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SF Chronicle Blasts Chevron Project

Mayor aside, Richmond no match for Chevron

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Richmond Planning Commission will likely approve Chevron Oil Co.'s expansion plan this week but without one lone vote - Mayor Gayle McLaughlin.

On Saturday, McLaughlin, the city's Green Party mayor, spoke to a group of about 300 demonstrators gathered at a Point Richmond park before they marched to the front gates of the oil refinery on the city's waterfront. Once there, they railed against what they call the company's war-profiteering policy, capitalizing on the suffering caused by the United States' invasion of Iraq.

"It's time to clear the smoke of lies, the smoke of pollution and the smoke of war," McLaughlin told the crowd.

Perhaps that speech should have been delivered to members of her own city staff, who have recommended approving the oil company's environmental impact report with only minor conditions. The vote on the company's conditional use permit is scheduled for Thursday night's meeting of the planning commission.

If the permit is approved, McLaughlin said she expects it to be appealed by at least one of its opponents to the Richmond City Council.

It hardly seemed to matter to the Planning Commission that city staff's recommendation contradicted the analysis proffered in a letter from state Attorney General Jerry Brown dated March 6 and sent to Chevron Oil officials. Brown warned that the project's environmental impact plan provided no mitigation for nearly 900,000 metric tons of additional greenhouse gases that would be emitted into the atmosphere as a result of the planned upgrade.

During his term, Brown sued the Conoco-Philips oil refinery in nearby Rodeo, which resulted in a settlement in which the company agreed to meet state emissions guidelines.

Nothing short of a similar action will halt Chevron's project, which would allow the refinery to process a wider array of crude oils - including dirtier crude oils that emit greater amounts of pollution into the atmosphere, another potential hazard Brown pointed out.

Brown's comments add to thousands of pages of concerns about the health dangers posed by the expansion filed during the 45-day public comment period by numerous environmental groups, doctors and citizens.

It's become evident that it's going to take at least a state agency to make sure the company adheres to environmental laws, because local government has been run over by Chevron more often than a chunk of asphalt at the Indianapolis 500.

A local demonstration, regardless of how much it may rally public sentiment, does very little when pitted against an organized, well-funded corporate opponent. While it may be McLaughlin's forte to rally public sentiment, Richmond is going to need more than that to mount any kind of legitimate challenge.

Over the years, Chevron has battled local government time and time again - and never lost. Most recently, the company squashed an attempt by Richmond city officials to raise the company's business license taxes. Separately, Chevron has also challenged a proposed property tax hike connected with the company's expansion project to the county tax appeals board, a four-member citizen body.

City Council member Tom Butt expressed disappointment Monday with city staff, which rejected a number of mitigations desired by city officials, including one provision that the company complete work on a section of the Bay Trail, a pedestrian-bike trail that runs along the waterfront from Richmond to Oakland.

"The staff has waffled and prevaricated on this for so long, and I believe the Planning Department dropped the ball," Butt said. "We're going to have a hearing three days from now, and I don't know what's going to happen."

He called city staff's recommendation to approve the environmental report the same week Brown criticized the plan inexplicable. "I don't think some officials in the city of Richmond are listening."

It's not as if Chevron officials have been sitting on their hands, Butt said.

Since the issue was raised more than a year ago, several of the trade unions that contributed time and money studying Chevron's expansion plan have dropped their opposition. A few have even endorsed the project, an about-face engineered between company lobbyists and national union representatives, Butt alleges. The oil company has also launched an e-mail campaign to Richmond businesses and residents, sending pre-written endorsements of the company's Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project and asking for signatures.

Richmond city officials have never had the resources or the resolve to stand up to a multi-billion dollar oil company, and the fight has never been more one-sided. Chevron is literally making more profits than ever - $17.5 billion in 2007 - and ramping up its Richmond facility makes good business sense.

But every big business decision made at the company's headquarters in San Ramon has a profound impact on Richmond residents and those in nearby cities.

It's for that very reason that such decisions are not the sole purview of corporate captains, board chairpersons and private enterprises.

Decisions that have a profound effect on the public require input from the public, and if the city of Richmond is incapable of providing an objective forum where such debate can be heard, it would be appropriate - and responsible - for Brown, or some state agency, to represent the public interest in this case.

Chip Johnson's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail him at chjohnson@sfchronicle.com.


This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle