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Richmond on the Precipice?


Richmond facing Chevron decision

Contra Costa Times

Article Launched: 03/02/2008 03:06:24 AM PST


RICHMOND STANDS on the precipice of a monumental decision.

If it OKs Chevron's $800 million to $1 billion hydrogen plant upgrades, the city could take on an unprecedented public health oversight role and collect more than $100 million for local impacts and community services.

If Richmond says no, Chevron could threaten to phase out its local refining operations, costing the city a third of its tax revenues, not to mention jobs and secondary spending at local businesses.

With so much at stake, the behind-the-scenes politicking is nonstop as all sides gear up for the project's first major public vote, set for March 20 before the city's Planning Commission.

The political moving parts in this project rival that of a handmade Swiss watch.

There has been a steady stream of visits from Richmond city staff members and council members to the office of Attorney General Jerry Brown, who vows to enforce a new state law mandating cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The city hopes to avoid what happened between Brown and Contra Costa last year, when he threatened a lawsuit over another refinery project.

Environmental justice advocates, who have a strong Richmond presence, are lobbying heavily for tightened rules and more oversight.

And unquestionably, the nine members of the Richmond City Council are key players in the negotiations.

The details will undoubtedly change but several highly placed city officials say they want Richmond to monitor, for the first time, Chevron's emissions at levels beyond those of regional air and water boards.

They are expected to demand that Chevron pay tens of millions of dollars for, among other things, public health programs, greenhouse gas reductions, the purchase of open space, worker training and insurance for people with refinery-related health problems.

They also want Chevron to contribute as a corporate citizen the equivalent of 5 percent of the project's cost -- $40 million to $50 million -- for the city's use.

What city leaders want and what they will get could end up worlds apart.

Chevron was reportedly thinking more along the lines of a $5 million contribution. The company opposes many of the demands being floated around, calling them wholly unrelated to the project's impacts.

To help navigate this political chasm, Chevron hired a powerful Contra Costa political trifecta: Consultant Eric Zell, former county supervisor Tom Powers and former county administrator Phil Batchelor.

This trio will need every ounce of their skill, charm and influence.

Chevron has few friends on the City Council and several avowed enemies, including Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. The word is she wouldn't cast a favorable vote even if Chevron offered to buy everyone in town an electric car.

The council has repeatedly voted against Chevron -- often unanimously -- in the past six years.

They forced Chevron to disclose its energy usage for purposes of paying a utility tax. They put an end to a long-standing system under which Chevron issued its own building permits and conducted its own building inspections. They rejected Chevron's development plan for Point Molate, a former naval fuel depot next door to the refinery.

City officials are also furious about Chevron's appeal of its property tax assessment, which, if granted, would force Richmond to repay the refinery an estimated $1.4 million.

It's far too early to predict the outcome in what will be a protracted process, except to say that most of the players believe any scenario will prompt the aggrieved party to seek a better deal in court.

But all this angst illustrates Richmond's conundrum: It hates having an oil refinery as its sugar daddy and Chevron doesn't much like it, either.

.Vorderbrueggen covers politics. Read political news on her blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/insidepolitics. Reach her at 925-945-4773 or lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com.