Oil Slick on the Blue Wave

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May 4, 2019

By Kevin Hall

The headline reads, “API Plans Major Disinformation Campaign: Industry opponents of a treaty to fight global warming have drafted an ambitious proposal to spend millions of dollars to convince the public that the environmental accord is based on shaky science.”

It’s from a New York Times article. Dated April 26, 1998. API is the American Petroleum Institute.

It’s been a long two decades of lies, deceit, corruption, and killing, but oil and gas industry executives — members of the most powerful interest group on Earth — continue their heartless methods of exploitation here and abroad. As evidenced by the violence in Nigeria, Yemen, Iraq, Venezuela, South Sudan, and more, oil executive know few moral bounds.

Mayor Jose Gurrola of Arvin signed the Environmental Caucus “no oil money” pledge at the 2017 California Democratic Party convention. More local politicians can do the same later this month when Dems gather again in San Francisco.

And they walk among us.

In California these individuals have successfully delayed or diluted every major piece of climate legislation enacted by state lawmakers, relying on Republicans and moderate Democrats to do their dirty work and rewarding them richly either through campaign contributions to stay in power or employment connections after leaving office. Sometimes both.

Take former state senator Michael Rubio and former assemblymember Henry T. Perea, the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon of valley Democratic politics. The oil slick spreading from the travesty of their political careers is now coating the feathers of local politicians.

These two men are the poster boys for all that is wrong with the blue party’s politics as practiced in the San Joaquin Valley. Both were career politicians with little or no private or nonprofit sector experience. Both reneged on their oaths of office to leave elected office a year early to join the ranks of Big Oil & Gas and Big Pharma in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Perea readily slipped on an oil suit a year later when he joined Western States Petroleum Association.

But a sharp-edged pendulum of environmental justice appears to be swinging back hard and fast. As the Times reported a generation later on April 18, 2019, 84 percent of likely Democratic voters now rank action on climate change and the move to clean energy as essential or very important; voter support is even higher among Latinos and higher still among Spanish speakers.

Driving the call for direct action is the climate science-fueled movement growing rapidly under the inspirational leadership domestically of 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.,  and in Europe of 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg where tens of thousands of students now go on a climate strike from school every Friday.

Lagging behind are local and state Democrats, many of whom claim to be concerned about environmental justice issues but who often vote against the interests of the frontline communities who want pollution eliminated at its source. Nor do they grasp the level of general public growing panic and emerging bloc of single-issue — climate change — voters.

In short, now would be a good time for Paul Caprioglio, Luis Chavez, Nelson Esparza, and Esmeralda Soria to get out their campaign account checkbooks and return some tainted contributions. Nearly $100,000 in Big Oil money made its way into Fresno politics last year, and these Democrats on the Fresno city council have received direct and indirect contributions from Chevron and the California Independent Petroleum Association.

And there’s plenty more where that came from. As of November 2017, the California Democratic Party no longer accepts money from oil and gas PACs or their representatives in Sacramento, so now it’s gushing directly into political action committees and independent expenditure committees which circumvent campaign contribution limits by running their own campaigns in support of candidates.

‘Essentially, it’s legalized corruption. It’s legal. Companies can spend as much as they want to elect people who are going to do what they want.’                                                 –Mayor Jose Gurrola, Arvin

According to CalMatters, during the 2017-18 election cycle, Big Oil & Gas pumped $19.2 million into state politics, including $14 million into independent committees with one spending $343,000 to re-elect Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield. Another $2 million went straight into the coffers of the Republican Party.

Soria’s contributions came directly from the Irvine-based petroleum association in the form of a pair of $2,500 contributions on Feb. 24 and June 4, according to City of Fresno Electronic Filing System reports. She has a direct connection to the organization through Willie Rivera; they both worked for Rubio when he was in the senate. After Rubio quit, Soria went to work for Perea. Until he quit.

It only gets oilier from here.  

Soria $5000
Council member Esmeralda Soria received $5,000 in direct contributions from the California Independent Petroleum Association in 2018. Chevron donated $90,000 to the Chamber of Commerce PAC which gave $5,400 each to Luis Chavez and Nelson Esparza.

As it turns out, Rivera is a Democrat who holds elected office, too. He’s a Bakersfield city council member, but his day job is as regulatory affairs director for the California Independent Petroleum Association, whose political action committee contributed $3,000 in 2018 to Rivera’s campaign account in addition to Soria’s $5,000.

Rivera is apparently so serious about his job as an oil industry junkyard dog fighting off government regulation, he works after hours for them, too. In 2018 the association PAC launched a $20,000 campaign against Democrats in Arvin where a group of young, progressive Latinx officeholders led by Mayor Jose Gurrola had dared to update the highly polluted city’s oil and gas code from 1965. The move was prompted by a gas line leak in 2014 that forced the evacuation of eight homes. Rivera’s employer wanted the ordinance overturned. Gurrola’s majority held after a lot of door-to-door grassroots campaigning.

