Richmond, California, is a working class town that grew up in the shadow of a Chevron refinery. The company ran both the economy – and the local government – for more than a century.
But times are changing. Climate champions have flipped city hall to their side. What happens when an oil company decides to fight back?
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Andres Soto has lived in and around Richmond all his life. And today, he is standing up to big oil. In 2004, Soto helped establish the RPA, the Richmond Progressive Alliance. The goal was to turn city politics on its head.
As the RPA started winning seats, they called for higher taxes on Chevron, stricter control of flaring and bigger punishments for industrial pollution.
In 2012, a massive explosion at the refinery sent 15,000 people to the hospital, bringing a laser focus on refinery health and safety issues. Climate activist and author Bill McKibben came to town for the one-year anniversary protest of the explosion. Pointing to the sun he said, “Look! We’re experiencing a solar spill right now!”
A couple of years later, Richmond's election races for mayor and city council were ramping up. Chevron was determined to return city hall to a pro-Chevron government. It spent a huge sum to push its slate of candidates. The election was wild with mudslinging and misrepresentation. To everyone’s surprise, the RPA slate swept the election.
But Chevron is still in town. And many feel that the city cannot thrive without the taxes and jobs they provide.
Established in 1905, Chevron has been running Richmond as a company town for most of its history, doling out the jobs and controlling the politics. Pollution stemming from this refinery is legendary, spewing particulate matter into the air and dumping waste into toxic pools. Processing 240,000 barrels of crude oil daily, it is also contributing heavily to global warming.
As head of the Richmond chapter of CBE, Citizens for a Better Environment, Soto is helping Richmond create a sustainability plan, including subsidized solar and conservation upgrades. And Richmond's mayor went to the Paris climate conference to confer with mayors world-wide on local climate action plans.
And Richmond is not alone. Mayors across the country are stepping up to design their cities for climate resilience and a green economy. “Think Globally, Vote Locally” is a good motto for our times.
Listen to Episode 4 of Stepping Up to hear the full "smackdown" story. And subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Claire Schoen is the producer of Stepping Up. She creates audio documentaries for radio and podcast.