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Jan Lee headshot

Richmond Sues Its Hometown Oil Refinery for Global Warming Impacts

By Jan Lee

Richmond, Calif., which has long been home to one of Chevron Oil's biggest oil refineries, is joining the fight against Big Oil. On Jan. 22 the city announced it was suing 29 oil and gas companies, including Chevron, for climate impacts it is expected to sustain in coming years.

The suit is the 10th of its kind to be levied against fossil fuel companies, including the indigenous community of Kivalina, Alaska which launched the first litigation in 2008.

Earlier this year, New York City announced it was suing the world's five biggest oil and gas companies in order to "shift the costs of protecting the City from climate change impacts" on to those it feels is most responsible for "this existential threat."

The substance of Richmond's complaint is similar to many of its predecessors' claims. It alleges that the oil, gas and coal companies had foreknowledge that their products were causing global warming and took insufficient action to stop or avoid the injuries, which included the sea level rise that is now attributed to global warming.

The "[defendants], and each of them, by their affirmative acts and omissions, have created, contributed to, and assisted in creating, conditions in the City of Richmond, and permitted those conditions to persist, which constitute a nuisance by, inter alia, increasing local sea level, and associated flooding, inundation, erosion, and other impacts within the City," say the litigants.

Richmond is surrounded by water on three sides, which raises its vulnerability to sea level rise, the plaintiffs say.

“With 32 miles of shoreline, more than any other city on San Francisco Bay, Richmond is at extreme risk from sea level rise. We have two rail lines, 3,000 acres of public waterfront parks, vulnerable neighborhoods, two wastewater treatment plants, and a refinery, all subject to inundation," said Richmond Mayor Tom Butt in a recent press release. The mayor, who was elected to office in 2014, said rising water levels are already impeding long-range planning efforts for the city.

Chevron's refinery, located at the northwest end of Richmond, is the municipality's largest employer, with roughly 1,200 refinery workers. According to the Pacific Institute, about 10 percent of the city's revenue, or $25 million came from Chevron's taxes in 2007. The refinery has been located within the city for more than a century.

Relations between Chevron and local governments have been at best, difficult in recent years. A refinery fire in 2012 and long-term disputes between the company, the city of Richmond and the county of Contra Costa over tax assessments have led to several lawsuits.

In 2014 the city issued approval for Chevron to finish its $1 billion upgrades on the plant that would provide a cap on greenhouse gases but would also allow the plant to process dirtier crude oil. In return Chevron agreed to commit $90 million to community improvements, including internet accessibility and other initiatives that would benefit local residents. Some of Chevron's upgrades will complement the city's Climate Action Plan, which it launched in 2016 in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. Others, including the company's decision to expand its processing capabilities have been viewed by critics as being out of sync with the state's effort to turn toward cleaner energy options.

Still, it will be interesting to see how Richmond's suit is viewed in the courts. Can a city that has benefited from the commercial endeavors of its hometown oil refinery for more than a century sue for damages from high carbon emissions, their trespass and nuisance violations? And why, with years of data concerning the plant's carbon emissions, did the city wait so long?

As cities, counties and states line up to sue for redress, there's liable to be more questions before there will be answers in how global warming and its economic impacts should be addressed.

Flickr image: Sharon Hahn Darlin



Jan Lee headshot

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.

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