Be the Positive You Want to See in the World

Politics & Policy, Nature & Environment

Mostly, People Don’t

This is a reprint of an article I wrote back in 2002 for Faultline Magazine.  It’s been a long time, but greenwashing remains an interesting topic.

Chevron’s People Do ad campaign passed quietly into oblivion last October, bringing a barely noticed end to one of the longest running corporate environmental image promotions in history. The ecological concern portrayed in this campaign was a stark contrast to Chevron’s actual practices, which have resulted in more than $75 million in fines for safety and environmental violations over the past twenty years.

For many, this is proof enough that the message of People Do was mere “greenwashing” designed to distract consumers from the underlying truth — that Chevron, a member of the pro-business Global Climate Coalition, is bent on profit at almost any cost to the environment. This assertion was borne out when Chevron joined with BP Amoco, ExxonMobil, and Phillips Petroleum to request access to mineral resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), often described as the last unspoiled American wilderness.

On October 9, 2001, Chevron completed its acquisition of Texaco to form the world’s fourth largest petroleum product research and development company, ChevronTexaco, with combined fiscal 2000 revenues of more than $100 billion. The next day, all traces of People Do were removed from the Chevron website. In light of these recent changes, including pledges of environmental benevolence from this nascent colossus, it is time to reexamine the People Do campaign. With Chevron Chairman and CEO Dave O’Reilly retaining overall leadership while Chevron Health, Environment and Safety VP Warner Williams keeps the same position within ChevronTexaco, this examination of the past should prove an exceptional predictor of future behavior.

There is no question whether ChevronTexaco will continue to cause environmental damage in the course of oil exploration and operations — they will. Oil exploration, transport and refinement is always destructive to local ecosystems and cultures. The only question is how destructive.

Strangely, the same question applies equally well to Chevron’s public image marketing. With few and minor exceptions, the stories of People Do show that Chevron rarely if ever acts to reduce the impact of its operations in a significant manner unless doing so is legally required or financially beneficial. What People Do is mislead the public.

Protecting Eagles

The lead People Do story, Protecting Eagles (a.k.a. Coming In For a Safe Landing), for instance, revolved around actions taken beginning in the early 1980s to prevent electrocution of raptors perching on utility poles in the Painter and Carter Creek fields of southwest Wyoming.

Why did Chevron take these steps? Because they were required as part of a right-of-way agreement with the Bureau of Land Management. Chevron did more than BLM mandated, which is understandable given that Chevron-affiliated Moon Lake Electric Association was fined $100,000 in 1999 and given three years probation for failure to adequately protect eagles and hawks in northwest Colorado.

All told, Chevron has spent less than $1 million over twenty years to protect the eagles of Wyoming. Regardless of the amount spent, however, Protecting Eagles is about nothing more than a small program Chevron was required to undertake in order to reduce the impact of operations. And yet it continues to live on the ChevronTexaco site in the form of a blurb on the Environment page under “Sponsor and Partner” where, again, it is implied that Chevron is making these efforts entirely of its own volition.

Thevenard Island

Thevenard Island, fifteen miles off the northwest coast of Australia, is the setting for Chevron’s Racing to the Moon chronicle of its protection of indigenous green and loggerhead turtles. Chevron operates a gas processing facility on Thevenard and an associated offshore drilling platform in partnership with Western Australia Petroleum. Both parties are legally required to minimize impact of these facilities on local turtle populations.

Turtle hatchlings making their way off the beach and through the ocean use moonlight to navigate. Marine biologists were concerned that light from oil and gas facilities might confuse hatchlings, increasing mortality rates. Preliminary studies commissioned by Chevron and its partners in the mid-1990s showed that the gas flares were probably less harmful to the turtles than the bright lights of (for instance) the tennis courts on the island. Nevertheless, Chevron claimed to have shielded its flares and replaced some rig and production facility lights with orange rather than white illumination in order to reduce potential impact. Despite this effort, a study by graduate student Kellie Pendoley of Murdoch University concludes that the Chevron flares “caused misorientation of hatchlings during nights of new moon…”

In other words, this People Do story was about little more than another legally required environmental action of questionable environmental benefit.

Making a Desert Bloom

Imagine a desert deep underwater,” a hushed announcer tells us, “but then…” — get ready for it — “rising like an oasis is a retired oil platform[!]” Can you hear the trumpets? Apparently you can if you are a fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Chevron’s third People Do tale, Making a Desert Bloom, tells us of how the Rigs to Reefs program makes rich artificial reefs from tapped-out oil platforms. After holes are plugged and rigs are cleaned, the bottom portion of the superstructure is toppled in place and/or towed to a designated area for “reefing.” Rigs to Reefs is not a Chevron-specific program, but was legislated by the National Fishing Enhancement Act of 1984 (with full support of the oil industry). This program saves oil companies half the money they’d spend to remove the platforms completely. The balance of the cleanup money is instead provided to state agencies to offset management costs and legal liabilities associated with the reefs. This program is clearly a financial boon to Chevron, which noted “Sometimes platforms are too far from permitted areas to reef economically. So instead, we tow them to shore to be rebuilt or recycled as scrap.”

