The True Evil of the Oil Companies

May 9th, 2010

By Brianna Aubin

On the recommendation of a Jacobs Technology employee I met at a space conference in 2008, I read Jared Diamond’s Collapse a couple of years ago.  Since I’d already read his book Guns, Germs, and Steel independently of this engineer’s recommendation and found it a fascinating read, it didn’t really take much work to persuade me to read Collapse as well.  But since BP has lately garnered a boatload of negative press over the Gulf oil spill, I figured I’d share with my readers an excerpt from Collapse that would expose to them the true environmental depravity of the evil oil companies which so degrade our planet.

My experience of the oil industry in the New Guinea region has involved two oil fields at opposite ends of the spectrum of harmful versus beneficial environmental impacts.  I found these experiences instructive, because I had previously assumed that oil industry impacts were overwhelmingly harmful.  Like much of the public, I loved to hate the oil industry, and I deeply suspected the credibility of anyone who dared to report anything positive about the industry’s performance or its contribution to society.  My observations forced me to think about factors that might encourage more companies to set positive examples.

My first experience of an oil field was on Salawati Island off the coast of Indonesian New Guinea.  The purpose of my visit there had nothing to do with oil but was part of a survey of birds on islands of the New Guinea region; it merely happened that much of Salawati had been leased for oil exploration to the Indonesian national oil company, Pertamina.  I visited Salawati in 1986 with the permission and as a guest of Pertamina, whose vice president and public relations officer kindly provided me with a vehicle to drive along company roads.

In view of that kindness, I am sorry to report on the conditions that I encountered.  From a long distance, the field’s location could be recognized by a flame shooting out of a high tower, where natural gas obtained as a byproduct of oil extraction was being burned off, there being nothing else to do with it.  (Facilities to liquefy and transport it for sale were lacking.)  To construct access roads through Salawati’s forests, swathes 100 yards wide had been cleared, much too wide for many species of New Guinea rain forest mammals, birds, frogs and reptiles to cross.  There were numerous oil spills on the ground.  I encountered only three species of large fruit pigeons, of which 14 have been recorded elsewhere on Salawati and which are among the prime targets of hunters in New Guinea region because they are large, meaty and good to eat.  A Pertamina employee described to me the location of two pigeon breeding colonies, where he said that he hunted them with his shotgun.  I assume that their numbers within the field had been depleted by hunting.

My second experience was of the Kutubu oil field that a subsidiary of the large international oil company Chevron Corporation operated in the Kikori River watershed of Papua New Guinea….  The environment in the Kikori River watershed is sensitive and difficult to work in because of frequent landslides, much limestone karst terrain, and one of the highest recorded rainfalls in the world….  In 1993 Chevron engaged World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to prepare a large-scale integrated conservation and development project for the whole watershed.  Chevron’s expectation was that WWF would be effective at minimizing environmental damage, lobbying the Papua New Guinea government for environmental protections, serving as a credible partner in the eyes of environmental activist groups, benefiting local communities economically, and attracting World Bank funding for local community projects.  From 1998 to 2003 I made four visits of one month each to the oil fields and watershed as a consultant to WWF.  I was allowed freedom to travel throughout the area in a WWF vehicle and to interview Chevron employees privately.

As my airplane flight from Papua New Guinea’s capital of Port Moresby droned on towards the field’s main airstrip at Moro and was approaching its scheduled arrival time, I looked out the airplane window for some signs of the oil field infrastructure that I expected to see looming up.  I became increasingly puzzled still to be seeing only an uninterrupted expanse of rain forest stretching between the horizons.  Finally, I spotted a road, but it was only a thin cleared line about 10 yards broad through the rain forest, in many places overhung with trees growing on either side – a birdwatcher’s dream.  The main practical difficulty in rain forest bird studies is that it’s hard to see birds inside the forest itself, and the best opportunities to observe them are from narrow trails where one can watch the forest from the side.  Here was such a trail over 100 miles long, from the highest oil field at an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet on Mt. Moran down to the coast.  On the following day, when I began walking along that pencil line of a road during my surveys, I found birds routinely flying across it, and mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs hopping, running or crawling across it.  It turned out that the road had been designed to be just broad enough for two vehicles to pass safely in opposite directions.  Initially, the seismic exploration platforms and exploration oil wells had been put in without construction of any access roads at all, and had been serviced instead by helicopter and on foot.

