RICHMOND In this East Bay industrial belt whose communities are both dependent on oil and aware of its dangers, the explosions and fires that engulfed Richmond's Chevron refinery last month stunned three people with decidedly different choices for America's next president.
Waterfront developer Richard Poe was puzzled by the camera crew setting up on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge on Aug. 6 and drove on "like Mr. Magoo," unaware of the explosions a mile behind him.
When he saw it unfolding later on television, Poe, who supports Mitt Romney, blamed President Barack Obama and environmentalists for excessive regulations that he contends have blocked improvements which would make refineries safer.
Iyalode Kinney, a sustainable foods gardener known as "Earth Mother," climbed onto the roof of her solar-powered live-work space in Richmond and set up her telescope to see what was happening.
When she reflected on the accident that sent residents to hospitals with breathing problems and burning eyes, Kinney, who plans to vote for Obama, hailed the president's efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. And she suggested more people should get out of their cars altogether.
In nearby San Pablo, environmental advocate Andrés Soto saw the "big black mushroom cloud," closed all the windows at his girlfriend's house, and "sheltered in place," even before an emergency siren blared.
Soto blames the accident on national policies that boost "profit motive over safety" something he said neither candidate is willing to reconcile. He said he can't support Romney or Obama when it comes to energy and the environment.
The three Richmond residents live on the west end of a 30-mile-long stretch of the Bay Area that encompasses five refineries and several chemical plants, and collectively produces more than 600,000 barrels of oil daily.
From Antioch to Richmond, more than 30,000 jobs hinge on the petrochemical industry, from the construction trades to product suppliers to insurance companies and financial services.
The people who live and work in this industrial swath view the nation's energy policies though a prism of community and personal experience. Many pin their livelihoods on fossil fuels and look to the petroleum sector to protect the economic vitality of their neighborhoods. Some have seen the fires and breathed the fumes of refinery accidents and look for safeguards that ensure energy production will not come at the sacrifice of health and environment.
Their debates offer a microcosm of discussions playing out across the nation: Does construction of the Keystone XL pipeline designed to carry oil sands crude from Canada to refineries at the Gulf of Mexico represent a path to American energy independence or a deeper reliance on dirty crude that threatens sensitive habitat and watersheds?
Was the Obama administration's moratorium on underwater drilling after the Deepwater Horizon disaster an environmentally prudent pause or an overreaching job-killer?
They argue over Obama's hearty endorsement of solar power and renewable energy vs. Romney's call for more drilling and mining on public lands.
Some are drawn to Romney's energy plan, a "pro-jobs, pro-market" platform that criticizes Obama for "an unhealthy 'green' jobs obsession" and declares "the president and the regulatory bodies" are waging war on oil and coal.
Others are drawn to Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, a plan that aims to balance green energy and "safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production" with "the most aggressive and comprehensive reforms" to ensure safety of offshore drilling.
Hazards shape politics
In Richmond, the recent inferno in the No. 4 Crude Unit at the Chevron refinery in the bluffs west of town, overlooking the San Francisco Bay, resulted in no fatalities. But it stoked reminders of hazards endemic to the region such as a 1999 explosion that killed four workers at what was then a Tosco refinery near Martinez, or the 16-day chemical leak from the former Unocal refinery in Rodeo that left nearby residents complaining of illness for months afterward.
Ralph Sattler, who lives in Martinez, said his anger at the handling of a 1992 sulfuric acid spill and fire that killed a worker in that community's Rhone Poulenc chemical plant "helped solidify my politics" and community involvement.
Sattler, a retired newspaper credit manager, landed an appointment on the neighborhood advisory board for the company that took over the plant, Rhodia Chemical. He said he saw an adversarial relationship between neighbors and the company ease and lead to changes, including a switch to processing cleaner chemical compounds.
Meanwhile, his experience on other boards involved in implementing community warning systems and reviewing refinery and chemical accidents persuaded him that major incidents required major review. So he was pleased when Obama halted underwater drilling to study its safety following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil slick in the gulf. He was offended when Romney ripped the move, blasting Obama for a "sweeping moratorium" that killed jobs.
"It's ludicrous," said Sattler, a Democrat who plans to vote for Obama. He said the scope of the accident which spawned an oil spill considered one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history demanded sober review. "You don't know what other problems exist. You haven't solved what happened."
In nearby Richmond, Soto, 57, is an advocate for the Communities for a Better Environment office. In a community with a history of cleanup sites dating back to its era as a World War II shipyard, Soto says there "is a special sensitivity" for promoting clean industry and protecting neighborhoods from toxic exposure.
Though a Democrat, Soto doesn't plan to vote for Obama. He said he is offended by the president's touting "clean-coal technology" when "there is no such thing as clean coal." He said the president has done nothing to stop mountaintops from being leveled for mining and revealed himself as just another politician wedded to oil by refusing to block the Keystone project.