The Rigs to Reefs concept remains hotly debated. ChevronTexaco is lobbying for similar treatment of rigs operating in federal waters off the coast of California. California State Senator Dede Alpert has twice tried to legislate such a program, apparently hoping that money paid to the state will provide for much needed marine conservation. Governor Gray Davis vetoed her most recent effort in October 2001, saying “There is no conclusive evidence that converted platforms enhance marine species or produce net benefits to the environment.” ChevronTexaco would have saved up to 60 percent of platform decommissioning costs if this bill had passed, just as it does in the Gulf of Mexico. People Do, in this case, because it’s profitable.

The Nursery

The Nursery (A New Dawn in the Delta) was the story of Chevron’s restoration of marsh wetlands in the Delta National Wildlife Refuge of Louisiana, where Chevron has drilled for both oil and natural gas since at least 1949. Decades of construction of flood control levees by the Army Corps of Engineers have deprived marshland in this refuge — and throughout coastal Louisiana — of fresh water and silt deposits. Since 1984, Chevron has worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to punch holes in the levees, and dredge freshwater access channels to dehydrated wetlands around its Romere Pass field in the Refuge. This work included dredging directed by the FWS, partially funding FWS work, and lending dredging equipment to the FWS. “Even when required,” Chevron noted, “our dredging has exceeded requirements and created additional wetlands acreage.” This effort garnered Chevron a National Health of the Land Award from the BLM in June of 1997. The message here remains, however, that People Do only if first required by law. In fact, most of the funding provided by Chevron to the FWS was required as part of Chevron’s payment for operations in the Refuge.

Desert Wildlife

Few things stir the heart more than the contributions of Boy Scouts to their communities, except perhaps the work of volunteers laboring to save wildlife in desolate wastelands. Chevron’s Desert Wildlife (The Desert That Glistened With Water) story tugged effectively if strangely at both heartstrings. In the only People Do story that did not appear to take place on land directly affected by Chevron operations, the Scouts, BLM, Quail Unlimited, and Chevron came together to help save “deer, antelope, bobcats, badgers, coyotes, and several varieties of hawks” in the Chihuahuan Desert of southeastern New Mexico. This was accomplished by installing guzzlers to capture and store drinking water for use when natural watering holes run dry. Although Chevron undoubtedly received tax deductions for all equipment and funding donated to this program, and though Quail Unlimited members of course hunt the quail and other animals so preserved, cynical motivations are hard to find.

But in this case, it appears that Other People Do. Desert Wildlife is not and never was a Chevron program. It was the culmination of the efforts of the Hobbs Boy Scout troop, Scoutmaster Steve Cooper (a Chevron employee), and Quail Unlimited — people, in other words, who had their own reasons for caring about the local environment. In point of fact, Quail Unlimited has worked with local groups and agencies to install similar guzzlers in numerous wilderness areas including Angeles National Forest and Oregon’s Ochoco National Forest. Regardless of whether guzzlers are of any net environmental benefit, this is a story where People Did and Chevron came along for the ride.

Marine Life

The Marine Life story (The Creatures Kept From Harm), in contrast to Desert Wildlife, lacked even superficial substance. This chronicle told of how Chevron dismantled four oil platforms (quaintly named Hazel, Hope, Heidi, and Hilda or collectively “4H”) off the Santa Barbara coast. Chevron dismantled the 4H as legally required and in cooperation with local environmental agencies in a manner that helped preserve local marine life (also legally required), though not before attempting to get permission to leave the platforms in place as a sort of spontaneous rigs-to-reefs program.

Hawaiian Stilt

The Hawaiian Stilt story (The Stilts Who Can Finally Stand Tall) was also the subject of the 1996 “Welcoming a New Dawn” campaign in Harper’s and Discover. Chevron operates a refinery in the Campbell Industrial Port on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and was required to excavate catchments to capture spills resulting from potential storage tank ruptures. Over time, the catchments filled with water. Despite some oil contamination, they became popular nesting areas for the endangered Hawaiian stilt (locally called Ae’o, or “one standing tall”). When Chevron was told it could be fined for every stilt egg or hatchling lost on refinery property, regardless of cause, Chevron drained the ponds and put nets over them. But stilts had already started laying eggs in Rowland’s pond, the subject of this People Do story, so it was not drained. Traps were placed around the pond to stave off predation on the stilts, and the FWS began monitoring eggs and hatchlings in and around the pond. The stilts seemed to do exceptionally well in the pond, and Chevron and the FWS worked out a plan whereby Chevron is held blameless in the event that a nearby tank actually ruptures and kills or harms the resident stilts — reasonable given the alternative loss of stilt territory. The Hawaiian Audubon Society (which, granted, has received more than $25,000 from Chevron) appears pleased with the compromise and results, and Rowland’s pond has become one of the stilts’ more productive breeding grounds.