In light of some Democrats’ newfound sensibilities regarding climate change, air pollution, environmental racism, and human survival, you know, the basics, Soria, who entered this year with $107,485.81 in her campaign account, should now make a clean break with her tainted former colleagues and return the $5,000. Because any organization or individual seeking to reverse progress in Arvin is attacking a frontline community that has taken a stand against the most destructive industry in human history.

Similarly, Caprioglio, Chavez, and Esparza need to break out the checkbooks, too. Chavez and Esparza each received $5,400 and Caprioglio, who ran unopposed, took in $500. While they are probably unaware of it, oil money seeped into their campaign accounts last year via the Fresno Chamber of Commerce PAC. The business group received a $90,000 contribution from Rubio and Chevron in May 2018. The money covered all of the PAC’s campaign contribution costs for the year.  Rubio’s paymaster also moved more than $350,000 through Rivera’s petro-bosses’ PAC in the 2017-18 cycle, which accounted for half of the group’s spending.

Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil have spent hundreds of millions over decades to delay action on climate change, leading the world to the brink of catastrophe. As the people living in frontline communities courageously advocate for a just transition off fossil fuels, including a 50 percent reduction by 2030 to avoid runaway climate chaos, now is the time for local leaders to lead by example.

When the next oil executive offers a contribution to a candidate, committee or PAC, they should be sent packing. And when valley Democrats attend their party’s statewide convention later this month, they should sign the environmental caucus’s pledge to refuse all fossil fuel contributions.

Consider what Mayor Gurrola told KGET News in Bakersfield: “Essentially, it’s legalized corruption. It’s legal. Companies can spend as much as they want to elect people who are going to do what they want.”

He signed the pledge.



Developer Dollars, Democratic Duplicity

(This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Community Alliance magazine.)

By Kevin Hall

Few were downtown at Fresno city hall on a cold morning in late January to witness the new council fail its first real test of character. The one that matters most in city politics, it’s a single-question exam: Do developers still run this town?

They do.

The new five-member, veto-proof Democratic majority on the council has raised the hopes of many locals. At long last, some say, our humble burg of half a million souls will be governed by a body with a greater interest in the needs of poor and working families, one willing to take on the special interests running roughshod over lives and futures.

Assemi Kashian $ Totals
When dread developer Darius Assemi looks up at the dais in Fresno City Hall, he is looking at more than $200,000 invested by his family members and their businesses in the political careers of the current council and mayor. The city’s election cycle limits are easily ignored and candidates often receive four or five times the limit from Assemi interests. Commercial developer Ed Kashian is the second most prolific backer in local politics.

Continue reading Developer Dollars, Democratic Duplicity

Neighborhood Killers

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Community Alliance.

By Kevin Hall

The climate change movement’s new demand of congressional candidates and incumbents is that they refuse all contributions from fossil fuel interests and pledge to support the Green New Deal. While that must also hold true for local politicians, an equally important step for city council members and county supervisors would be to refuse all developer money.

That’s a very tall order in Fresno politics, but that day might be near at hand. A new movement led by local nonprofits is competing with the influence of developer campaign contributions by working to bring more people to the polls through Integrated Voter Engagement programs. Funded largely by The California Endowment but with significant support coming in from other foundations, a few unions, at least one politically ambitious billionaire, and others, their focus is on community residents who normally don’t vote but will when engaged in meaningful ways.


Caglia site
The Orange Ave. Dump landfill rises above the Caglia Family Enterprises-owned Cedar Ave. Recycling Center. The new Amazon distribution center is just above (west) of it and beyond that is the Ulta Beauty Products warehouse. Both projects were approved by the city without any environmental review. Caglia sought the same for 110 acres of land immediately south (left). Photo by Joey Hall

Improved public health policies and practices of local government and other civic institutions is the laudable goal of the effort. But these system changes eventually boil down to votes by elected officials, and that’s when these same politicians face realpolitik choices. Play it safe and side with the moneyed interests or dare to follow the community’s lead and stand up against the forces of institutionalized racism and systemic poverty.


Consider the still unfolding tale of Richard Caglia, an elected trustee of the State Center Community College District, and his 110-acre warehouse industrial development proposal for South-Central Fresno. The saga took a surprise twist in January when Caglia withdrew his request of the city and asked that the city council rescind his permit applications. They did, relieving the city of its losing legal battle they faced at the hands of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in defense of the council’s earlier approval.

“It’s not just about providing a space for further industrial development, but that we have an honest conversation about economic development that values not just the work that people are engaging in but also their lives and their health.”