Soto said he also finds repugnant Romney's plan to overhaul the Clean Air Act by removing from its purview the carbon dioxide emissions broadly blamed for fueling global climate change. In his energy platform, Romney maintains that the act is being used by Obama to force costly standards on industry without approval by Congress.
"It makes him (Romney) a global-warming denier," said Soto. He said he might vote for the Green Party candidate, though he wasn't sure who that was. (It's Dr. Jill Stein, a Massachusetts physician.)
'Green' at what cost?
For his part, Poe, developer of Marina Shores Research Center, a Richmond business park that includes offices for Chevron, said Romney is right to retool the Clean Air Act to roll back regulations.
America would be energy-independent, he said, and creating more jobs "if it wasn't for environmental regulations." Amending the Clean Air Act is not a major concern, he said, "when you have 23 million people unemployed and in Richmond 17 percent unemployment."
Poe, a Republican, said he, too, wants to protect his community. He wants Chevron to speed up plans to add monitoring equipment for toxic chemicals on the refinery fence lines. He wants the next president to provide tax credits for refineries that upgrade technology and safety measures. He disagrees with Obama's push to roll back tax breaks for oil companies.
Jeff Oliver, 46, a Carpenters Union member and energy services subcontractor at the Shell Oil refinery in Martinez, comes at the issue from a different perspective. He said he is glad Obama is "just not throwing the keys to Big Oil."
Oliver has spent a career in an "inherently, dangerously unforgiving environment." On one hand, he doesn't want government meddling in refining, unless it's "to reward refineries for stepping up" and making improvements. On the other, he said, "I think they already get good tax benefits."
A Democrat, Oliver supports the Keystone XL pipeline despite the concerns raised about its potential environmental impacts. He said he expects Obama, who has delayed the project for further environmental review, to move forward on the venture to tap "the biggest oil reserves in the world."
Rod "Doc" McKenzie, who works in a milling, lathing and welding shop near the Shell refinery, doesn't trust Obama on the Keystone project or to advance American oil independence.
"Obama was against Keystone before he was for it," said McKenzie, 55, an independent voter who supports Romney. He said the president is "too dreamy" in hyping green energy and electric cars that "guys like me can never afford."
McKenzie used to run his own machine shop, employing 40 people. It closed in 2007 during the administration of President George W. Bush. McKenzie thinks his best chance of coming back is under the pro-industry policies of Romney, a venture capitalist "who understands business."
In downtown Martinez, Stan Thomas is another decline-to-state voter who supports Romney. Thomas, known as "Stan the Beekeeper," owns a dry-cleaning business and backyard honey operation. He said he is "all for saving the environment" but that Obama's job performance suggests he doesn't know what he's doing.
Thomas said the president was right to back solar energy development, but he was stunned that the administration gave a $525 million stimulus loan guarantee to the Fremont solar power plant, Solyndra, without recognizing it would fail.
"It sounds like Obama would do a better job on the environment," Thomas offered. "But I just don't want to see him in office for another four years."
But for Iyalode Kinney, a Democrat, environment is a defining issue. Kinney, who watched the Chevron explosion and fire through her rooftop telescope, said her politics center on promoting alternatives to gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing vehicles.
Kinney heads a Richmond group that plants urban food gardens, verdant with vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. She said she is glad that Obama demanded a doubling of fuel-efficiency standards. And she is thrilled with Michelle Obama's green thumb.
"I absolutely love the fact," she said, "that they have a garden at the White House."
WHERE THEY STAND ON ENERGY
The Democratic and Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency on energy and the environment:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
Claims credit for nearly doubling renewable energy generation sources since 2008 and approving solar, wind and geothermal projects on public lands.
Set a 10-year goal to develop "cost-effective clean coal technology" while calling on Congress to eliminate "wasteful tax breaks" for the oil and gas industries.
Touts establishment, through the Environmental Protection Agency, of first-ever national standards for mercury emissions and other "dangerous toxins from coal- and oil-fired power plants."
Called for expedited review of the Keystone XL pipeline portion from Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas, while demanding environmental study of the full project.
Quote: "I will not let oil companies write this country's energy plan, or endanger our coastlines, or collect another $4 billion in corporate welfare."
GOP NOMINEE MITT ROMNEY
Supports letting states, not the federal government, make decisions on oil and gas drilling and coal mining on federal lands within their borders.
Would cut tax credits for wind-energy projects and eliminate federal assistance for renewable energy projects, while preserving tax breaks and subsidies for oil.
Advocates overhauling the Clean Air Act to eliminate carbon dioxide from its purview and streamline rules affecting coal power "to preserve our environmental gains without destroying jobs."
Supports the Keystone XL pipeline project, saying Obama is delaying construction.
Quote: "President Obama has intentionally sought to shut down oil, gas and coal production in pursuit of his own alternative energy agenda."
Source: Bee research