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Chevron may seek Capitol assist in closing days of legislative session [Updated]

August 23, 2010 |  2:04 pm

Chevron may seek help from state lawmakers to jump-start construction on a controversial refinery overhaul -- a project that local environmentalists have successfully sued to block.

Now, environmental groups and their allies in Sacramento are trying to prevent the oil giant from receiving an exemption from environmental laws to get the project started.

“Don’t give it to them!!” said a memo handed out by Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara) to his Democratic colleagues on the Assembly floor last week.

The stalled project is a retrofit of Chevron’s 2,900-acre refinery near the city of Richmond,Calif., in the Bay Area. The oil company first began pushing to rebuild the refinery in 2004, but local environmentalists sued, arguing that the company was hiding its intent to process heavier, dirtier crude. A federal trial and appeals court sided with the environmentalists.

But the fight over the Chevron refinery is splitting Democratic constituencies -- with labor groups in favor of the plan and environmental groups opposed. Greg Feere, the chief executive officer of the Contra Costa Building Trades Council, said it would result in thousands of good-paying jobs. Such a result “would probably be the best Christmas present we could give a worker,” he said.

The overhaul could mean 1,000 new jobs for recession-wracked California -- with some labor-union estimates of up to 3,000 -- which has attracted the attention of two of the Capitol’s most powerful legislators, the speaker of the Assembly and president pro tem of the Senate. Months ago, they, along with local legislators, arranged a closed-door mediation among Chevron, local officials near Richmond, environmentalists and labor unions in hopes of striking an accord.

“If we do this well, we can save jobs, we can protect the environment, and we can preserve public health,” said Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), who had served as the mediator.

Chevron spokesman Dean O’Hair said the company was “committed to the mediation process. ... We think that’s the quickest way to get the project restarted.” When pressed about the possibility of a last-minute environmental exemption, O’Hair said he would be “surprised” if that were to happen but said the company had “explored the idea of a number of options.”

The governor’s office has not met with Chevron on the issue, spokesman Aaron McLear said. And no legislation has been publicly introduced. But such matters only tend to emerge in print in the final hours before the Legislature adjourns, said Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California.

“Given how much money Chevron gives to elected officials ... we know there is real reason to be concerned,” Magavern said.

Chevron is the largest company in the state and one of California’s most generous political donors. Since 2009, they have doled out more than $4 million; more than half the state’s legislators have received campaign contributions from the company. Chevron also has seven contract lobbying firms and two full-time lobbyists.

The Legislature’s leaders encouraged the mediation talks in hopes of finding a compromise that both the company and environmental groups could live with.

“I would really much prefer that than us having to take a legislative action like we did on the football stadium,” said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), whose district neighbors the refinery. “I don’t want to do an exemption" to the California Environmental Quality Act, he said, though he added, “I’m always open-minded.”

-- Shane Goldmacher in Sacramento