My next surprise came when my plane landed at Chevron’s Moro airstrip, and again later when I flew out.  Although I had already gone through baggage inspection by the Papua New Guinea Customs Department upon my arrival in the country, on both arrival and departure at Chevron’s airstrip I had to open all my bags for further inspections more thorough than on any other occasion I had experienced except when I flew to Israel’s Tel Aviv airport.  What were those inspectors looking for?  On the flight in, the articles absolutely forbidden were firearms or hunting equipment of any sort, drugs, and alcohol; on the flight out, animals or plants or their feathers or parts that might be smuggled.  Violation of those rules results in immediate automatic expulsion from company premises, as a WWF secretary innocently but foolishly carrying a package for someone else discovered to her misfortune (because the package turned out to contain drugs).

A further surprise came the next morning, after I had walked out on the road before dawn to bird-watch and returned a few hous later.  The camp safety representative summoned me to his office and told me that I had already been reported for two violations of Chevron regulations, which I was not to repeat.  First, I had been noticed stepping several feet out into the roadway to observe a bird.  That posed the hazard that a vehicle might hit me, or that in swerving to avoid hitting me it might crash into an oil pipeline at the side of the road and cause an oil spill.  From now on, I should please stay off the road while bird-watching.  Second, I had been seen birdwatching while not wearing a protective helmet, but this whole area was a hardhat area; at this point the officer gave me a hardhat, which I should henceforth please wear for my own safety while bird-watching, e.g., in case a tree fell.

That was an introduction to Chevron’s extreme concern, constantly instilled in its employees, about safety and environmental protection.  I have never observed an oil spill on any of my four visits, but I do read the reports posted each month on Chevron bulletin boards about incidents and near-incidents, which are the concern of the safety representative who travels around by plane or truck to investigate each.  Out of interest, I recorded the full list of 14 incidents from March 2003.  The most serious near-incidents requiring scrutiny and review of safety procedures in that month were that a truck backed into a stop sign, another truck was reported with its emergency brake improperly set, a package of chemicals lacked the correct paperwork, and gas was found leaking from a compressor needle valve.

My remaining surprise came in the course of bird-watching.  New Guinea has many bird and mammal species whose presence and abundance are sensitive indicators of human disturbance, because they are either large and hunted for their meat, hunted for their spectacular plumage, or else confined to the interior of undisturbed forests and absent from modified secondary habitats….  When I began birdwatching in the Kutubu area, I anticipated that my main goal would be to determine how much less numerous these species were inside the area of Chevron’s oil fields, facilities, and pipeline than outside it.

Instead, I discovered to my astonishment that the species are much more numerous inside the Chevron area than anywhere else that I have visited on the island of New Guinea except for a few remote uninhabited areas.  The only place that I have seen tree kangaroos in the wild in Papua New Guinea, in my 40 years there, is within a few miles of Chevron camps; elsewhere, they are the first mammal to become shot out by hunters, and those few surviving learn to be active only at night, but I saw them active during the day in the Kutubu area.  Pesquet’s Parrot, the New Guinea Harpy Eagle, birds of paradise, hornbills, and large pigeons are common in the immediate vicinity of the oil camps, and I have seen Pesquet’s Parrots perching on the camp communications towers.  That’s because there is an absolute prohibition against Chevron employees and contractors hunting any animal or fishing by any means in the project area, and because the forest is intact.  The birds and animals sense that and become tame.  In effect, the Kutubu oil field functions as by far the largest and most rigorously controlled national park in Papua New Guinea.

For months, I was greatly puzzled by these conditions in the Kutubu oil field.  After all, Chevron is neither a non-profit environmental organization nor a National Park Service.  Instead, it is a for-profit oil company, owned by its shareholders.  If Chevron were to spend money on environmental policies that ultimately decreased its profits from its oil operations, its shareholders would and should sue it.  The company evidently decided that those policies would ultimately help it make more money from its oil operations.  How do they help?

