Oil giant created its own local news outlet in 2014, determined to have its voice heard at home to key refinery
By Ed King
The Californian city of Richmond is a city of happy workers, clean air and plenty of trees, reports a local news site.
It’s especially lucky to have a beneficent local employer, which regards economic growth as a priority.
Sometimes those locals are even invited to the employer’s offices where they can conduct “actual research” and take job training classes.
Welcome to the US West Coast, where fossil fuel giant Chevron owns the news and controls the messaging in a city of 100,000.
Richmond also happens to be the location for one of the US$200 billion oil and gas major’s largest refineries, which employs 3,536 locals.
This isn’t George Orwell’s 1984, it’s 2015: a media landscape where declining local coverage allows the Chevron-funded Richmond Standard news website to offer a “community driven” news source.
In reality, it’s a platform for Chevron to try and rebuild community links that were shattered in 2012 when a huge fire at the refinery left 15,000 residents needing hospital treatment.
Air quality is still a major concern for locals, 80% of whom said in a 2013 survey that the environment should be a priority for the city’s government.
The site launched in January 2014 and is edited by Mike Aldax, a former San Francisco Examiner reporter. He also works for Singer Associates, one of the many PR firms Chevron uses.
Stories are usually upbeat and local.
Aldax tells RTCC this news mix draws in 60,000 unique users a month; impressive considering the town is only 100,000-strong.
But the Standard also displays an intriguing interest in the environment, without seemingly mentioning a planned $1 billion expansion of the refinery.
On July 10 it reported on a planned march by campaigners against the transportation of crude oil by train. It is a common practice in the US, but one that left 47 dead in 2013 after an explosion.
The report says Richmond residents have voiced concerns about the potential for derailments and explosions since the shipments began last year.
“Crude-by-rail shipments are not transported to the Chevron Richmond refinery, which only receives crude oil by ship,” it adds, apropos of nothing.
On June 29 it shared the happy news air quality isn’t actually that bad compared to “most other” bay Area cities, citing data from the local area’s air quality management district.
“These findings dispute allegations by some that the Chevron Richmond Refinery is the city’s main source of particulate matter pollution, or even a significant source,” it says.
A quote from Steve Yang, one of Chevron’s environmental specialists, says the refinery has reduced regulated air pollutant releases by 86% since the 1970s.
It’s not an analysis many US green groups agree with, although you wouldn’t know from reading the article.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, five oil companies operate in the Bay Area District, on average releasing twice the level of toxic gases compared with Los Angeles refineries.
“Bay Area Refineries currently emit 7 times more nitrogen oxides (NOx), 3 times more sulfur dioxide and at least a third more organic hydrocarbons (like benzene) than Southern CA refineries, yet Southern California refineries collectively have over a third more capacity,” says a 2014 NRDC report.
Greg Karras, a scientist with the Californian Communities for a Better Environment NGO dismisses the Standard as a “company PR rag”.
He too has been the target of its coverage, with a 2014 article questioning his scientific credentials, but Karras maintains it does not fully represent the air concerns of citizens.
“The Richmond refinery emits more than half of the total fine PM [particulate matter] from all sources (cars, stacks, stoves etc.) in all of Richmond. So a claim that this refinery has cleaned up its emissions adequately would be untrue,” he said.
“Chevron picks a few measurements out of context to claim it has cleaned up pollution that still threatens our health. And when we show our hospital records to disprove that greenwashing, Chevron hides behind air officials who cannot admit they do not monitor its very real air pollution impacts.”
“If you’re looking for criticism of Chevron you’re not going to find it in the Richmond Standard”
In an email to RTCC, Aldax defends the air quality data story, stressing it was presented “based on facts and viable sources”.
“We believe such information is important to report so that local residents can make informed decisions on issues including emissions and climate change,” he adds.
And he clear about the Richmond Standard’s remit. “We have been fully transparent about Chevron’s sponsorship of the Standard from the beginning.
“In fact, we include a disclaimer on the top-right corner of the home page which makes that point clear to readers.”
In a separate interview with the Guardian, he admitted the aim of the site was not to challenge the refinery.
“If you’re looking for criticism of Chevron you’re not going to find it in the Richmond Standard,” he said.
Still, Chevron’s branding on the site is minimal and, bar the “Chevron Speaks” portal, reports are projected as objective and balanced.
As Michael Hiltzik at the LA Times argues, it’s just not clear to the general public what’s news and what’s spin.
“This is what the news business has come to in communities where economics have wiped out traditional local newspapers,” he wrote last year.
“Self-interested corporations have stepped into the vacuum. You’d be hard-pressed to find a case as flagrant as Richmond’s.”