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Clippings by Evan Johnson: Energy companies just don't get it

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Posted on March 6, 2014 |
By Evan Johnson



Here’s a story for you:

Early in the morning on Feb. 11, either by human error or technical malfunction, a spark at a natural gas well in southwestern Pennsylvania caused a massive explosion. One man living in the area described the sound of the explosion as loud as a jet engine five feet overhead. One worker was injured; state police discovered the remains of another missing man a week later. The well was capped on Feb. 23.  

For both critics and proponents of natural gas expansion, accidents like these represent the sum of all fears, but for different reasons. While I’ve always equated these projects with the patient and systematic rape of the earth, I’m not writing to tell you why. Instead, I want to tell you what Chevron, the oil conglomerate that owns the well, did after the fire was finally extinguished.

Here’s the punch line: They handed out pizza.

Representatives from Chevron Appalachia’s community outreach team sprang into action, distributing 100 coupons, each valid for one large special combo pizza and a two-liter soda from a local pizza joint. The coupons were delivered to homes with a cover letter on company stationery: 

“Chevron recognizes the effect this has had on the community. We value being a responsible member of this community and will continue to strive to achieve incident-free operations. We are committed to taking action to safeguard our neighbors, our employees, our contractors and the environment.”

A company that in 2013 turned profits of $21.4 billion bought 100 gift certificates, each with a retail value of $12.

You do the math.

The situation is equal parts hilarious and insulting, but if that’s the standard Chevron would like to set, I’ve got a modest proposal:

From now on, every household within a 50-mile radius of any leak or explosion will be eligible for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream.

Livestock owners will be compensated for the loss of any animals with the deceased animal’s weight in Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar.

Costs associated with repairing damage done to houses or other structures will be paid in cases of Heady Topper beer.

Families of contractors, employees and neighbors killed in an accident will be provided with free Chinese takeout for a month.

Obviously this is satire, but these macabre examples highlight an alarming reality: For all the sensitive technology, political influence, and sheer earth-moving power at its disposal, a giant like Chevron has no idea how to respond to its own inevitable mishaps.

As with any other project involving the extraction and transportation of massive amounts of natural resources, accidents are bound to happen. Explosions caused by buried pipelines have leveled homes and burned people alive. Mining disasters of all kinds have cost the lives of hundreds. Some people insist that the companies responsible ought to face harsh penalties — even criminal charges — for the destruction they wrought and lives they took. But just for the sake of discussion, I’d like give Chevron the benefit of the doubt; following these accidents maybe they should give out pizza and Coke.

Because it’s a lot more than folks in Ecuador or the Niger Delta got when Chevron subsidiary Texaco came knocking in 2004 — they got death threats from goons and contaminated water supplies. But Americans are used to a different brand of corporate citizenship, one marked by less strong-armed tactics and more warm and fuzzy community outreach (scholarships for students, grants for entrepreneurs, etc.). It’s a cozy relationship and one that makes everyone look like a winner.

But when an Exxon Valdez crashes or a Deepwater Horizon explodes, the façade is rattled and the polished image of “good corporate citizen” cracked. The coupons residents found in their mailbox weeks ago, however innocuous, don’t help; if anything they do the opposite.

There is, in fact, very little regard for human life or environmental preservation when going after something thousands of feet underground. Yet the commitment to this relentless expansion at such an immeasurably high cost continues and the only time American consumers — whose only fault is the constant demand for cheap fuel — regard this as morally opaque, is when a coupon arrives in their mailbox following an explosion.

Meanwhile, here in Addison County, the natural gas discussion has become manifested in the form of a proposed pipeline running from Colchester to Ticonderoga, N.Y., and on to Rutland. It will be interesting to see how quickly the communications offices at Vermont Gas, and its parent company Gaz Métro, can dispel concerns and hold discussion on their terms, and I encourage you to monitor their messages. And who knows, in the event of an earth-shaking explosion, we can take comfort in knowing a coupon for one Domino’s Oreo Pizza is on its way.

But please, only one per customer.

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