Chevron company publications refer to the concern for the environment itself as a motivating factor.  That is undoubtedly true.  However, in conversations over the last six years with dozens of lower-level as well as senior Chevron employees, employees of other oil companies, and people outside the oil industry, I have come to realize that many other factors as well have contributed to these environmental policies.

One such factor is the importance of avoiding very expensive environmental disasters.  When I asked a Chevron safety representative who happened to be a bird-watcher what had prompted these policies, his short answer was: “Exxon Valdez, Piper Alpha, and Bhopal….”  Chevron and some of the other large international oil companies thereby realize that, by spending each year an extra few million dollars on a project, or even a few tens of millions of dollars, they would save money in the long run by minimizing the risk of losing billions of dollars in such an accident, or of having an entire project closed down and losing its whole investment.

In other words, the oil companies get it.  They are aware that a strict safety policy and minimization of environmental damage is to their long-term advantage both economically and politically.  But even with the strictest of safety policies, there is no way to guard against every possible way a catastrophe could occur.  To try would only make drilling prohibitively expensive and significantly decrease energy availability.  Offshore drilling provides for a third of our energy needs, it is a fairly safe procedure, and the amount of crude that seeps into the ocean annually due to Mother Nature dwarfs the amount spilled into the ocean from any oil spill caused by the evil international corporations.  (This article contains a good set of numbers to put the whole incident in perspective.)

In other words, maybe the environmentalists and politicians should stop using this incident as a convenient excuse to advance their destructive (of human beings) environmentalist agenda, and in the words of Charles Sykes, “start delousing the closet in their own room.”  And if they must open their mouths about subjects of which they are almost to a man largely ignorant, maybe they could start by sending some consolations to the families of the 11 employees who lost their lives in the disaster, people whose deaths have been completely overlooked in the rush to perform some political grandstanding.

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2 Responses to “The True Evil of the Oil Companies”

  1. Brian Bagent |

    I’d point out a couple things here. Firstly, the technology to liquefy natural gas didn’t exist in 1986, so while this author might lament the fact that Pertamina on the Salawati oil field was just burning off theirs, it is of no particular moment.

    In 1998, my employer sent me on a business trip to Ecuador to roll out and conduct training on our software for a logistics company that was servicing an Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) project down in the Amazon rain forest on the eastern slope of the Andes in Ecuador.

    ARCO didn’t even build a road to their drill sites – they built a monorail system to minimize their impact on the environment. Instead of cutting a large swath through the jungle, it was a small path just wide enough for the monorail and any equipment that would be hauled in. They were using a special kind of crane that could reach up and grab the trunk of a tree, hold on to it, and cut it then lay it down (as opposed to just letting it fall and possibly knocking down other trees). For areas where the monorail couldn’t go, they used special ATVs made by Toyota that, while they were 4WD, had special legs that would fold down and “walk” the ATV through particularly bad spots so that the wheels wouldn’t chew up any more than they had to.

    In my experience, and from what I’ve read, it is largely the private, for-profit oil companies that are acting as stewards of the environment, and it is the state-owned oil companies like PDVSA, PEMEX, and a whole bunch of others that have most of the issues.

    And anyone that’s interested needs to just google images of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to see the kind of care that oil companies are taking and have been taking in so-called sensitive environments.

  2. Tom |

    Interesting read, Brianna. I think you’re right that the oil companies “get it,” and you’re also right that they recognize that environmental sensitivity is to their advantage economically and politically. Companies always act in their own best interest and seek to maximize profit — that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be.

    I would point out, though, that Chevron and other oil companies weren’t such environmentalists before they were forced to be. Even today, Chevron is involved in a lawsuit over alleged oilfield contamination in Ecuador.

    We can thank the “environmental wacko” groups, as Rush Limbaugh calls them, for the current evironmentalism of large companies. While some may be nutcases and we may not always like what they advocate, like the ACLU they keep the game within bounds.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the BP oil spill in the Gulf. While there’s natural seepage and there have been larger oil spills, the oil from this disaster is likely to wreak havoc in the coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama (and maybe Texas and Florida). If it comes ashore, which seems likely, it will devastate the fishing and tourism industries of the area, and the environmental damage will be massive. While I support offshore drilling, I’m concerned that the more we drill, the more likely this kind of thing is to happen.

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