Times they are a-changin'. The unprecedented win by progressive candidate Tom Butt in the 2014 Richmond, California mayoral elections signaled a new, more determined outlook in the city that holds Chevron's largest oil refinery.
Environmental groups, accusing the oil company of soaking the 2014 city elections with some $3 million in funding, are calling for Chevron to stop committing its money to local, state and federal elections. And to drive home the point, Sierra Club, Green Century Funds, local politicians and activists are backing a shareholder resolution to prevent the corporation from making political contributions.
"Chevron flooded our democracy with millions of dollars in 2014, but Richmond voters saw through their attempt to buy our elections and the progressives candidates triumphed," said council member and former Richmond mayor Gayle Mclaughlin."
Chevron's political contributions to Richmond elections were only a small part of the money it spent on political contributions in 2014. According to its federal corporate political contributions filing for that year, it contributed almost $10 million to public and private organizations and political representatives (and another $9 million in lobbying expenses).
Those contributions include almost $3 million in contributions to the lobbying organization Californians for Energy Independence, which has been known to have its own paid lobbyists doing grassroots campaigning. While it refers to itself as a "coalition created to educate the public about proven oil extraction technologies," critics have associated it with a broader list of organizations that have been accused in the past of promoting the lobby interests of the oil industry .
Chevron also contributed $3,096,70 to Moving Forward: A Coalition of Labor Unions, Small Businesses, Public Safety and Firefighter Associations. In 2013 the organization was investigated by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing "to clearly identify the corporation Chevron as its sponsor on numerous campaign statement filings required by the [Political Reform Act]." According to FPPC's letter to the organization, which had been redacted, Moving Forward was given a warning letter, but was not fined for the violation.
Whether shareholders and environmental organizations will be successful in changing the company's political contribution policies by convincing it to prohibit political spending is unlikely. Shareholders submitted a similar proposal in 2013 without success. The board's recommendation against adopting the proposal, which it said would "would undermine the board’s flexibility to exercise its business judgment in a manner that it reasonably believes is in Chevron’s best interests." The proposal was defeated, garnering only 26 percent of the vote.
Nevertheless, environmentalists are focused on bringing attention to Chevron's corporate contribution spending, which is only one of several environmental issues related to the Chevron Corp. this year. Its Richmond refinery "modernization" plans are still on the table, having been approved by the city of Richmond only months before the mayoral elections. Those opposed are afraid it will add more pollution to the area, remembering Chevron's chemical accident in 2012.
Critics have also weighed in recently on allegations that it dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into Amazon waterways in Ecuador. This issue garnered it the 2015 Public Eye Award at Davos Switzerland in January, for what the judges deemed were "irresponsible business practices." The issue, say environmentalists, has yet to be resolved.
Still, while it will be interesting to see how many percentage points this year's shareholder's resolution accrues, those calling for CEO John Watson to be "fired" are unlikely to change the company's policies when it comes to the benefits and risks of corporate contributions. As reporter Zachary Parks noted, the support that previous such proposals have claimed could be considered evidence to "the zeal of the activists behind them, not necessarily widespread and genuine shareholder interest and support." And given the fact that the oil industry is fighting to maintain its prominence against the increasing push for renewable energy and concerns about climate change, cutting off its political contribution account could be akin to cutting off its foot.
Image of earlier environmental protest in Richmond, Aug. 2009: planet a.
Image of Chevron's Richmond refinery: Shayan (USA)
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.