Chevron has dominated the town of Richmond, Calif., for 110 years, but that dominance is finally being called into question. Tensions have been escalating for decades, but came to a head after a fire in August 2012 at the oil giant’s Richmond refinery belched toxic smoke all over the Bay Area.


When Chevron sought city permits to rebuild the refinery, the Richmond mayor and City Council called for stronger pollution and safety controls. But in December, the city Planning Department approved permits that will allow the company to bring the refinery back to full production with only very minor improvements in emissions.

Last month, Chevron agreed to pay $145,600 to settle 28 different air-quality violations that had taken place at the refinery before the fire. That works out to $5,200 for each screwup, which ranged from not filing reports on hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide pollution incidents to the fact that the the oil giant didn’t check part of the refinery for leaks for two years.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

For most of its 110 years in Richmond, Chevron — the town’s biggest employer and a big donor to local political campaigns — has put out fires and paid fines and not looked back, while local residents suffered from sustained health problems. Now, The New York Times reports, the winds are shifting:

“They went through a period of time when they took a very hard-line, confrontational position with the City of Richmond, and I don’t think it was working for them very well,” said Tom Butt, a councilman who has been critical of Chevron and who won re-election in November, despite the oil company’s support for three other candidates. “They were facing a situation where the majority of the City Council were not their friends, and so they decided to try a different position.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Sean Comey, a Chevron spokesman, said the company felt the need to adopt a new strategy toward Richmond, though he did not go as far as to acknowledge that it was a direct response to the city’s changing politics.

“Probably about four, five years ago, we sat down to really reassess what the state of our relationship was with the community where we had been for more than 100 years — and it wasn’t where we wanted it to be,” Mr. Comey said.

So Chevron built some community gardens and threw some holiday parties and tried to appear really excited about civic goings-on.

“Richmond kind of gets into your blood,” said Andrea Bailey, Chevron’s manager of community engagement in Richmond. “There’s so much going on, and there’s this precipice of greatness. It’s exciting.”

And then the company was like, “But they still hate us? Whyyyy?”

Maybe because Chevron is also trying to buy the city council. In last year’s race, it spent $1.2 million and succeeded in getting two of its three preferred candidates elected.

Still, Chevron says its polling shows “favorability with over 50 percent of residents,” even after August’s fire. I wonder if Chevron is also following the #FuckChevron hashtag that’s become popular on Twitter with Bay Area residents. Best get the community engagement manager on top of that one.