ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now, a story about the number one producer of greenhouse gases in California. That distinction goes to the Chevron Corporation's oil refinery in the Bay Area town of Richmond, just east of San Francisco. The refinery opened more than a century ago. In spite of the bad air, Richmond has been a loyal company town. Until lately.
NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.
(Soundbite of refinery)
RICHARD GONZALES: The Chevron refinery is nestled on a bank of hills right next to the San Francisco Bay. It's a Byzantine complex of tanks, steam boilers and 8,000 miles of piping.
Mr. DEAN O'HARE(ph): We're about 2,900 acres. The refinery produces jet fuel, gasoline and diesel as high-valued products and also lubricating oil.
GONZALES: That's Dean O'Hare, my guide for a driving tour of the refinery.
Mr. O'HARE: About 20 to 25 percent of the gasoline market is supplied by Chevron. So it's - we're a regionally important facility from that standpoint as well.
GONZALES: Over the past century, the Richmond refinery has prospered, helping Chevron to make billions of dollars in profits. And those profits are a target of the city's green mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, who's been trying to raise Chevron's local taxes.
Mayor GAYLE MCLAUGHLIN (Richmond, California): What makes this fair is Richmond has suffered, especially in the neighborhoods around the refinery, among the highest rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease due to pollution that has come from the refinery.
GONZALES: McLaughlin backed a voter effort to raise Chevron's business license fees, a measure a judge later overturned. Tensions over this and other tax disputes causes company officials to hint that it may be time to leave Richmond.
Mike Coyle is the refinery's general manager.
Mr. MIKE COYLE (General Manager, Chevron Richmond Refinery): The Richmond refinery has been here well over 100 years. And we've had good times and bad times. Nobody likes divorce.
GONZALES: Richmond's mayor thinks Chevron's talk of moving is a bluff. But the company says it needs to stay competitive, and to do that, it wants to make some major technical upgrades to the refinery. But so far a local judge has temporarily blocked that, pending more environmental review. Meanwhile, Chevron's local critics on the street are emboldened.
Mr. HENRY CLARK (Environmental Activist): Chevron is a corporate polluter. They really don't care nothing about the lives of our people in our community.
GONZALES: That's Henry Clark, environmental activist and long-time Chevron antagonist.
Mr. CLARK: We must stop these international greenhouse gangsters from Richmond, from north Richmond to Montpelier to Ecuador.
GONZALES: Chevron is trying to boost its local image. It says it will spend more than $3 million this year helping Richmond's nonprofits and economic development projects.
Ms. KANDEA MOSLEY (Director of Sales and Marketing, Solar Richmond): So, my name is Kandea Mosley. I'm the director of sales and marketing at Solar Richmond.
GONZALES: One of those groups is Solar Richmond, which trains workers on how to install solar panels on homes. We're standing on a hill overlooking a new housing development capped with solar panels installed by its trainees. The company just received a small grant from Chevron to train another 45 workers. Mosley said her green firm didn't hesitate to take Chevron's money.
Ms. MOSLEY: Chevron is grappling with what it means to be a 21st century corporate citizen. And I think to the extent that we can figure out ways to work together, to accelerate renewable energy adoption and also create employment opportunities right here at home in Richmond, we want to be a part of that work.
GONZALES: Winning new friends could forestall talk of the refinery leaving. Still, many are wondering how the marriage between Chevron and the city of Richmond can be saved.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.