Guest Post by Claire Schoen
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 one of 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, diverse and working class American city. At 62, Andres Soto has spent his whole life here. 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.
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But organizing for a sustainable Richmond is Andres’ mission. The Chevron refinery looms large over this pursuit. Established in 1905, Chevron has been running Richmond as a company town for most of its history, 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. Processing 240,000 barrels of crude oil daily it is also contributing heavily to global warming.
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 challenge Chevron’s hegemony over the town. As the RPA started winning seats, 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!”
A couple of years later, Richmond’s election races for mayor and city council were ramping up. Chevron was determined to return city hall to a pro-Chevron government. With the Citizen’s United ruling backing them up, they spent a huge sum to push their slate of candidates. The election was wild with mudslinging and misrepresentation. But to everyone’s surprise, the RPA slate swept the election, even with Chevron’s over-the-top campaign spending.
But, Chevron is still in town. And many feel that the City can not thrive without the taxes and jobs they provide. Yet the refinery continues to threaten both worker safety and community health. As head of the Richmond chapter of CBE, Citizens for a Better Environment, Andres is helping Richmond create a sustainability plan including subsidized solar and conservation upgrades. 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. But each is fun and filled with humor.
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.