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Environment Matters: Chevron: Invest in Richmond's Future

New America Media, Commentary, Jeff Ritterman Posted: Jul 19, 2009

Editor's Note: On July 2, a Contra Costa Superior Court judge ordered construction stopped on a massive expansion of the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif. citing unmet environmental concerns. As a result, the oil giant has laid off 1,000 workers and has cut payments to community groups that run job training, school and other programs. In this New America Media commentary, Richmond City Council Member Jeff Ritterman writes the crisis created by the judges ruling demonstrates the need to change the basics of Americas economy.

By accident of our geography and our history, Richmond finds itself in the middle of two intersecting crises, one environmental and the other economic. The environmental questions raised by the Chevron expansion project are right at the heart of the global warming crisis, a crisis which threatens humanitys future. This is compounded by our economic challenges, which are the worst since the great depression. To address this two-headed monster, we need a national mobilization as intense as the home front effort during World War II. That mobilization made Richmond the city it is today.
Jeff RittermanRichmond City Councilmember
Jeff Ritterman

One of our most pressing tasks as a civilization is to transition from fossil fuel use to renewable energy use. It would be foolhardy to expect giant oil companies to lead this transition. Therefore, it is the responsibility of civil society to do so. There has been frighteningly little leadership provided on a national level to guide this necessary transition.

If we are to take climate change seriously, the worlds experts have warned us to phase out coal. A similar question concerns oil. How heavy, how full of heavy metals, how sour with sulfur should the crude oil we refine be? The more contaminants and the heavier the crude, the more likely our air suffers. Clearly, we dont want Canadian Tar sands, the most polluting of the crude alternatives, to be refined in Richmond. In fact, our human future may depend on the tar sands not being refined at all. Chevron has significant investments in tar sands. This by itself raises serious doubts about whether Chevrons corporate vision is in keeping with the requirements of a sustainable future.

In our present situation, the judge has ruled that neither the level of crude to be processed nor the effects of the county-wide hydrogen pipeline were adequately addressed in the Environmental Impact Report. Chevron has stated that they have no intention of refining heavy crude, only crude with higher sulfur content. One hopes that if that is true, Chevron and the plaintiffs can find the common ground needed for a settlement.

The present economic crisis is the end result of a generation of redistributing income and wealth from the bottom and middle up to the very top. We used to be a middle-class country. No longer. We are now the most unequal of the developed countries in terms of income distribution. Part of this maldistribution has included an enormous growth of corporate wealth. California corporations paid more in income tax during Reagans time than they do today. This rising inequality is at the core of most of our social ills. There is no way forward without reversing it. The weakened position in which unions find themselves today has been part of this movement toward more inequality.

The history of the discussions concerning the refinery expansion began with a possible alliance between community members, the environmental community and the building trades. Decisions by the national union leadership pre-empted that alliance from going further. One wonders where we would be now if that was allowed to flourish.

The present encouragement of hostility and strife between the workers and the plaintiffs obscures that history. The understandable anger of the workers who have lost their jobs is being misdirected at community members trying to protect their kids from spending a night in the ER from an asthma attack. All are victims of a process mishandled. Labors decision to join with Chevron and to pressure the plaintiffs, is regrettable. One wonders how far we could go if labor and the plaintiffs would band together.

We need a win-win-win situation. We are in a terrible recession with serious job loss. Chevron is the largest corporation in California. Corporations have been making record profits and paying extremely low taxes. California is the only oil producing state without an oil extraction tax.

Its time for Chevron to find common ground with the plaintiffs and not foster divisions between workers and the community. It hurts us all in the long run. What if the state of Richmond became a higher corporate priority? There is no better way for Chevron to improve its image than to invest in Richmonds future.

We can only solve the environmental and economic crises by joining together community members and workers in a common understanding and a common struggle to make America once again a middle-class country where a workers salary can provide a decent living for a family. This will not happen without a significant change in corporate behavior. We can begin that process right now, here in Richmond. It is our only hope. It is the worlds only hope.

Dr. Jeff Ritterman is a member of the Richmond City Council and a cardiologist.

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