How Chevron is taking over a mid-sized California city


My first big environmental battle was against Chevron. It happened more than two decades ago inside a federal courtroom in Hattiesburg, Miss., where I was representing a machine-shop owner and his employees who’d been poisoned by the radioactive residue inside the pipes they were cleaning for Chevron and other Big Oil clients. Chevron had all the money and resources on its side, but it didn’t have the one thing it needed most: The truth.

In that Mississippi case, we gained a favorable settlement for our clients — but in the aftermath I saw how the energy giants like Chevron play to win. Over the next decade, the oil industry spent millions to lobby legislators and get a more favorable regulatory environment, so that it wouldn’t have to face the full consequences for years of radioactive pollution across the Deep South. It’s a story — Big Oil simply changing the rules instead of abiding by them — that we’ve seen again and again.

But even so, what Chevron is currently pulling off in the northern California industrial city of Richmond is truly unprecedented. After generating a harsh community backlash from the oil refinery that it operates there, Chevron is spending millions of dollars…not to upgrade the plant but to take over Richmond’s city government and its media.

Here’s the backstory. In 2012, a massive fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond sent an astonishing 15,000 people to seek treatment at area hospitals, many of them for respiratory problems. It was the worst environmental mishap at the site, but it was far from the only one. In the 2012 fire, Chevron was ultimately fined $2 million and admitted to equipment and maintenance failures. Shortly after that, the city of Richmond filed a lawsuit against Chevron, claiming a long history of pollution. The city cited 14 separate incidents when toxic gas had been released into the community.

What happened next is truly astounding:

Harriet Rowan, a first-year student at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, is an intrepid reporter at the website Richmond Confidential, created by UC/Berkeley to train its journalism students and offer in-depth coverage of Richmond not provided by Bay Area mainstream media. On October 10, Rowan reported, “Chevron has funneled $3 million into a trio of campaign committees to influence the Nov. 4 Richmond city election, including a nearly $1.3 million contribution on Aug. 8, according to newly-filed campaign documents.”

The committees, each a variation of Chevron’s “Moving Forward” campaign, spent about $1.3 million on the Richmond mayoral and city council races as of the end of September, much of it on attack ads targeting local officials who are critical of Chevron’s massive local refinery.

“Moving Forward” describes itself as “a coalition of labor unions, small businesses, public safety and firefighters associations. Major funding by Chevron” – “Major,” as in 99.7 percent of the money, according to Harriet Rowan. Moving Forward was created after the 2012 fire to advance the oil company’s political interests in Richmond and this year has especially targeted for attack three city council candidates, including Gayle McLaughlin, who cannot run for re-election as mayor but is seeking a council seat.

The assault also has come from a Chevron-funded website called the Richmond Standard, described by Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik as “purporting to be a news portal for residents of Richmond,” but in reality run by “an employee of Chevron’s PR firm named Mike Aldax.” What’s more, voters allegedly have been subjected to massive “push polling” – that is, telephoned attacks on candidates thinly disguised as opinion surveys. Author, activist and Richmond resident Steve Early writes that one such pollster told him — among other slurs posed as survey questions — that Gayle McLaughlin and fellow council candidate Eduardo Martinez were part of “a group of radicals out of touch with Richmond voters.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Hiltzik estimates that given the dollars being spread around, “Chevron is preparing to spend at least $33 for the vote of every resident of the city 18 or older.”

 In other words, this is exact the type of environment that many of us feared after the U.S. Supreme Court made its landmark Citizens United ruling in 2010 — a world where the multimillion-dollar influence of large multinational corporations has destroyed the antiquated notion of “one person, one vote.” Of course, the notion that candidates for office — and, as a result — government — can be sold to the highest bidder is nothing new, especially if, like me, you’ve come of age in the political swamps of a place like Louisiana. But what is new — and even more chilling — is the raw amount that these corporations can now spend.

What is also new is the vacuum of 21st Century journalism — which has destroyed the business model of tough, independent reporting and has become a void that corporate players like Chevron are now racing to fill. This is a dangerous new twist in the game — the idea that everyday citizens not only aren’t getting honest elections but now even their local news is no longer on the up-and-up. I applaud the rise of new independent voices like the Richmond Confidential cited in this story — but that won’t be enough. America needs new campaign laws — including overturning, by constitutional amendment if necessary, the ideas that money equals free speech and that corporations have all the rights of human beings. Otherwise, Richmond, California, won’t be the last city to get bought — lock, stock and barrel — by Bil Oil.

Read more about Chevron’s influence buying in Richmond, Calif., here:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

Add comment

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This