the project rests in limbo, awaiting a ruling
from a state appellate court on the heels of a lawsuit filed
by environmental groups. Potentially at risk is a $61 million
community benefits package that Chevron promised as part of
the deal, perhaps the future of the plant, some $35 million
in taxes it annually pays into the general fund and several
Apart from that, not much is at stake.
The amusing part is all the finger-pointing.
City Council members, deeply divided over an environmental
impact report they certified by a 5-4 vote, remain critical
of one another's judgment. Those in favor wonder how their
peers could vote against a project that benefits the community
and creates jobs. Those opposed gloat that they knew the report
was flawed, and that's why it was challenged in court.
Chevron officials question why the environmental groups —
Communities for a Better Environment, Asian Pacific Environmental
Network and West County Toxics Coalition — would forestall
an upgrade to an operation that, by definition, is subject
to heavy federal and local emission regulations.
Environmentalists insist that Chevron pulled a fast one, making
unannounced plans to refine heavier crude oil that would worsen
So many issues, so much animus. Where to begin?
Councilman Nate Bates aims his furor primarily at Mayor Gayle
McLaughlin. If she had reached out to Chevron and smoothed
the way for a mutually acceptable project, he said, at least
1,000 unemployed tradesmen would have work and the city would
have a $61 million windfall earmarked for the police and fire
departments, medical facilities and nonprofit organizations.
"She is anti-Chevron," he said. "She's into the green business
approach and thinks they can't coexist. People are suffering,
they need jobs, and this lady stands in the way of progress."
McLaughlin responds that Chevron has ridden roughshod over
the City Council for too long: "They need to pay their fair
share and respect the community by reducing pollution." [emphasis
Bates might be right about the anti-Chevron thing.
The most perplexing aspect of the story — a core sample of
bureaucracy at work — is that the project has been under review
for nearly four years.
Three independent environmental consultants signed off on
the upgrade, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District gave
its conditional blessing and the public was invited to react
to the EIR before council members voted. And still nothing
has been accomplished.
What brought environmentalists and their lawyers into the
fray was the report's failure to address the potential ramifications
of refining heavier crude.
Chevron spokesman Brent Tippen says Chevron has no plans to
refine heavy crude. But even if those plans changed, government
regulations regarding emissions would remain just as stringent,
so what's the issue?
"It's not what goes into the refinery that matters," he said, "it's
what comes out. The Richmond refinery emissions are heavily
regulated by the Air Quality Management District."
That was Councilman Tom Butt's cue to toss another log on
He described the district as a weak organization, "with a
long history of tending to side with the polluters, not with
the communities impacted by the pollution."
Further, he said, he doesn't believe it possible to accurately
measure emissions, a conclusion that came as a surprise to
the Air Quality Management District, which assigns a full-time
staff member to do nothing but monitor the Chevron refinery.
Let Brian Bateman, director of engineering for the district,
explain: "We monitor criteria air pollutants continuously,
24/7, for things like nitrous oxide and particulate matter.
We do periodic source testing in the stacks — those are ongoing
and continuous. And we do parametric monitoring of things such
as the temperature, which have impact on emissions. We monitor
all significant pollutants."
Was he annoyed to hear the district described as "weak"?
"Councilman Butt is entitled to his opinion," Bateman said. "I'm
not going to comment further."
That makes him the exception. Everyone else is only too willing
to play kick-your-neighbor.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.