Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Chevron’s Deepwater Horizon Connection: The Clock Could Be Ticking

Much attention is focused on BP, and that company's tragic environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But what about Chevron, the oil company that is responsible for what experts consider to be the world's worst oil-related disaster, in Ecuador's Amazon? Unlike BP's Gulf disaster, which was an accident, what Chevron did in Ecuador was a designed plan to cut costs that ended up decimating indigenous groups, contaminating fresh water sources, and causing an outbreak of cancer affecting thousands of people.

Does a company as irresponsible as Chevron when it comes to discharging toxic waste pass muster when it comes to being able to operate a deep water rig in the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else?

It's a question more and more people are asking after The New York Times revealed that BP and other oil companies received permission from the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required permits. The Huffington Post has reported that the MMS has failed to inspect the offshore drilling rigs as required.

The Times reported that Chevron was among the oil companies that received MMS permission to drill in the region. Chevron has a history of corrupting the MMS. It recently was singled out by the Department of the Interior's Inspector General in a scandal involving Chevron employees trading sex, cocaine, and other favors in return for preferential treatment from the agency when it came to the payment of royalties to the federal government.

The proper regulation of Chevron's operations is a crucially important question – Chevron consistently fails to take proper safeguards to protect the environment around the world. A few examples of Chevron's wretched environmental record:

  • Ecuador: Chevron has admitted to dumping at least 16 billion gallons of toxic "produced water" (estimates based on oil well records indicate the number is likely as much as 18.5 billion gallons directly into the waterways of the Amazon Rainforest, and is accused of abandoning more than 916 waste pits full of toxic "drilling muds" and other industrial waste products (each of which would be considered a mini "Superfund" site in the United States). A court-appointed expert has indicated that the contamination may cost as much as $27.3 billion to cleanup. Unlike the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, which was an accident, Chevron's operations in Ecuador were designed to pollute in order to minimize productions costs. Unlike BP's executives, Chevron's leadership has never said a word about taking responsibility for this decades-long disaster.

  • Nigeria: Dumping and salt water encroachment linked to Chevron's operations have caused significant damage to the Niger River Delta region. Effects include land degradation, air pollution, biodiversity depletion, flooding and coastal erosion, noise and light pollution, health problems, and poor agricultural productivity. Although gas flaring has been illegal in Nigeria for decades, Chevron has also engaged in widespread, round-the-clock flaring, a process known to have serous negative health effects on humans. Some 1.5 million tons of oil spillage has occurred over the last 50 years in the Niger Delta from oil operations—equating to about one Exxon Valdez disaster per year.

  • Kazakhstan: Chevron's massive operation in Kazakhstan is the largest polluter in the region, incurring at least $22.3 million in fines for environmental pollution in 2009-2010. Community monitoring in the region has registered more than 25 toxic substances in the air, including hydrogen sulfide, methylene chloride, carbon disulfide, toluene and acrylonitrile3. Under Chevron's watch, at least 56,000 tons of toxic waste in the atmosphere in a single year in 2004. As in Ecuador, improper storage of toxic solid waste on the field has led to the dumping of toxic effluent into the water table.

  • United States: In Richmond, California, 35,000 families live in the shadow of a Chevron refinery that spewed out three million pounds of contaminants during the last three years. Existing pollution from Chevron already causes premature death, cancer, and other health ailments. Richmond asthma rates are 5x the state level. Chevron is now seeking to expand the refinery, allowing it to process both more and dirtier crude oil, despite overwhelming opposition from local residents. In Alaska, Chevron has been fighting with federal regulators to allow it to continue to use a corroded pipe that has lost more than 60 percent of its wall thickness to carry oil from its offshore operations to shore. Just last month, the company was responsible for spilling 8,000 gallons of crude oil in the Delta National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Louisiana.

Chevron is one of the largest leaseholders and producers in the Gulf of Mexico – an area with little independent oversight. The destruction that could be caused by another tragedy akin to the Deepwater Horizon is clear. In fact, the BP owned rig, which sank on April 20 causing a disaster that is still spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, was run by Transocean-- the same company that Chevron contracts with for its massive Gulf offshore operations.

All of these warning signs beg the serious question: Are Chevron's Gulf of Mexico operations properly vetted, permitted, and regulated by an effective outside agency? And if not, is the clock ticking until we're witnessing Chevron's very own "Deepwater Horizon"?