Smackdown: City Hall vs. Big Oil is the 4th episode in Stepping Up podcast, which tells the stories of people who are responding in unique and unexpected ways to the daunting crisis of climate change. Perhaps the most compelling form of climate activism today is local electoral politics. With climate deniers holding the highest offices in the land, many Americans are getting involved in city and county elections, working from the ground up for a clean and carbon-free environment.
Andres Soto is one of them.
Photo by Michael Moore
Smackdown takes us to Richmond California, a mid-sized American city with a large Latino and Black working class population. At 62, Soto has spent his whole life in the Mexican American neighborhoods of Richmond and surrounding towns. His powerful build belies a sweet personality. Music is his passion and he leads his hot Latin jazz band, the Bay Breeze, on his saxophone.
But organizing for a sustainable Richmond is Soto’s mission. Working to protect the town from toxic pollution as head of the Richmond chapter of Communities for a Better Environment, he joins with residents of all races and classes. The local Chevron oil refinery looms large over this pursuit.
Established in 1905, the Chevron refinery has been in Richmond for more than 100 years. And the city has been run as a company town for most of its history, with Chevron doling out jobs and holding sway over local politics. Pollution stemming from this refinery is legendary — the facility spews particulate matter into the air and dumps waste into toxic pools. Processing 240,000 barrels of crude oil daily, it is also contributing heavily to global warming. And it is one of five big refineries hugging this piece of the East Bay shoreline.
In 2004, Andres helped establish the Richmond Progressive Alliance, or RPA. The goal was to turn city politics on its head, creating a local government that would work on issues such a police relations, housing, and education. It would also challenge Chevron’s hegemony over the town. The RPA won big that year and continued to build a strong, left-leaning government over the next ten years. 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. Bill McKibben came to town for the one-year anniversary of the explosion. Pointing to the sun he said, “Look! We’re experiencing a solar spill right now!”
By 2014, Soto was heavily involved in another fight with Chevron. The corporation was seeking approval for a “modernization” plan for the Richmond refinery. They claimed this would create jobs and ensure Chevron’s future in Richmond. However, the real point of the modernization was to re-tool the refinery, enabling it to process heavier crude oil. Soto was a clear and constant adversary to this plan, pointing to the increased greenhouse gas emissions associated with the proposal. Chevron ran a massive ad campaign, and restrictions on the plan were watered down.
As this struggle was going on, Richmond’s election races for mayor and city council were ramping up. Chevron had been losing political influence for a decade and in light of the modernization fight, they were determined to return city hall to a pro-Chevron government. Chevron spent more than 3 million dollars through their Moving Forward PAC. The election was wild with mudslinging and misrepresentation. Chevron bought up every billboard in town. They jammed the airwaves with ads. They clogged every mailbox with mailers. They created fake telephone opinion surveys that inserted distorted information about the candidates into the questions. Through it all, Soto was down in the trenches, organizing campaign volunteers to go door-to-door.
To everyone’s surprise, the RPA slate swept the election in 2014.
Yet, Chevron is still in town. And the push-pull continues. Is Chevron good for Richmond? The 25 percent of the city tax base that Chevron contributes is nothing to sneeze at. They also provide a lot of jobs. But only 5 to 7 percent of the jobs go to Richmond residents. And as the refinery continues to threaten both worker safety and community health, Soto continues grappling with these issues.
In the shadow of the Chevron refinery, Richmond is moving a sustainability plan forward. A program to bring subsidized or free solar roof top to homes and businesses, community choice aggregation allowing citizens to buy 100 percent green energy and energy upgrade rebates are some of the programs being put in place. And the 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.
Smackdown tells this tale of Richmond and Chevron through stories, scenes, and sound. We join a Toxics Tour, enter a town hall with Bernie Sanders, attend the Paris climate summit, and dance to Soto’s Bay Breeze band. We hear from a chorus of campaign workers, students at the RichmondBUILD Academy, and of course Chevron.
Hear the full story by subscribing to steppinguppodcast.org or wherever you get your podcasts. And listen to the previous Stepping Up podcast episodes, which have covered everything from climate clowns to kids fighting for our oceans.