Category Archives: Valero Benicia Refinery

“Final Word” forum, Saturday, Nov. 3

The Final Word Forum was challenged by the Valero/Labor PAC but went on as scheduled.  See the video here:  youtube.com/watch?v=9CB2Dd6qcS0  


[PREVIOUS NOTICE] – Mark your calendar and plan to attend this Saturday – this could be a VERY interesting forum, and your last chance before the election to ask questions and express your thoughts about recent negative campaigning by corporate giant Valero Services, Inc. and its affiliates.

Please show up WAY EARLY!!  We’ve learned that oil industry people will try to pack the house and dominate the debate. 

Details…

CITY TO HOST CANDIDATES FORUM TO ADDRESS NEGATIVE MISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN AND “HIT PIECES”

“The City of Benicia code(Sec 1.42.110) allows for a last minute candidate forum to allow candidates to address last minute “hit pieces” and to respond to inflammatory statements and misinformation.

This forum does not always happen but, given the amount of negative campaigning happening in the City Council race, the City’s Open Government Commission will sponsor such a session this Saturday, Nov. 3 from 9-11am at the City Council chambers.

The event will be televised live on Ch. 27, and rebroadcast at 7pm on Sunday and Monday nights, Nov. 4 and 5. It will also be streamed on the City website.

The forum will be moderated by Open Government Commission Chair Bonnie Silvera, with assistance from two other OGC members.  Questions from audience will be written on 3×5 cards and selected by OGC members. Questions will be addressed to all candidates.  Only questions that deal with the purpose of the forum will be addressed.  Candidates are asked to speak to the issues and not make personal comments about other candidates, especially in a negative manner.

KQED: Valero-Backed Group Spends Heavily to Sway Benicia City Council Election

Repost from KQED, The California Report

Valero-Backed Group Spends Heavily to Sway Benicia City Council Election

By Ted Goldberg, October 30, 2018
The Valero Benicia refinery. (Craig Miller/KQED)

The Valero Energy Corp. and several allies have spent more than $165,000 to influence the Benicia City Council election, an amount that’s close to three times as much as all of the candidates have raised combined.

The San Antonio-based oil company, which operates a refinery that’s one of the city’s largest employers, has joined with five state and local labor organizations to donate to a political action committee formed to oppose an environmentalist candidate and back two others the group sees as friendly to the company.

The committee has funded ads and an aggressive telephone campaign to influence the city’s 19,000-plus registered voters.

Experts say the magnitude of the spending in a small municipal election is unusual but that the Benicia campaign is part of a trend.

“We’re going to see a lot more of this spending,” Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School specializing in money in politics, said about corporate political contributions in local elections.

“Even though they are closer to constituents than a gubernatorial or Senate race, voters tend to know less about them. A little bit of spending … can make a difference,” Levinson said.

Valero’s actions are reminiscent of an effort several years ago by Chevron to sway voters in Richmond, where it operates a massive refinery. In 2014 the company spent millions in an unsuccessful attempt to elect a slate of its allies to the City Council.

Some of the PAC’s activities have led Benicia officials to call on the state’s political watchdog to investigate claims that the committee has violated some of California’s laws regulating campaign contributions.

The company’s political activities, first reported by the Vallejo Times-Herald and Roger Straw, an activist and blogger with the Benicia Independent, come 18 months after a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide caused by a power outage at the Valero refinery.

The incident prompted calls for city regulation of the refinery and deepened a divide between the city’s mayor and the company.

The Candidates

The election involves four candidates vying for two open spots on the council.

The 34-word name of the independent expenditure Valero is helping to fund explains clearly who it wants to win. It’s called “Working Families for a Strong Benicia, A Coalition of Labor, Industrial Services Companies, Public Safety and Local Leaders Supporting Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada and Opposing Kari Birdseye for Benicia City Council 2018.”

The Valero-backed committee calls Birdseye “a yes man” for Mayor Patterson.

“Birdseye is bad for Benicia,” one of its ads says. “We don’t need another job killer.”

Birdseye is a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization.

She refers to the company’s executives as “the suits from San Antonio” who “sully our election” and are engaged in a “smear campaign” involving “dirty ads with lies.”

“Benicia deserves better than to be bullied and bamboozled by big money like this,” she said in an interview.

As a member of the city’s Planning Commission in 2016, Birdseye was among those who helped defeat a company plan to expand refinery operations to include crude oil shipped by rail. Birdseye is also a supporter of Mayor Elizabeth Patterson’s failed 2017 proposal to create new local regulations for the refinery.

She said with the Trump administration pulling back from regulating the oil industry and California’s goal of sharply reducing its dependence on carbon-based energy sources in the coming decades, local governments need to take action.

“It’s up to the counties, cities and towns to plan for a clean energy future,” Birdseye said.

