RICHMOND -- Scores of Chevron supporters and foes debated the company's $1 billion refinery modernization project late into the night Tuesday in front of city leaders who are expected to pass judgment next week on whether to grant the oil company's appeal of the Planning Commission's conditional approval of the project.
Jennifer Hernandez, the lead environmental review attorney retained by the city to analyze Chevron's project, said that without the Planning Commission's additional recommendations, the project caps greenhouse gas emissions at current levels, reduces the amount of sulfur refining capacity from previous proposals and makes the facility safer.
More than 400 people turned out to the hearing at the Richmond Auditorium. Chevron officials, employees and many residents implored the City Council to accept the current conditions, which have also been supported by city staff and consultants.
At least 200 people signed up to address the council for two minutes each. The meeting stretched late into the night and ended with less than half the speakers having had their time. The council
is expected to hear the remaining speakers and vote on Chevron's appeal on July 29.
Observers expect Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles to support the Planning Commission's more stringent requirements, while council members Nat Bates and Corky Booze are likely to side with Chevron. Councilmen Tom Butt, Jim Rogers and Jael Myrick represent the swing votes. Butt said earlier in the week that he wants to see more community investments from Chevron than the proposed $60 million over 10 years as a condition of his approval.
Chevron officials on Monday reversed their previous position and agreed to an alternative, dubbed Alternative 11, that caps greenhouse gas emissions and reduces sulfur-processing levels. State Attorney General Kamala Harris has stated her support of Alternative 11.
"This project balances the good of the company and the community," said refinery General Manager Kory Judd. "The Planning Commission adopted amendments proposed by outside groups, some of whom have stated goals to stop the continuation of our business."
In its agenda report, city staff and consultants supported Alternative 11 and recommended the council reject the commission's recommendations on grounds that they are not legal and are "factually contradicted by substantial evidence on record."
But activist groups and others urged council support of the commission's recommendations, which include requirements for new piping throughout the refinery, $8 million per year until 2050 in community investments in green energy programs, and steeper reductions on a range of emissions. They also cautioned the council to remember the refinery's history of accidents and the health and environmental consequences.
"This is an extreme oil project," said Greg Karras, a senior scientist for Communities for a Better Environment. "Its most basic change is to refine more high-sulfur gas oil, (and Alternative 11) may have been the real project all along."
Another commission supporter, mayoral candidate Mike Parker, said the city should require the oil company to provide funding to Doctors Medical Center, the financially beleaguered hospital in nearby San Pablo that faces closure.
"Chevron has responded to community pressure, Alternative 11 was only included as a response to community pressure," Parker said.
The crowd was dominated by Chevron supporters, many of them workers at the refinery and union members who stand to gain from some 1,000 expected jobs associated with the project. Many wore shirts and brandished signs supporting the proposal.
"It appears that 100 percent of Chevron employees support the project," Butt wrote on his Facebook page during the meeting.
Union workers in support industries also turned out.
But environmental watchdogs held out hope that the council would wring more concessions out of the process and hold fast to at least some of the conditions favored by the Planning Commission.
"In terms of community health, what is being proposed and recommended by city staff is a tiny improvement from where we are today," said Denny Larson, executive director of Global Community Monitor. "There is still a shot the council will support the Planning Commission's full mitigation package."
The main project components include replacing a 1960s hydrogen plant with more modern technology. The modernization would give the refinery flexibility to process crude oil blends, including those with higher levels of sulfur.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.