The Case Against Chevron 

An unprecedented campaign by at least a dozen nonprofit groups targets the oil company's global operations and reputation.

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The Revenue Watch Institute is hardly a left-leaning organization. Its prime constituency is the financial community, and it is one of many groups behind the so-called "publish what you pay" movement, which calls for greater transparency in where revenues from natural resources go when transferred from private to public hands. "We focus on the money flows, the revenue streams, and the distribution of those revenues in resource-rich countries," said Lissakers, whose institute is not directly involved in the anti-Chevron campaign. "What we campaign for are international good practices in all extractive industries. We should not have different standards for different countries."

Lissakers used Uganda to illustrate her point. Possible oil revenue in that central African nation represents $50 billion in total potential value, a large percentage of which could, if managed properly, provide immense economic opportunity in that impoverished country. "We want to make sure the state captures a significant part of that value. Our ultimate goal is to have access to country-by-country reporting in order to figure total revenues, value of products, and the percentage of this wealth flowing to governments."

In Lissakers' view, interestingly enough, mining companies are "way ahead of the curve" when it comes to such corporate social responsibility issues, while the oil sector — the most profitable of all natural resource businesses — is a clear and persistent laggard. But she believes big oil is going through an evolution in its thinking. "BP and Shell were instrumental in getting the transparency examination off the ground, but the response from US oil companies has been unenthusiastic from the very beginning," she said. And among US oil companies, Chevron's attitude makes it unique, critics say.

"When there is a problem, they send a lawyer instead of engineers," said Juhasz of Global Exchange. "They are dog-headed and would rather litigate than fix the problem."

This penchant for litigation is evident from the depths of the Amazonian jungle to Chevron's own backyard in nearby Richmond. Indeed, of the five refineries operating in the Bay Area, Chevron's Richmond facility is the worst polluter, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The company has yet to bring its vintage refinery, surrounded by immigrant residential communities, up to snuff on modern pollution controls and practices. Apparently, it would rather fight in court.

Yet the unprecedented coordination between its critics is a big test for both Chevron and the groups. If Chevron prevails, it may conclude that it can continue to conduct business as usual. But if the activists prevail, the entire industry might have to clean up its act — becoming part of the solution to not only climate change but the persistent poverty and human rights woes that plague much of the oil-producing world.

Across the globe, many of the very same issues that haunt Chevron in its global operations are everpresent at its century-old Richmond refinery.

In Richmond, the oil company's chief critic has long been Communities for a Better Environment, a grassroots group focused on industrial pollution issues impacting low-income communities of color. The group's key objective these days is to stop Chevron from processing dirtier crude such as Alberta tar sands at the Richmond refinery. Tar sands are one of the dirtiest forms of crude oil. Development contributes to clear-cutting of the Boreal Forest in Canada — the largest terrestrial carbon sink in the world — and emits three to five times as many greenhouse gas emissions as other more traditional forms of crude oil.

The company recently suffered a loss when the Contra Costa Superior Court ruled that Chevron's environmental impact report assessing proposed changes at the refinery was inadequate. At the moment, it is unclear how the company will respond. The ruling has halted construction activity necessary to process tar sands, stranding 1,100 union workers, pitting their jobs against the activists and local citizens worried about public health.

Another key environmental issue at Richmond is the burning of waste gases. While some refineries recycle these waste gases — reducing such flaring by 80 percent — Chevron has historically maintained that such practices were "not economically feasible" at the Richmond site. But Communities for a Better Environment has estimated that revenue generated by just seventeen minutes of Richmond refinery operations could fund the $100 million upgrades necessary to make the facility state-of-the-art when it comes to these gases.

Jessica Tovar, a local organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, pointed out that residents of Richmond's nearby Iron Triangle neighborhood suffer from asthma, cancer and other acute symptoms on a daily basis. "Chevron is not the only polluter, but their refinery is the largest [pollution source]," Tovar said, "and is one of the largest contributors to global warming in the San Francisco Bay Area." She noted that Chevron itself has described the boilers at the Richmond facility as "vintage," and Tovar added that the thirty- to fifty-year-old pipes are "more likely to create explosions than new ones." Since its environmental impact report was rejected, Chevron has "postponed indefinitely" all promised upgrades to the Richmond refinery complex. "The most important upgrades from a public safety perspective are now not going forward," she said.

Referring to the $100 million upgrade needed to halt the flaring of waste gases, Torm Nompraseurt, a senior organizer for Asian Pacific Environmental Network, said, "This system would serve the community for a long, long time. Our response to Chevron is that our lives are not that cheap — even if we are poor."

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