Chevron’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ Tweet Prompts a Debate About Big Oil and Environmental Justice

The oil giant denounced racism and pledged to increase diversity in its workforce, but some activists see burning fossil fuels as inherently racist.

Jun 20, 2020
Chevron. Credit: Mateusz Slodkowski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Credit: Mateusz Slodkowski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

When Chevron tweeted "black lives matter" on June 5, the multinational U.S. energy corporation evoked a visceral reaction from many climate activists.

"Your performative solidarity with the Black community is an absolute joke," Communities for a Better Environment, a California-based environmental justice organization, responded. "You should be ashamed of yourself for killing, poisoning and ruining the health and lives of Black people all over the world."

Chevron's tweet referred readers to a statement from the company's leadership that was released amidst international protests over the killing of George Floyd on May 25 by a Minneapolis police officer. 

"As the human energy company, we are just that—humans, and we've felt the impact of what is happening in the United States around racial injustice," the statement says. "Our company is rooted in a diverse and inclusive culture, but we also understand it is our time to listen and learn."

 

The statement goes on to quote a number of senior executives, including CEO Mike Wirth: "I share the anger and pain felt by so many Americans at the recent killings of unarmed black men and women. Racism and brutality have no place in America. Yet these incidents still occur. And they impact people well beyond those directly affected by such tragedies. Including people at our company. I absolutely believe we are stronger when we embrace our differences, and now is an important time to do just that."

Though Chevron was not the only oil industry heavyweight to issue a statement declaring its commitment to combating racism, the Chevron tweet was shared far more widely than one from BP, which linked to a letter by CEO Bernard Looney that condemned "racial injustice in all its forms." By contrast, Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil have remained silent on the issue. 

In response to the criticism, Chevron spokesman Sean Comey said its executives' official statements spoke for themselves.

"Diversity and inclusion are foundational to The Chevron Way," said Vice President of Corporate Affairs Dale Walsh, who called on all employees to take action "in the ugly face of racism, discrimination and injustice." 

Chevron's website says that it is "committed to fostering diversity and inclusion at all levels of our company," including by providing opportunities for diversity training to employees and hosting more than 15 "diversity councils" to support its "strategic approach to diversity."

Doria Robinson, a third-generation African American resident of Richmond, California, who has spoken out against the pollution of Chevron's Richmond refinery, said silence is better than professing values a company's actions don't support. 

Robinson said that the Richmond refinery has a long history of polluting the air breathed by Richmond's predominantly low-income residents of color, while providing them with limited employment opportunities. She said the refinery has leveraged its financial power to steer local politics in its favor and provided meager community investments in return. 

Chevron spokesman Tyler Kruzich responded that the company's leaders are "proud of our ongoing partnership with the community." He said Chevron is working to help Richmond "prosper by providing ever-cleaner products, good jobs, significant economic output, and community support" and is "committed to investing in Richmond."  

Chevron's definition of supporting racial justice differs dramatically from that of many climate and racial justice activists like Robinson, who see the company's promises of racial diversity in hiring and rhetorical solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as hollow. 

For these activists, Chevron's core business model—predicated on the burning of fossil fuels, which inevitably hits marginalized communities hardest—is incompatible with meaningful measures of racial or environmental justice. Simply hiring minority employees cannot correct those inequities, they said. 

Seeking more radical change, they have called on Chevron to make reparations for the harms it has inflicted on poor communities of color worldwide and to prevent future harms by altering its operations. Some even call for the company's end to help transition toward a more just and sustainable energy system.  

Other prominent civil rights leaders said they were more focused on the commitments Chevron and other oil companies have made in regard to the racial makeup of their employees. The civil rights leaders view the renewed public focus on racial justice following the killing of George Floyd as an opportunity to push the oil and gas industry to ensure its workforce represents, in Rev. Jesse Jackson's words, "the rich diversity of America," including in its top ranks.  

'Living in a Very Hazardous Place'

In response to Chevron's statement, many climate activists invoked the disproportionate impact of fossil fuel pollution and the climate crisis on people of color worldwide, and specifically in the U.S., where Black people's health is more likely to be threatened by air pollution from the production and burning of oil, gas and coal. 