One wonders if this encourages continued destruction of more natural stilt breeding areas, what will happen to the stilts if and when the pond is effectively destroyed by a tank rupture, and how the stilts are affected by living and breeding in apparently contaminated water, but otherwise this appears to be a very favorable episode for Chevron. The Hawai’i Visitors & Convention Bureau (HVCB) agrees, and recently awarded Chevron an Environmental Preservation “Keep It Hawai’i” award for its work with the Ae’o. On a less pleasant note, Chevron spilled 25,000 gallons of oil into nearby Pearl Harbor on May 14, 1997, demonstrating that People still Do far more harm than good.

Pascagoula Wetlands

For its final online People Do story, Chevron returned to America’s marshes in the Pascagoula Wetlands (The Wetlands That Appeared Out of Nowhere) of southern Mississippi. As with The Nursery, Chevron’s efforts to preserve and recover these wetlands were required for lease operations in the area, but Chevron again claimed to have done more than mandated. Chevron worked with various local and national agencies to enlarge two wetland areas by “clearcutting a pine forest and grading it down to intertidal elevation…”

A 1996 study funded by the Army Corps of Engineers, conducted by Mark LaSalle of Mississippi State University, concluded that the work was a success. In fact, Dr. LaSalle felt that Chevron was one of the few oil companies that would have even bothered to add a central tidal creek or other voluntary additions to the wetlands project. So it appears that what People Do may exceed what People are required to Do…but it always starts with the requirement.

People Don’t Do Much

Has Chevron undertaken any environmental efforts voluntarily? The answer is unclear. Of the People Do stories described above, only Desert Wildlife involved an area that is not on or directly impacted by Chevron’s own operations. This was also the only specific preservation effort that Chevron was not legally required to undertake or from which Chevron benefited financially. It’s just like any of the philanthropic programs such as the Chevron Conservation Awards and other grants totaling about $1.3 million annually. In the context of even a single operational incident — such as an $8 million fine in 1992 for 65 violations of the Clean Water Act on California platform “Grace” — it’s hard to see this level of philanthropy as anything more than token gestures.

On a separate Wildlife Protection page, Chevron listed several additional efforts to protect the environment. Chevron is, for instance, working to save the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly that lives in and around its coastal facilities near Los Angeles International Airport. This was accomplished (in part) by planting coast buckwheat, the Blue’s main habitat, on a small portion of Chevron acreage. However, a report entitled “The Dirty Four” published by the US Public Interest Research Group notes that, “Chevron’s El Segundo plant is one of the largest polluters in the country.” In essence, Chevron waved one hand in the face of the collective public, told us to take notice of its legally required effort to save a butterfly, while with its other hand it allowed its local refinery to leak more than 250 million gallons of oil into the local environment. On August 30, 2000 Chevron was fined more than $2 million for another spill at El Segundo, this time of 4.5 million gallons of jet fuel.

On the same Wildlife page, Chevron claimed that it was working diligently to minimize the impact of a new pipeline on Wyoming sage grouse. The sage grouse suffers when its predators are given enhanced perching areas. According to the National Wildlife Federation, among the greatest risks to the sage grouse beyond loss of sagebrush-steppe habitat caused by oil exploration (among many other causes) is, “increased predation by providing man-made roosts for raptors…”

In other words, Chevron is protecting sage grouse that were put in danger by acts such as protecting raptors that were put in danger by the installation of Chevron utility poles. And, again, the efforts are required by law.

Despite the People Do campaign’s claims, Chevron appears to have made few if any voluntary efforts to reduce operational impact on natural environments. The only apparent example of pure voluntary action listed on Chevron’s site related to the protection of a single family of barn owls near Taft. Chevron’s other volunteer efforts are either minimal adjuncts to legally required actions or provide direct financial benefit to Chevron. Other philanthropic efforts—ranging from the Chevron Conservation Awards to saving single families of owls—are sadly token efforts, hardly worthy of comment from a company that cleared more than $5 billion in net earnings against $52 billion in fiscal 2000 revenues.

And Chevron was far more willing to spend money promoting its alleged environmental ethic — more than $5 million annually on related marketing and advertising — than it was to improve its actual environmental performance. Distilled down to this level, Chevron’s People Do campaign was not merely misleading, it was a blanket of partial truths held together with the minimum amount of evidence for legal defensibility. Given that Texaco is far from having an ideal environmental record, it is unlikely that we’ll see anything better from ChevronTexaco.

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