News Report, Malcolm Marshall
Chevron’s century-old Richmond refinery moved a step closer to a $1 billion upgrade following approval from the city’s councilmembers Tuesday night.
In a contentious meeting that lasted late into the night, the Richmond City Council approved the controversial upgrade to the refinery, with a 5-0-2 vote by the Council—Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles abstained from voting.
The approved project went against the city Planning Commission’s recommendations, which called for an increase in money for health and wellness programs, a greater reduction of greenhouse gases and pre 90’s pipe replacements.
It was a victory in a long fought battle for Chevron. In 2009, environmental groups stopped a previous version of the project in Contra Costa County Superior Court because of an incomplete environmental impact report.
“I feel great about it from a policy standpoint,” said councilmember Jael Myrick on Wednesday. “Once that fact was clear that this will decrease health risks for Richmond residents, then it became a no brainer to me. The project we approved last night is good for the environment.”
San Ramon based Chevron Corp. says that the upgrade will replace the refinery’s hydrogen plant with modern equipment and allow for more production of crude oil with high sulfur content.
According to Chevron’s refinery spokesperson Melissa Ritchie, “The Refinery Modernization Project will make the refinery newer, safer and cleaner. We are replacing the existing 1960s hydrogen plant with modern technology that is inherently safer, cleaner and 20 percent more energy efficient.”
Many in Richmond have fought against the modernization project, saying that it does not go far enough in reducing health risks for Richmond’s residents. Emotions were especially high in the Richmond Auditorium, during Tuesday night’s city council meeting, as more than 80 people passionately spoke before the council voted on the project that has divided the community.
“I’ve been in Richmond almost 60 years,” said Kathy Robinson. “This company does not care about this community. That’s what kind of company you have.”
But, not all who spoke were opposed to Chevron, or its proposed upgrades. “Most of us arrived here tonight driving automobiles that use fossil fuels,” Tom Waller of Hercules said. “The company produces the products that this society desires and needs. I don’t know of any community in the world that would not want to have a billion dollar project brought into its community.”
Mayor McLaughlin wrote in an email that it was at least a partial victory for the city.
“We pushed Chevron as it was never pushed before over these years up to the present and got serious concessions out of it,” wrote McLaughlin of how the proposed upgrade has changed since the company’s first proposal six years ago. “We are proud of this.”
According to Councilmember Tom Butt, the vote concludes the City Council phase of a more than three-year permit application process for Chevron.
“For me, getting there was as hard and frustrating as any political process I have ever worked on,” Butt wrote on his online e-forum. “What we did was neither a sellout nor a triumph, but I am satisfied with the outcome.”
Under the plan approved on Tuesday, Chevron will invest $90 million in local community projects over the next decade, including scholarships for students, job training programs, and grants to nonprofits.
Next for Chevron is a trip back to Contra Costa County Superior Court where the oil giant will seek to lift the 2009 judgment before it can continue work on the modernization project.
Councilmember Myrick said the deal reached wasn’t ideal, but was perhaps the best compromise for now.
“In a perfect world, yes, the recommendations of the planning commission would make us safer,” said Myrick. “But in reality it would have led to Chevron walking away from this project entirely and the good things in this project wouldn’t have been able to happen if we had approved their recommendations.”