Chevron scholarship an idea to gush over
Lance Iversen, The Chronicle
Smoke rises from the Chevron refinery fire on Aug. 6. Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt has proposed that Chevron's settlement over the blaze include college scholarships to qualified Richmond youth.
By Chip Johnson
May 31, 2013
Atonement comes in many forms, both spiritual and physical, but Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt believes it can best be achieved in a settlement with the Chevron Oil Co. for a refinery blaze last summer that sent thousands of people to hospitals.
In addition to any heartfelt apology issued by the company, Butt wants to see Chevron provide full-tuition scholarships for every qualified Richmond public high school graduate.
"Chevron knows they are going to pay a significant amount to settle the fire, and have said they are open to sitting down and negotiating a settlement," Butt said.
"We are proposing that some portion of the settlement funds go to a program that might be called the 'Richmond Promise,' " he wrote in a letter sent to supporters that was also given to Chevron officials last week.
Butt, an Arkansas native, is borrowing a page from back home.
His proposal is based on the "El Dorado Promise," a program begun by the Murphy Oil Co., in 2007 to provide full four-year college tuition scholarships to any eligible graduating high school senior in the blue-collar city of El Dorado, Ark. It set aside $50 million for the program in its first year.
The oil company in El Dorado provides up to $7,400 each year, the cost of annual state university tuition, to any El Dorado high school student who qualifies.
Since the program began, the graduation rate in the industrial, blue-collar city of 21,000 residents has climbed from 60 percent to 81 percent. The program has attracted new students and increased the size of the public school district.
In Richmond, Butt figures the same pledge would cost Chevron about $13,000 per student, or around $1 million in the first year and up to $5 million a year as more students take part.
Mathew Sumner, Special To The Chronicle
Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt attends an update on the federal probe into the fire last year.
Melissa Ritchie, a Chevron spokeswoman, said Chevron is aware of the idea but she declined to talk about it, saying only: "We are continuing ongoing discussions with the city of Richmond regarding how Chevron and the city can be effective community partners."
Compared with the anticipated cost of the fire settlement, the years-long tax dispute with city officials and the company's pledge for economic revitalization in the city, Butt's proposal sounds like a winner. Chevron has already pledged to spend $15 million beefing up Richmond's economy - and, in 2010, agreed to a $114 million municipal tax payment over the next 15 years.
In December, Chevron announced a $1 million grant to be distributed among six nonprofit organizations to fund educational and self-sufficiency programs.
"Chevron is committed to boosting Richmond's economic development and improving the quality of life for local residents," said Heather Kulp, public affairs manager for Chevron's Richmond Refinery, in a statement announcing the grants. "We believe that investing in these key areas will create a stronger, healthier Richmond economy, which is not only good for people living in this community but is also good for the long-term success of the local business community."
If Kulp's statement reflects Chevron's commitment to helping Richmond as well as operating a profitable business in the city, Butt's proposal could go a long way toward establishing goodwill and taking a leadership role as a responsible corporate partner in communities where the company operates.
Butt is hopeful that Chevron officials are open to the proposal, but if there is a concern, it's that the company has not responded well to public pressure in the past.
"I don't know if there is ever a good time or way to do this, because Chevron doesn't like people telling them how to spend their money," Butt said. "You almost risk failure by throwing it out there and it not being their idea."
The folks from the Murphy Oil Co. understand that responsibility begins at home - and the Chevron Oil Co. in San Ramon would benefit by helping a company town in its own backyard.
Chip Johnson's column appears in the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday and Friday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org