For many organizations concerned about the environment and the impact of global warming on their communities, last week’s mid-term election results were a disappointment.
Organizations like NextGen Climate Action spent millions of dollars in an effort to combat candidates it felt wouldn’t take action on climate change. The League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club also went to the mat and lost in a number of states, including Oklahoma, where victor Sen. James Inhofe has called climate change a hoax. In Florida, a state literally divided by climate change impact and an election that had Gov. Rick Scott in a tie with challenger Charlie Crist, environmentalists lost as well.
One surprising bright spot for environmentalists, however, was Richmond California, where voters turned down the heavily financed appeals of their neighbor Chevron Oil and elected the well-known Democrat Tom Butt as mayor. His overwhelming win over Republican Nat Bates is the result of a trend that has reshaped Richmond’s image in recent years. Initiatives like banning petroleum-based plastic bags and creating bike lanes and green city concepts were all part of a platform that spoke to Richmond voters.
Of course, Butt wasn’t the only pro-environmental candidate to win. Former Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Eduardo Martinez and Jovanka Beckles also won seats on the council.
The Chevron refinery fire of 2012 helped turn voter momentum and bring national attention to Richmond, which has served as a refinery town for decades. Climate justice activists have long criticized conditions in neighborhoods in Contra Costa County, where there have been more than 30 industrial accidents in the past 25 years. Anyone who has driven through the area since the 1950s or so might remember it more for its dominating plumes of steam, smoke and pollution than its historic neighborhood communities. That ambiance is now changing as Richmond reconfigures its vision to become part of the dynamic Silicone Valley.
Still, Richmond’s new mayor is no stranger to controversy. In 2006 he made headlines by criticizing the city’s ongoing infrastructure problems, an issue that led to raw sewage overflowing onto the streets and a lawsuit filed by the environmental group San Francisco Baykeeper. The city was eventually forced to upgrade its sewage system. He was also the catalyst in an effort to link Richmond to San Francisco’s popular Bay Trail Link.
Butt won the election by more than 15 points, and cost Chevron more than $3 million in lobbying dollars. His campaign, like those of South Florida’s brash coastal communities, sent a clear message that climate change may be part of their future — but it doesn’t mean their residents won’t try to stop its advance.
Whether Standard Oil, Chevron’s parent company, is ready to make that switch is another thing, of course. In March of this year, the Chevron plant released a report that stated it had been approved for a modernization project that would increase pollution at some periods of construction and “would allow the facility to process crude and gas oils containing higher concentrations of sulfur, which could result in increased emissions of sulfur-related compounds and TACs (toxic air contaminants).”
It is unknown at this time what this new city council shakeup will mean to Chevron’s future plans, but the fact that the company invested heavily in a small-city mayoral election (that it lost) might suggest discussions about increased production and potential pollution aren’t necessarily over. An ongoing court case being heard by the California Supreme Court could determine whether the Bay Area Air Quality Management District can set thresholds for greenhouse gases. That outcome could affect Chevron’s TAC output. Either way, Chevron’s plumes seem to be in the way of Richmond voters and their changing vision for the city.
Richmond refinery: Sharon Hahn Darlin