Smackdown: City Hall vs. Big Oil is the 4th episode in Stepping Up podcast; 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.

Smackdown takes us to Richmond California, a mid-sized American city with a large Latino and Black, working class population. At 62, Andres 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 Andres’ mission. Working to protect the town from toxic pollution, he joins with residents of all races and classes. The Chevron refinery looms large over this pursuit.

Established in 1905, the Chevron oil 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 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. Burning 240,000 barrels of crude oil daily it is also contributing heavily to global warming. And it is one of 5 big refineries, hugging this piece of the San Francisco Bay shoreline.

In 2004, Andres helped establish the RPA, the Richmond Progressive Alliance. 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 protest of the explosion. Pointing to the sun he said, “Look! We’re experiencing a solar spill right now!”

By 2014, Andres 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 the processing of heavier crude oil. This could exacerbate health and safety problems, while adding to our climate crisis. Andres was a clear and constant adversary to this plan, pointing to the implications for increased greenhouse gas emissions. But understanding that stopping the plan was futile, the focus of his Alliance was to limit the pollutants (including CO2) that this expansion would cause. Chevron ran a massive ad campaign to water down restrictions on the plan. No one was happy with the ultimate compromise and the town/company fight continued.

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. Enabled by the Citizen’s United ruling, Chevron spent an exorbitant 3-plus million dollars through their Moving Forward PAC to the pro-Chevron slate and to denigrate the RPA progressive slate. 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 endless mailers. They created fake telephone opinion surveys which inserted distorted information about the candidates into the questions. Nate Bates, the pro-Chevron mayoral candidate, said, “Any candidate running for public office who would refuse Chevron’s support is a damn fool!” Bernie Saunders came to town to talk about the role of corporate money in our elections. And Andres was down in the trenches, organizing campaign volunteers to go door-to-door.

To everyone’s surprise, the RPA slate swept the election, even with

Chevron’s massive campaign spending. Yet, Chevron is still in town. And the push-pull continues. Is Chevron good for Richmond? The 30% of the city tax base that Chevron contributes is nothing to sneeze at. But Chevron, one of the richest corporations in the world, fights against every dime they are forced to pay. They also provide a lot of jobs. But only 5 to 7% of the jobs go to Richmond residents. And the refinery continues to threaten both worker safety and community health.

Can Richmond thrive without Chevron? At this point, jobs at Chevron still pay much more than solar jobs. Students at the RichmondBUILD training project still opt for those jobs, even while understanding the threat to their children’s future. As head of the Richmond chapter of CBE, Citizens for a Better Environment, Andres is 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% 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, attend the Paris climate summit and dance to Andres’ Bay Breeze band. We hear from a chorus of campaign workers, students at the RichmondBUILD Academy, and of course Chevron.

Hear the full story – and all the Stepping Up podcast stories – by subscribing to steppinguppodcast.org or wherever you get your podcasts.

Each episode is different:

  • Kids creating a global movement to save our oceans.
  • Grandmothers putting their bodies on the line.
  • Clowns taking to the streets in red noses.

But each is fun and filled with humor.

The Producer: Claire Schoen has been telling stories in sound for 30 years in radio, audio tour and podcast. Her award-winning series, RISE: Climate Change and Coastal Communities enjoyed wide distribution as 3 hour-long radio documentaries, 6 multimedia webstories, 6 podcasts and a museum exhibit. She has taught documentary storytelling at the Stanford Storytelling Project, U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.