Chevron's Richmond refinery caught fire in 2012, leading 15,000 people, including many from the city's roughly 20 percent black and 41 percent Latino population, to seek medical attention for respiratory problems, chest pains and headaches caused by toxic smoke from the blaze. Chevron later pleaded no contest to six criminal charges and agreed to pay $2 million in fines. 

"The repercussions of that explosion and other explosions like it are certainly very alive and very much a part of the psyche and the community," Dr. Amanda Millstein, co-founder of California Climate Health Now and a primary care pediatrician at Hilltop Pediatrics in Richmond, said of the 2012 fire. 

On the morning after another explosion, this one at the nearby NuStar refinery last October, three separate families rushed to Milstein's office asking her to examine their children, she said. They were worried that their young lungs had suffered from the resulting air pollution. All of the children already had asthma, which is linked to Richmond residents' high level of exposure to industrial air pollution, of which oil refining is the largest regional contributor.

A 2009 report by Communities for a Better Environment showed that children in Richmond suffer more than twice the national average of asthma, and life-long Richmond residents experienced it at a higher rate than short-timers. These high asthma rates also make the population more susceptible to Covid-19.

Kruzich, the Chevron spokesman, said a 2014 modernization project has reduced emissions at the refinery and increased safety. 

Residents know they are "living in a very hazardous place," said Robinson, the executive director of Urban Tilth, a community-based organization dedicated to building a more sustainable, healthy and just local food system. 

She still recalls growing up looking at the Chevron refinery outside her window. Once, a fire there turned the sky red and "ate the paint off Mom's car," Robinson remembered. Her mother, she said, dismissed the $500 compensation she received from Chevron for the damage to the car, concerned instead about how the fire had affected their family's lungs—and if it had, who would pay for that. 

For 350.org co-founder Jamie Henn, statements like Chevron's are meant to help create a perception that such companies can be part of the "solution" to the climate crisis and the racial injustices it perpetuates.

Rather than "making any real commitments," Henn said," Chevron spoke from a fear of "how bad it looks to stay silent right now."

"I'm pretty sure that 'Profits Matter' is the only slogan [Chevron], and most of their brethren, really take to heart," said Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and a leader in the movement for fossil fuel divestment. 

Two Views on Chevron's Role in Richmond

Not all Richmond residents, however, share Robinson's skepticism of the company's intentions. 

Henry Clark, an African-American activist who was born in North Richmond by the Chevron refinery, said the company did not merely give "lip service to being concerned about the community." Clark is executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, a multi-racial environmental justice nonprofit that works to hold the Richmond refinery to the regulatory recommendations that followed the 2012 fire. 

He cited the Chevron Modernization Project, which he helped shape, as an example of how the company has sought to reduce the impact of its refinery emissions on local residents. The company has also sponsored events for the community, including community tours of the refinery and school programs.

Millstein recalled seeing kids in her clinic wearing soccer jerseys with the Chevron logo. "They are present in the community in a way that is more than just as an employer," she said, noting the company's big presence in Richmond. 

Clark and Robinson's differing views come as no surprise, given Chevron's "really powerful hold on the community," said Zolboo Namkhaidorj, a Richmond youth organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, which is beginning a campaign to decommission the Richmond refinery. The company's "little give-outs" draw in residents, she said. But for her, no amount of philanthropy can "ever outweigh the years and years of harm and poisoning they've done to the community." 

Chevron rarely makes "deep investments in transformative change within the community," Robinson said. When it does, the investments often feel to her like a form of "hush money" or a way to concentrate political power. Chevron also "greenwashes" initiatives to appear to be "for healthy, living things," she said. 

For example, the company presents its Environmental and Community Investment Agreement grant program as a form of philanthropy, she said, instead of part of an agreement with the city to settle damages from the 2012 refinery fire. 

"I'm not saying [Chevron] couldn't do more," Clark said in defense of the company. "But at this particular point, they seem to be going in the right direction." 