“I don’t want Valero to shut down tomorrow,” she said. “I drive a gas-powered car, and our economy still needs Valero in our community, but I do see the need for more transparency with our largest industrial neighbor.”

Birdseye has raised about $20,000 for her campaign, nearly all from individual donors in Benicia and other Solano County communities, and none from businesses.

Pair Supported by Valero-Backed Group

Strawbridge and Largaespada, the two candidates supported by the Valero-backed coalition, emphasize that they have no ties to the independent expenditure group and have worked hard to keep their campaigns positive.

Largaespada chairs the city’s economic development board and works as director of marketing and business development at F3 and Associates, a firm providing advanced surveying and visualization services to a wide variety of customers — including some in the oil and gas industry. Among its clients is Valero.

Largaespada said Valero’s involvement in the election has more to do with the company’s frustration and its deteriorating relationship with Mayor Patterson.

“But that doesn’t give Valero and its various associates permission to launch a negative campaign,” Largaespada said.

“When this all started to come out I went on record, rejecting all of it,” he said. “It’s not the kind of campaign I support at all.”

Largaespada said Valero has a responsibility to keep Benicia safe and that the city and the refinery need to improve communication.

He said he opposed the mayor’s proposal for city oversight of the company, noting that the ordinance was similar to regulations the state has already adopted.

Largaespada has raised close to $21,000, mostly from individuals. He said he returned more than $1,000 he had received from a local labor PAC.

Candidate Christina Strawbridge served on the council from 2011 to 2016, owns a clothing boutique in downtown Benicia and has been involved with community groups for 30 years.

Like Largaespada, she said she’s wary of the support she’s getting from the Valero-backed group.

“I think they think they’re helping me,” Strawbridge said, stressing that she’s not aligned with any group or other candidate. “I’m an independent person, as I proved when I was on the City Council for five years.”

Strawbridge notes that Valero’s taxes account for a large part of Benicia’s budget and have attracted businesses that support refinery operations to the city’s Industrial Park. She said the company “has always stepped up” to help community groups and to do volunteer work in the city.

“That said, I believe there needs to be better communication between Valero and the city of Benicia. It has gotten to be at an all-time low in our relationship,” Strawbridge said.

While she likes certain parts of the mayor’s Industrial Safety Ordinance proposal, including its push for more air monitors, she said Patterson brought it to the council without gathering enough input from others.

“The public didn’t get a chance to review it when it was introduced. Nor did city staff. They had less than a week,” Strawbridge said.

Strawbridge has received close to $24,000 in donations from a mix of individuals, businesses and political action committees. She said she returned more than $1,000 from political action committees associated with Valero’s independent expenditure.

Also in the Running

The fourth candidate running, William Emes, is a retired carpenter who has received no donations or endorsements.

“The only endorsement that counts is your vote,” his website states.

Emes said he has worked in refineries and has a direct understanding of “what safety means.”

In an email he emphasized that he wants to be on a team that “gets things done” and that he places great value in being transparent and objective.

“The manner in which the unions and Valero involved themselves in our election was completely unprincipled and contrary to any meaningful public discussion,” Emes said.

Valero’s Stance and Labor Allies

A Valero spokeswoman did not answer questions about the committee’s involvement in the council election but instead pointed out the company’s viewsin an Oct. 16 letter to the Vallejo Times-Herald.

The letter, signed by refinery general manager Don Wilson, emphasized the refinery’s long-standing presence in Benicia and its strong safety record. It also directly criticized Patterson.

“Unfortunately, at City Hall, the mayor has decided to make our operations, employees’ jobs and the city’s tax revenue her target,” Wilson wrote.

The five unions that have donated to the super PAC are the Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers Local 16, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 549, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, the California State Pipe Trades Council and the District Council of Iron Workers.

The groups who have contributed to the committee represent workers at various refineries, among other industries.

Donald Zampa, president of the Iron Workers District Council, which contributed $30,000 to the committee, said his organization’s involvement in Benicia is aimed at saving jobs.

Zampa said he was not familiar with Patterson’s safety ordinance but believes she is putting the city’s economic health at risk.

“If it was up to her, she would close down the number one job provider in Benicia,” Zampa said.

Push for Investigation into Valero-Backed Group

Mayor Patterson, who supports Birdseye, calls the oil refining sector “a fading industry” that Benicia should pivot away from.

“Valero is trying to bully and buy its way into politics in Benicia,” Patterson said. “I had not seen it so vicious and ugly as it has been this year.”

Heather McLaughlin, Benicia’s city attorney, has filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission against the Valero refinery in connection with a series of phone calls made to Benicia residents about the election.

The so-called push poll involved a questioner laying out negative statements about Birdseye and positive ones about Largaespada and Strawbridge.

