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"Oil is so lucrative that a web of mysterious relationships between oil companies, the government, militants, and communities has evolved," said Laura Livoti, founder of Justice in Nigeria Now, and a longtime activist and radio reporter. Without her group, the issues surrounding oil and this troubled African country would never make the news and become part of the ongoing dialogue about how to reform Chevron and other oil companies operating there. The media tends to ignore what happens in this part of the world, but Livoti's group, with a staff of two, is determined to change that.
Earlier this year, for example, 20,000 villagers were displaced during a government-backed crackdown funded by Chevron. "No humanitarian aid was allowed, no journalists, no human-rights observers. Armed political militants blew up facilities, which shut down the oil industry. Things got so bad, Chevron pulled out all non-essential employees," Livoti said.
It was this development that prompted the government to offer an amnesty program for militants this past May. While many balked, a large number have come forward to accept amnesty, except the militants most committed to political ideals as well as genuine solutions to local poverty.
The militants and ongoing corruption in Nigeria complicates things. "When the Nigerians were peaceful protestors, it was a lot easier to gain sympathy," acknowledged Livoti. "Now that an armed resistance as risen up in Nigeria, attracting sympathy — and financial support — is much more difficult," she said.
Despite the litany of woes facing Chevron around the world on the environmental and social fronts, even some renewable energy advocates come to its defense.
"Chevron is in the business of producing crude oil, which is what makes today's world economy run," said Al Rettenmaier, CEO of Integrated Energy Solutions, LLC, an Overland Park, Kansas-based firm committed to tapping the renewable energy potential of algae as well as other clean energy options. "It is a tough, competitive business and we are fortunate to have American oil companies as the leaders in this huge energy industry. We all want a different model, but the reality for today is that the world runs on oil. My personal experience with Chevron is that they are a forward-thinking, progressive American oil company. There is a great deal of concern in their company for the environment and safety. They are a company I would trust to do the right thing anywhere they operate in the world."
Chevron has turned its Chevron Energy Solutions into a $400 million-plus business developing solar photovoltaic and energy-efficiency projects, including a solar system for the Richmond Civic Center. But this level of funding is chump change compared with its total top and bottom-line numbers. The firm also failed to hire locally in Richmond when installing that system, despite the existence of the city's Solar Richmond program, which hires and trains local youth to create the green jobs President Obama has been touting as the answer to today's struggling economy.
Still, the firm is not without its green-tech supporters. "I have spent a considerable amount of time with the company and feel that while they are working in an inherently dirty business, and have a legacy of dubious environmental attention, they are committed to being an energy company well into the future," said Ian Thomson, a prime mover behind CleanTechies.com, a web site that focuses on green jobs in the Bay Area.
"The company is full of extremely bright people," Thomson added. "They know that 'cap and trade' and carbon regulations and other constraints will make alternatives increasingly competitive with their core business. But they know oil. Chevron feels they can compete with the other big oil companies by doing that what they've always been doing."
Although Chevron officials were not willing to discuss the company's checkered international record, Chevron's recently retired chief technology officer, Don Paul, was made available to discuss new energy technologies in an interview at Chevron's San Ramon headquarters, where security was as tight as at a military facility.
"Just when the world thinks it is running out of something, science and technology make something else work," Paul said, summing up the perspective of many oil industry veterans about the likely solution to the problems posed by climate change. From Paul's perspective, bio-fuels are a big part of our energy future as well as being a line of business not too dissimilar from oil and natural gas. "Crude oil is biomass that was processed through geologic time spanning million of years," he said. "With bio-fuels, we are just short-circuiting geologic time. In essence, what we are looking to do in bio-fuels is cut out that middle step."
Responding to criticisms about relying upon former food crops such as corn to serve as the prime feedstock for bio-fuels, Chevron has partnered with Weyerhaeuser to explore developing bio-fuels from timber and wood waste. "Our focus is how to develop the next generation of bio-fuel technologies and go after a large part of our current waste stream as sources for these cleaner fuels," Paul said. Noting that corn prices have risen due to the ethanol production boom in the Midwest, he expressed concern about trading off food for fuel. "Much of our corn has traditionally been given away as humanitarian contributions to poor developing nations. What happens to that program when corn is diverted to fuel?"
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