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Environmental connections to public health >>

Which is the real Chevron?

Friday, June 8, 2007

Last weekend, on my 4-year-old's preschool campout, I was talking to another dad about the environmental commitment of the oil company he works for. They're putting millions of dollars into biofuels research, converting their vehicle fleet to hybrids or natural gas, and my friend is writing speeches for the CEO that proclaim the urgency of addressing global warming.

Today, in the San Francisco Chronicle, I read about an oil company that plans to increase production at its refinery to meet gasoline supply shortages that have helped push Bay Area pump prices to the highest in the country. Problem is, that will also increase the refinery's emissions – not just global warming gases but volatile organic compounds known to cause respiratory disease and cancer, as well as heavy metals and toxic chemicals that will be dumped into the bay. The community around the refinery, which has lived for decades with the impact of its pollution, flaring, and accidents, is demanding safeguards and considering special taxes to offset the health effects of the expansion.

So which company is going green and which is still mired in the muck of environmental evil?

Trick question. They're the same company: Chevron.

Chron columnist Chip Johnson reports:

What Chevron officials call a "technological upgrade" to safer, more reliable, more flexible equipment is a lot more than that, say experts hired by community groups concerned with the proposal, which is the subject of a series of public hearings that began Thursday night.

"What they're doing is the latest major step in a fundamental transformation in fuel production technology," said Greg Karras, the staff scientist for Communities for a Better Environment, an Oakland-based group involved in the issue.

In layman's terms, the company is retooling its facility to process heavier grades of crude oil that require more heat and pressure and result in more pollutants being released into the atmosphere as part of the process, Karras said.

While the state Public Utilities Commission, which has authority over refinery operations, has banned construction of new coal-fired electric plants to reduce air emissions, he said, the oil industry is using dirtier grades of oil.

"Oil is getting more expensive, and dirty crude is about 30 percent cheaper on the oil market," Karras said. "It's a profit-margin issue."

At a time when oil companies, computer makers, grocery chains and every other business you can think of are claiming that they have gone green, this kind of thing makes me wary. Is the wave of companies publicly embracing sustainability for real, or a new era in greenwashing?

In the '90s, Chevron practically invented modern greenwashing with a series of "People Do" ads, bragging about things they were doing for the environment – without mentioning that they were forced to by laws and litigation. Now Chevron is inviting consumers to "Join Us" in saving the planet, as if this multibillion dollar corporation were part of the environmental movement along with Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. As Phil Mattera of the Corporate Research Project asks on Alternet:

Join them? Wasn't it Chevron and the other oil giants that played a major role in creating global warming? Wasn't it Chevron that used the repressive regime in Nigeria to protect its environmentally destructive operations in the Niger Delta? Wasn't it Chevron's Texaco unit that dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste in Ecuador? And wasn't it Chevron that was accused of systematically underpaying royalties to the federal government for natural gas extracted from the Gulf of Mexico? That is not the kind of track record that confers the mantle of environmental leadership.

Nor is deciding it's OK to pump more global warming gases, air pollution and toxic waste into the neighborhood surrounding your refinery. It's nice that Chevron is making some changes. But forgive me if I'm not ready to sign up just yet. With all Chevron's got to answer for, maybe they should start by saying: "We're sorry."

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