Kruzich, the Chevron spokesman, said that the grant program, a voluntary agreement with the city, grew out of discussions around a modernization project at the refinery in 2014 which "improves energy efficiency, reduces air emissions overall and increases the safety and reliability of the refinery." 

Robsinon and Clark also differ over Chevron's role in local politics. 

Clark seemed unconcerned by Chevron's involvement, while Robinson called for Chevron to get out of Richmond politics and end its support for local candidates. She said she believes Chevron has put the City Council "under its thumb" and is creating fear among local residents who speak out against the company. 

If Chevron wants to be a "good neighbor" and member of the community, said Robinson, it "should be big enough to hear the truth and make changes."

Rival Conceptions of Racial Justice

Beyond issues related to emissions from fossil fuel plants, workforce data shows that the oil and gas industry is less diverse in terms of race and gender than the U.S. workforce as a whole, according to a 2015 report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute. And the industry's top ranks are "almost certainly" less racially diverse than its overall workforce, Paula Glover, president and CEO of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, told Axios. 

Data from Chevron reflect these disparities. According to a 2018 corporate responsibility report, Black people comprise 8 percent of total employees and 3 percent of the company's executives and senior managers. 

Though the Chevron refinery is the largest employer in Richmond, only a small percentage of the city's population works there. Most of the refinery's employees live outside Richmond, said local residents. According to Comey, only about 20 percent of the refinery's workforce resides "in the City of Richmond and other parts of West Contra Costa County." 

Recently, calls by the fossil fuel industry to increase workforce diversity have been joined by U.S. civil rights leaders, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and National Urban League President Marc Morial. 

Jackson said that while he supports a move to renewable energy in the future, he does not believe black communities can wait on issues like jobs for clean energy solutions. 

Clark echoed the calls of civil rights leaders who contend that Chevron should focus on opening more jobs and providing job training for Black residents located nearby their operations.

The emphasis he and some other Black leaders place on diversity in the industry's workforce stands in contrast to younger racial justice and climate justice activists' interest in holding the industry accountable for climate change and the environmental racism they believe is ingrained in its operations. 

Antonia Juhasz, an energy analyst, author and investigative journalist, emphasized that industry calls to increase equality and racial diversity do not take into account "the livability and survivability of black people and their communities," which is at the center of the current protests. 

The "Invest-Divest" platform of the Movement for Black Lives calls for institutions to divest from multinational fossil fuel companies like Chevron in order to help accelerate the shift to sustainable energy systems that are based in and controlled by black communities. 

Baby Steps or Big Strides?

A more appropriate response to activists' calls for racial justice, Juhasz said, would be for Chevron to take steps to ameliorate its operations' disproportionate impact on communities of color, beginning with complying with all applicable laws and improving safety.

Chevron's Kruzich said that "the Richmond Refinery workforce takes their role as good neighbors seriously and are continually working to enhance the safety of our operations, reduce our environmental footprint and maintain compliance with applicable regulations."

But Namkhaidorj, the Richmond youth organizer, said Chevron only uses local hiring to "justify polluting and policing the community." She wants to see more green jobs for Black residents, rather than jobs in the refinery. 

She also called on Chevron to make "reparations" to the Black communities it has harmed, and challenged the company to prove its commitment to racial justice by donating to "Black organizations doing critical work for Black liberation," including the Movement for Black Lives.

"Continued use of fossil fuels, as we have historically been using them, is incompatible with solving the climate crisis," Juhasz said, "which means that's irreconcilable with addressing environmental injustice and racism." 

The current dive in oil demand and prices because of the coronavirus pandemic presents a unique opportunity to move away from fossil fuels, said Leila Salazar-López, executive director of Amazon Watch, a non-profit organization working to protect the Amazon rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous people in the Amazonian Basin.  

Robinson, despite her long battle with Chevron, urged activists to target the system behind society's "addiction to fossil fuels and extraction," rather than individual companies. 

If activists do not "reframe" their narrative to reflect the broader need to shift toward a radically different economic and energy system, Robinson said, they may win the battle but lose the war when it comes to securing climate and racial justice. 

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