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In praise of an oil company

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Posted: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 8:11 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

A few weeks ago, I got all doom-and-gloomy, comparing our heedless exploitation of the environment with the Native Americans in Chaco Canyon who overpopulated their region and over-exploited their resources until their society collapsed in 1200 A.D.

This week, let me balance things out a bit by describing a situation that makes me cautiously optimistic about our chances to take care of our looming environmental crises before they take care of us. I see a ray of hope in the way Chevron handled its oil drilling operation in Papua New Guinea.

Yes, you read that right. I'm about to praise Chevron Oil. It should be no surprise that I don't sport a "Drill, Baby, Drill" sticker on my back bumper. I'm no fan of Big Oil. But I realize we're going to be using petroleum products for a long time, so when an oil company does something right, I'm encouraged.

A Chevron oil drilling operation in New Guinea is described in "Collapse" by Jered Diamond, the same book my Chaco Canyon information came from.

Diamond has spent a great deal of time in New Guinea and is familiar with the obscene, flame-spewing, oil-spilling sites which are all too typical of drilling operations in the country.

But during the months he spent at this site, he saw something different.

Diamond went as a consultant with the World Wildlife Fund, which Chevron engaged "to prepare a large-scale integrated conservation and development project for the whole (Kikori River) watershed."

The first time he flew over, Diamond was surprised to see an undisturbed expanse of rain forest and a thin stretch of roadway. The road, he found when he landed, was only 10 yards wide, just enough space for two vehicles to pass each other safely.

Diamond is a lifelong birder, and walking along the roadway, he saw bird species that usually can only be found in remote areas. They were practically tame, showing they had not developed a fear of humans. Hunting and fishing were strictly prohibited.

"In effect," Diamond concluded, "the Kutubu oil field functions as by far the largest and most rigorously controlled national park in Papua New Guinea."

The company was vigilant about employee safety and environmental protection. Once Diamond was called into the office and scolded for violating company rules by standing in the roadway while observing birds. Either he could have been hit by a vehicle, he was told, or it could have swerved to avoid him, hit a pipeline and caused an oil spill.

I'm happy to credit Chevron with altruistic motives for its good stewardship of the earth at this oil field, but it's more important to understand the corporation made a wise dollars-and-cents calculation.

Remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill? It cost Exxon billions in cleanup and was a public relations nightmare. Chevron decided it was better to spend tens of millions up front rather than billions later on a preventable disaster.

And then there is the relative ease Chevron experienced dealing with the New Guinea government, which has become more environmentally conscious in recent years, and with local land owners who knew Chevron was taking extraordinary measures to prevent oil spills that might pollute their land and water.

The reputation Chevron earned for environmental care probably helped the company win a very profitable contract for an oil/gas field in the North Sea off Norway. I would like to think the losing bidders went back home, licked their wounds and tried to figure out how they could increase their competitiveness by adopting more environmentally friendly practices as well.

I don't want to make too much of this, or praise Chevron too highly. But I draw a clear lesson here: when businesses see it's in their best interests to act responsibly, either because of government regulation or enlightened self interest, good old capitalism can figure out ways to live a little lighter on the planet, and we all benefit.

 

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