In September McLaughlin emailed the firm believed to be behind the phone calls, Research America, warning them that the calls may appear to violate Benicia’s municipal code requiring certain disclosures for campaign communications funded by independent expenditures.

On Oct. 18, McLaughlin requested an FPPC investigation, alleging that Valero sponsored the poll and “did not disclose they were behind the poll during the telephone calls.”

FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said the commission is in the process of deciding whether to open an inquiry.

ISO Working Group – reflections on Council’s NO vote… and WHERE from here?

Benicia City Council: 3 to 2 against Industrial Safety Ordinance

By Benicia’s ISO Working Group, submitted by Ralph Dennis
[See also Video: Benicia Council votes NO.]

Another 3-2 vote. Very disappointing, again. The Council majority voted again, 3-2, not to consider an industrial safety ordinance for Benicia. Now, we wait for a yet-to-be determined date in November or December for Council to reconvene and review the progress Valero has made toward its commitments.

It appears the Council majority on these votes thinks another one or two monitors will address Benicia’s “monitoring issue” and that the “communication issue” is already taken care of. What monitoring is out there, or soon to be, is in no way comprehensive or sufficient for our community. Better communication? Thank you, Valero, for sharing all that information at the July 17 Council meeting – after 14 months of Council’s two-step process, and more than 10 years of community requests for Valero to address air monitoring.

Disappointing Council vote, yes. But, now we at least know how many monitors Valero has, and where they are located. And, three are community monitors, not just for fence line. Valero even says it has mobile monitors available. Probably more information than any of us had 14 months ago, certainly 10 years ago.

But this is of little value unless Council takes the next step, uses the data from these monitors (and other monitors perhaps to come), as well as all the other information Valero committed to share on a real-time, easy to access and use, public web site with the City as a “partner”, to address community health and safety concerns. With or without an ISO, Council has already started this process, and Council cannot go back. Council now knows the resources are out there.  We’ll see what Council does with them.  Passage of a Benicia ISO is the most effective tool for ensuring the community’s health and safety.

So, what now?  Over the next 6 months, let’s keep in mind what’s been left on the table or yet to be considered by virtue of Council’s 3-2 vote. What are the deficiencies an industrial safety ordinance would correct?

  1. Progress report. The minutes from June 19th Council state that there will be a progress report in November and then in December there will be (or should be) a meeting with choices of moving forward with an ISO or not depending on the progress report. What are the performance measures for that report? What choices will be presented to Council?  More questions than answers, which is why Terry Mollica said, “we are kicking the can down the road” if we don’t have the rehearing to set the parameters and future steps and outcomes.
  2.  Funding:  For the City to meaningfully “communicate”, i.e., have knowledge, skills set, and be copied and comment on reports, the City will need to increase staff which requires funding. An ISO would provide the funding through fees assessed on businesses subject to the ISO. How will staff follow up without funding?
  3. Promises:  The record is clear that Valero does not fulfill its promises and conditions of approval for permits.  Watch and see….
  4. Confusion and misdirection:  Valero distracts the staff, Council and public with their pat on their own back for their community contributions and their expressions of concern for public health protection.  The City and community recognizes these actions on the part of Valero and its contribution to the City’s tax base. It is nice to have non-governmental groups receive Valero money, but the issue we are talking about is air quality.
  5. Monitors:  There is great confusion about monitors – what they monitor, how they monitor, and when they do it. Council members in the 3-2 majority did not receive the benefit of Eric Stevenson’s recent meeting in Benicia discussing air monitors, nor do these Council members seem familiar with or understand the work of Air Watch Bay Area which is a data resource much more nuanced than understood.  Will the City and public be kept in the loop as Valero acquires and installs air monitoring equipment?  Will the City and public be asked for input?
  6. Regulations:  It is true that we have good state regulations, but the recent KQED story where the California Public Utilities Commission found PG&E at fault because it did not follow those regulations, makes the point of why Benicia needs an ISO.  When will state regulations be implemented?  Will public utilities and private enterprises like Valero follow the regulations?  Who will report to us, how and when?  We should have reports of the required training, the fulfillment of the training, and periodic protocol reviews to be assured that new regulations are adequate, and that they are being followed.
  7. Missing in Benicia. Finally, as an important point of reference and comparison, the Mayor of Martinez says his city has a great relationship with Shell, who invites city people to training exercises, shares reports, and offers meetings and a myriad of other “communicating” actions.  Without Contra Costa County’s ISO, his city would not be included in these ways.  Absence of news is rarely news.  That is, we won’t be seeing newspaper headlines like “Benicia did not get a quarterly report yesterday.”  Or, “On Saturday, Valero did not train City Staff on emergency response.”  Stay alert for what we DON’T hear over these next months.

So, the fight continues for a Benicia ISO. Let’s keep our eyes and ears open for the next piece of information that supports the need for an industrial safety ordinance in Benicia.