Mayor Gayle McLaughlin at Chevron refinery protest

The most rewarding part of touring our book The Oil Road, for me, has been learning from experiences of people we visit. The book tour becomes part of the Road. Two weeks ago we presented the book in the San Francisco Bay Area, where tankers deliver crude from around the world, including the Ceyhan terminal in Turkey (featured in the book). Just north of Berkeley, Richmond lies in the shadow of a large Chevron refinery. Its many working class and people of colour residents breathe in toxic fumes on a daily basis, with their homes downwind of the plant that poisons them.

Over an early dinner, we met a group of activists including Eduardo Martinez. He ran in the last elections for Richmond city council, to challenge the collusion between local government & oil company. Chevron didn’t want him to win, and spend $1 million to counteract Eduardo’s campaign – dwarfing the $35,000 Eduardo had raised  from his friends and allies. The oil corporation ran billboards “exposing” him as irresponsible for being $200,000 in debt – most of which was his mortgage. Why would Chevron spend this much on a crude (sorry) smear campaign against a retired schoolteacher?

The company was afraid, as Richmond’s community groups and environmental justice campaigners have been reclaiming their town from the oil giant. Eduardo is part of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which has successfully challenged incumbent Democrat politicians beholden to the oil companies. Working together with grassroots environmental justice groups like Communities for a Better Environment and Asian Pacific Environmental Network, they have begun to change the face of Richmond.  Chevron tried to expand its refinery, so it could process tar sands- and fracking-derived crude, and the City Council passed approval in the first instance, but the project faced determined community opposition. The expansion was then challenged  and thrown out in court.

On April 26, the California State Court of Appeals rejected Chevron’s appeal on the refinery expansion in Richmond. The court ruled that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project violated state environmental law. The court ruled that the EIR was “far from informative,” that the project description was inconsistent and vague, and that it was entirely unclear whether Chevron was going to use this project to process dirtier crude oil. The Court also held that Chevron’s

EIR completely fails to properly establish, analyze, and consider an environmental baseline.

The lawsuits forced the company to back down – a remarkable feat, given that Richmond has been a company town dominated by oil refineries operated by Chevron (previously Standard Oil California) since 1902.

Despite the company’s overwhelming economic influence, and with no support from the mainstream political parties, Richmond has now elected a green mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, who stands up to the company. The city is currently suing Chevron for damages from the enormous fire at its refinery in Aug 2012. 15,000 Richmond residents had had to go to hospital with respiratory problems following the toxic emissions from the fire. Mayor McLaughlin explained

[The suit] is not about money, although there are certainly costs attached to the impact of this fire. This is about a change in Chevron’s corporate culture, to place safety of the community as a top priority.

The mayor has been able to take strong stances because of the solid grassroots organising, door-knocking and mobilisation amongst local residents. On the first anniversary of the fire, 210 protestors were arrested at the gates of Chevron’s refinery, part of a mass demonstration of thousands. They came to commemorate the disaster as well as condemn Chevron as a climate criminal.

During our visit, we couldn’t meet Mayor McLaughlin because she was on a trip to Ecuador to witness Chevron’s environmental injustices there.

The progressive forces are also pioneering a striking way of solving the city’s housing problems. Using “imminent domain” rights under US law, the city wants to buy up overpriced mortgages from commercial banks. This will make sure that the near half of the city’s population whose outstanding mortgages have ballooned beyond the value of their houses won’t lose their homes to foreclosure.

Eduardo and Richmond Progressive Alliance are gearing up for the next elections this coming year. So is Chevron, which has once again bought up all the billboards in the city and is lobbying hard on behalf of its candidates.  Further into the Bay and up the Sacramento River Delta, oil companies are threatening the expansion of existing refinery and storage capacity at Benicia and Pittsburgh to process tar sands oil  from Canada and fracked shale oil from inside the USA. But these frontline communities have seen how the people of Richmond stood up to Chevron and are trying to do the same.

Through our journey onwards to Louisiana, Mississippi and now New York the story of Richmond’s progressive organisers has been a continued inspiration to me.

Anna, Mika and James are travelling around North America to present our book The Oil Road and connect with allies across the continent. Next book events are tomorrow (Wednesday 9th Oct) in New York and Thursday 10th Oct in New Jersey.