Monday, November 12, 2012

How Citizens United affects local environmental causes

Image courtesy of
UPDATE January 5, 2013 - You can read more about Richmond's relationship with Chevron in a recent New York Times story. 

The election of 2012 was notable for many things, including the wave of corporate money that was used to influence elections. As a result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United case, corporations can now contribute unlimited sums to elections on politics. Approximately $6 billion was spent on the 2012 election; almost $2 billion was spent in the Presidential election.

Interestingly, it isn't clear that all that money did much to influence the outcome in the Presidential election or even state-wide elections such as those for Senate. There is so much money coming in via FEC-regulated donations that the corporate donations may not shift the big races for President, Senate, Governor, etc., much at all. Consider Ohio: almost $150 million was spent on TV ads in Ohio. Do you really think that the 1000th political ad anyone saw changed her mind?

That's not to say that Corporate and other unregulated money didn't influence the election - just that its influence took place in the political understory - at the district or local level. Here, corporations get a real bang for their donation bucks - at the expense of good government and often the environment.

Chevron Refinery, Richmond CA
I know first-hand of one such example, from my own hometown of Richmond, CA. Some Union College students may have heard of Richmond if you have taken ENS100 - Introduction to Environmental Studies. I have presented the case study of the influence of Chevron USA, which has a large refinery in Richmond, on the city's politics.

Thanks to Citizens United, Chevron's influence on Richmond politics has gone nuclear.

Richmond, CA. The Chevron refinery can be seen at the upper part of this picture
Richmond is a city of 100,000 citizens within the San Francisco Bay Area. The media landscape is dominated by San Francisco and, to a lesser extent, Oakland and San Jose. Richmond has no dedicated TV stations and only one regional newspaper covering local issues. In the past, political races were run and won on less than $100,000. This allowed for a diverse City Council with a variety of viewpoints.

In 2012, however, SuperPACs contributed $4 million into the races for 3 seats on the Richmond City Council. Of that, $2 million was contributed by Chevron. As a result, two of Chevron's three candidates won in November. A Progressive alliance that expects Chevron to be a fair player and environmental steward won only one seat. The next round of elections, in 2014, will likely see similar "investments" by Chevron.

Make no mistake: Chevron views these contributions as investments. Progressive Alliance member Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and others on the City Council are insisting that Chevron improve their safety and environmental record. These concerns are not hypothetical - Richmond residents suffered at the hand of a major fire at the refinery in August 2012.

Thanks to the Citizens United decision, Chevron can flood the city's billboards and mailboxes with message on behalf of their chosen candidates. And then Chevron will expect a tidy return on their investment from their newly elected City Councilmembers.

The environment will be the loser - another casualty of Citizens United.

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