Public Comment

New: “Big Oil” in the 15th Assembly District race: Take Two.

Joanna Graham
Monday October 27, 2014 - 03:50:00 PM

Quoting Mal Warwick’s op-ed in Berkeleyside once again, “There’s no way to know why these groups [such as Big Oil] are spending so much money here. We can only assume that something about Thurmond, or his opponent, Elizabeth Echols, has moved them to support one and oppose the other.”

Reiterating that we do not and cannot know who is actually behind those Alliance for California’s Tomorrow mailers, I return to the question as to which candidate is being supported, which opposed. In my last op-ed [below], I pointed out that there is no known reason why “Big Oil” would be supporting Tony Thurmond, since on the Richmond city council he voted against Chevron’s plan to refine heavy crude—a plan that is still in limbo.

And in fact, the Echols campaign has—to my knowledge—stopped short of claiming that “Big Oil” is actually trying to put Thurmond in Sacramento. Rather, they are making the more indirect argument that “Big Oil” is so terrified of Echols’s strong environmentalism that they are supporting Thurmond in order to keep her out (“oppose the other”). 

(From a recent mailer, for example: “Elizabeth is a champion for combating climate change, enforcing air quality standards, and cleaning up our coastlines. She’s a strong advocate of a ban on fracking. As a result, Big Oil interests are spending tens of thousands of dollars in support of her opponent.”) 

So of what does this fabulous environmental record—so terrifying to the oil industry—consist? What makes Elizabeth Echols “a champion”? I turn first to the best possible source: the explanation provided by the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club for its Echols endorsement. Here it is (you can also find it word for word on Echols’s own website): 

“When it comes to clean energy and green technology, Elizabeth Echols has the experience we need to make California a leader in environmental protection and expand our green economy. 

“As the director of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Northern California Chapter, Echols worked with state legislators, labor, industry and environmental groups all over California. She has also fought for more opportunities for undeserved [sic] communities in the clean tech industry. A champion for combating climate change, enforcing air quality standards, cleaning up our coastlines, and reducing carbon emissions, Echols has also been endorsed by the California League of Conservation Voters. 

“In the state assembly, Elizabeth will stand up for a moratorium on fracking, combat climate change by promoting energy efficiency and clean technology, preserve the Bay and expand parks and open space, improve air quality by holding polluters accountable and investing in affordable public transportation, and strengthen California’s leadership in innovation and clean technology.” 

A lot of this of course is boilerplate. I mean, is there any candidate who would pledge to make our coastline dirtier or decrease parks and open space? So that leaves us to do some close textual reading and the first thing that strikes the eye is that “environmental groups” are mentioned only once—last on a list on which they are preceded by “legislators,” “labor” and “industry”—while “green technology” and related words (“clean energy,” “green economy,” etc.) get eight iterations. 

Which means that Echols’s environmentalism, according to her own stated program, consists of modest incremental steps towards “environmental protection” by means of technical solutions provided by business and industry. 

What about her actual record? After helping Google expand their overseas sales, she served as CEO of Op-Net Community Ventures, a short-lived, now-defunct nonprofit described by its founder as “an innovative dot com era program that prepared low-income people for the digital economy,” then moved to the Northern California chapter of the Green Building Council, the founder and CEO of which was Dan Geiger—the same guy who started Op-Net—who states on his LinkedIn page, “I believe that what’s good for the planet is good for business.” 

Shades of GM exec Charlie Wilson who is so famously remembered for saying: “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa.” In Private Empire, his excellent book on ExxonMobil, Steve Coll reveals that after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, the company became so safety conscious they got after their employees about stuff like wearing helmets when they biked. I am right now imagining Chevron corporation engineers planning their next deep ocean or arctic drilling adventure while working in an LEED-certified building! It will be so much healthier for them. 

Which is to express my opinion that while green buildings are certainly preferable to non-green ones, as an approach to climate change and all the other many environmental catastrophes we humans are creating at breakneck speed, building of any sort is probably a less than adequate response and even possibly part of the problem, since slowing down economic activity to sustainable levels seems key. 

The building approach to environmentalism reaches its nadir, in my estimation, in the pro-Echols mailer from the Professional Engineers in California Government PAC (her husband is a CalTrans engineer) which asserts that “building transportation projects” will “create jobs, reduce congestion, preserve the environment, and improve our quality of life.” I imagine a brand new super highway, or possibly the California high-speed railroad—a project which Echols supports—right down the middle of the provided picture of a stream flowing through ferny woods. 

Bates-Hancock is closely aligned with developers, contractors, and the building trades. That’s why, I assume, Hancock drove her controversial “gut and amend” bill SB 54 through the state senate last year. It pitted the member unions of the State Building and Construction Trades Council against refinery workers, many of whom are members of the United Steel Workers—a move that caused a stir because it threatened to put Contra Costa’s immensely important and hard-won industrial safety ordinance at risk. 

It’s also, I assume why Elizabeth Echols is the Chosen One of the Bates-Hancock machine. Her CV in the “green building” industry (“a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”) and her cautious, pro-business, conflict-free approach to the issues that confront us make her the next excellent torchbearer. But I find risible the suggestion that her record so terrifies Chevron that “Big Oil” is spending big bucks to defeat her. 

I don’t need or expect Echols to be the kind of person who chains herself to the White House fence, or sits in a tree for a year, or blows up power plants. But somehow I imagine her as someone who has always had the kind of job where people in suits sit around a big table in a nice conference room and work out plans that will “improve people’s lives” while incidentally enriching themselves (“what’s good for the planet is good for business”). 

Unfortunately, however, conflict is real. For example, Chevron wants to expand its Richmond refinery to handle more polluting fuels; the residents of Richmond want their kids to be able to breathe and also not get cancer. I’m not sure Elizabeth Echols has the slightest clue that this is true—or maybe I’m just worried about which side she’ll be on. 

For example [see above], her website and Sierra Club endorsement state that “Elizabeth will stand up for a moratorium on fracking,” but the mailer from which I quote (“East Bay Woman”) says “she’s a strong advocate of a ban.” So, Elizabeth, which is it?