However, the project isn’t dead. The land is still zoned industrial, and it’s safe to say Mayor Lee Brand wants to see it developed, along with a broad swath of the city’s heavily industrialized and historically racially and economically segregated south side.

This tension between unfettered profit from industrial development and protection of people’s lives might be as old as the hills, but it’s best symbolized by the man-made mound known as the Orange Ave. Dump which sits at north end of the Caglia property along Cedar Ave. just below Fwy. 99.

The former landfill was recently topped with a large cross, fittingly giving it the look of a giant burial mound. It has been shuttered for years but the contaminated aquifer beneath it still requires constant monitoring. Immediately next to it is the Cedar Ave. Recycling and Transfer station where the multi-generational Caglia family business in garbage hauling continues unabated.

A steady stream of diesel trucks arrives throughout the day; fires break out regularly from the large mounds of wet trash awaiting sorting, spewing toxic clouds of burning plastics and electronics; and next to which Mayor Brand wants to see people working in trucking centers that he euphemistically refers to as “e-commerce” centers.

The unanimous Jan. 17 vote by the council to honor Caglia’s request and rescind the permit applications was a profoundly important moment in Fresno history. It contains all the elements of old Fresno, from the family with strong political connections trying to avoid environmental regulations and the politicians who serve them, to the civic insurgency being led by groups such as Leadership Counsel, Fresno Building Healthy Communities, Communities for a New California, and Cultiva la Salud and the new politicians who claim to represent their neighborhoods.

The emerging debate over industrial development throughout the area will be the defining issue for Fresno’s new city council, which enjoys a 5-2 majority of Democrats, four of whom identify as Latinx and harbor greater political ambitions. The real test of their mettle is still to come.

The political ideology of the remaining Republicans, Steve Brandau and Garry Bredefeld, is set. They can be counted on to vote in favor of the lowest possible bar for industrial polluters. That’s the attitude, of course, that created this catastrophe.

A few years back, when Mayor Brand and former council member turned city economic development director Larry Westerlund were shouting about cutting the red tape and “Fresno is open for business,” we now know they meant state-mandated environmental impact assessments were being ignored. Massive projects such as Amazon, Ulta, Caglia, and the expanded Gap Inc. warehouse were being waived through.

However, now that Leadership Counsel has managed to stop this mad rush and even got the office of State Attorney General Xavier Becerra to weigh in, will real leadership emerge on the city council?

A clue might be found in the example of former council member Oliver Baines. This Democrat just left office after eight years of representing District 3, home to the Caglia project. He spent seven years as a large city representative to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the agency whose staff originally called on the city to conduct a full EIR for the project.

But last January, on the night before the the Democrat-laden city council’s unanimous vote to ignore well-established environmental law, Baines told Channel 30 reporter Cory James, “We’ve done everything we can as a city to mitigate whatever health impacts are going to be out there.” That statement was so far from accurate it would be laughable if not for the dangers posed to the thousands of people living in the immediate area.

It’s now time for the Fresno City Council to break from the developer-driven agenda that has shaped our community for the worse. However, in December the city signed a $1 million contract with consultants to revise the city’s General Plan EIR and develop an “Industrial Area Priority Specific Plan.” The first steps have been taken behind closed doors and the city plans to conduct no public outreach beyond the bare legal minimum.

But as Sandra Celedon told the council before its vote to rescind the Caglia proposal, “It’s not just about providing a space for further industrial development, but that we have an honest conversation about economic development that values not just the work that people are engaging in but also their lives and their health.”

Or as Leadership Counsel stated on its website announcement of the victory, “This and other similar developments must be done in an inclusive, thoughtful and strategic way that benefits the residents of Fresno, not harms them. The proposed development is bad business and a neighborhood killer.”

Kevin Hall hosts Climate Politics from 5 to 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Fridays of each month on KFCF 88.1 FM. He is on Twitter at @sjvalleyclimate and @airfrezno. Contact him at sjvalleyclimate@gmail.com.


The Politics of Parenting

(This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of Community Alliance, http://www.alliance.com.)

By Kevin Hall

Parents worldwide are faced with far greater fears and challenges today than at any time in history. They have the enormous responsibility for children’s lives, people they have chosen to bring into a world with a rapidly destabilizing climate. It’s a shared responsibility, of course, because at this point anyone under the age of 50 cannot count on having a stable climate in their old age.


Nearly 20 million people were climate refugees in 2018, according to U.N. estimates. Internally dislocated people, from hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to the firestorm victims in Paradise and Magalia, are already straining governmental relief systems in the U.S. Externally dislocated climate refugees, who must seek safety outside their own countries, are dying at the hands of uncaring brutes everywhere from the California-Mexico border to the Mediterranean. Continue reading The Politics of Parenting