Four days after the April 5, 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, the 300 family members keeping vigil finally learned that the last of the missing miners had been found and there were no survivors among them. The explosion killed 29 men, and severely injured one. The mine was run by Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. Massey's Chairman Bobby R. Inman called it a "natural disaster," but it was anything but natural.
Like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf that would steal the nation's attention (and 11 lives) just two weeks later, Upper Big Branch was the inevitable outcome of regulators turning a blind eye to a greedy corporate culture that puts profit above human lives. But this is nothing new. Coal, oil and gas companies in the U.S. have been getting away with murder for years. Sometimes it is just less obvious -- the slow poisoning of our air, water and food; the deterioration of human health, the loss of homes and jobs, the obliteration of whole communities and ecosystems.
Even as the burning of fossil fuels pushes the planet toward the brink, these energy companies continue to rake in massive profits. They use this wealth to leverage elections, write legislation, scale back regulations and escape accountability. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) has found that, "Individuals and political action committees affiliated with oil and gas companies have donated $238.7 million to candidates and parties since the 1990 election cycle, 75 percent of which has gone to Republicans." Although Republicans have won big from the industry, CRP found that Obama received $884,000 from the oil and gas industry during his 2008 campaign for the presidency.
In 2010 the oil and gas industry shelled out more than $145 million on lobbying and the mining industry spent nearly $30 million.
Which energy companies are the worst offenders? We'll look at how much they spend on lobbying, how many lobbyists they hire, how many "revolving door" personnel pass between government and industry, how much they contribute to political campaigns (whether through individual donations, their political action committees, or "soft money" to support the party), and the effect of their greed on human lives and the environment.
While the list of energy companies that could be included is long, here are five whose egregious actions deserve national attention.
The top spot on our list for the worst energy company this year goes to Chevron. The company has indeed moved quite a large amount of cash through Washington and its business practices have resulted in an incredible loss of life. Much of it just happened out of the country, so many in the U.S. may have missed Chevron's gross abuses.
In relation to other energy companies, Chevron is big -- it's the second largest U.S. oil company and the third largest U.S. corporation overall. Its mammoth size is the result of gobbling up a lot of other companies along the way. It started off as Pacific Coast Oil Company and then became Standard Oil and then Chevron when it swallowed up Gulf Oil in 1984. In 2001 Chevron merged with Texaco, and then in 2005 acquired Unocal.
As the price of oil climbs, Chevron continues to make a killing. Antonia Juhasz, writing in "The True Cost of Chevron: An Alternative Annual Report," found that the company's 2010 profits of $19 billion were nearly double 2009 profits and its revenue shot up to $200 billion. As most Americans struggle through the economic downturn, Chevron's CEO John Watson took home a cool $16.3 million in 2010 -- even as Juhasz writes, "Chevron continued to shrink its number of employees and holdings."
The company has tried to change its oil and gas image with aggressive ad campaigns about its investments in renewable energy, but in truth, 95 percent of its revenue still comes from oil and gas. That might explain why, according to Tyson Slocum, Chevron doled out $500,000 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "which is leading the fight to demonize pending EPA rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
Chevron's also trying to pad its profits by contributing largely to politicians. From 1989-2012 CRP reported that Chevron's contributions to federal candidates were over $11.9 billion -- the third highest on our list (although nearly tied for second with Koch), with 75 percent going to Republicans.
CRP has calculated that Chevron spent over $779,000 in 2010 (with only $152,480 going to Democrats). These were some of its top dogs:
- Carly Fiorina, R-Calif., Senate; $37,250
- Davide Vitter, R-Louisiana, Senate; $29,800
- Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Senate; $29,600
- Robert F. Bennett, R-Utah, Senate; $24,400
- Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas, Senate; $16,000
- William Flores, R-Texas, House; $14,400
- Lisa Murkowski. I-Alaska, Senate$13,900
- Kevin Brady, R-Texas, House; $9,000
- Dan Boren, D-Oklahoma, House; $8,000
So far in 2012 it spent over $167,000, with $23,500 going to Senator John A Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and $11,000 going to Rep. William Flores, R-Texas.
"Why does Chevron bother spending this kind of money on the political system?" asks Slocum. "Because, dollar for dollar, nothing provides a better financial return than investing in politicians. With environmentalists pushing to hold oil companies accountable for their pollution, corporations like Chevron would be forced to spend millions of dollars to make their oil and natural gas drilling operations and oil refineries cleaner and safer. Sure, doing so would improve the standard of living for millions of Americans and help ensure we all have access to cleaner air and water--but Chevron's political activities clearly show the company's priority is profit--not saving the planet."
When it comes to lobbying, Chevron isn't holding back either. Since 1998, the company has spent $85 million on lobbyists, second highest on our list. Already this year it's spent nearly $5 million on hiring 39 lobbyists -- also the second highest number of lobbyist on our list. And revolving door issues abound. Lisa Barry served as a staffer for former Republican House Member Silvio Conte, deputy assistant to the U.S. Trade Representative, and deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Commerce before becoming an executive at several major corporations and, most recently, vice president of governmental affairs at Chevron Corp.
Lobbying firm Ogilvy Government Relations, which lobbies on behalf of Chevron, employs several individuals who have ties to government. For instance, John J. O'Neill worked for two years as tax and pension counsel for the Senate Finance Committee and did a brief stint in 2007 as policy director for former Republican Congressman Trent Lott. Prior to his time in the public sector, O'Neill worked for lobbying firm Davis & Harman. Current Ogilvy employee Drew Maloney worked for lobbying firm Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh before becoming legislative director for Republican Congressmen Roger Wicker and Ed Bryant and an assistant to then House Majority Whip Tom DeLay.
So, with all these lobbyists, what are Chevron's big political priorities?
As expected it's pushing for more of the "drill, baby drill" we've seen over the years -- so anything having to do with opening up new oil leases and exploration, on- and off-shore, including in the Gulf and Alaska. Of course it'll be teaming up with the Chamber and the rest of Big Oil to prevent the EPA from doing its job, especially when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
And it looks like Chevron will be relying on its man in Wyoming, John Barrasso, who's been its largest recipient this year. Barrasso kicked off 2011 by introducing the Defending America's Affordable Energy and Jobs Act, which is designed to strip the EPA's authority in regulating greenhouse gas pollution. He told Environment News Service, "I will do whatever it takes to ensure that Washington doesn't impose cap-and-trade policies in any form."
Barrasso's willing to sacrifice the health of the country in order to make sure Chevron and its Big Oil brotherhood don't have to clean up their acts. David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council ridiculed the bill and Environmental News Service reported that Doniger said the "bill would give the biggest polluters, such as power plants that emit 2.4 billion tons of CO2 each year, a free pass for unlimited pollution."
In case you thought Chevron was all oil -- it's definitely not. "Chevron has acquired nearly five million net acres of shale gas assets in the United States, Canada, Poland and Romania," according to George Kirkland, Chevron's vice chairman. The company has been making aggressive strides to leverage its power in the Marcellus region of the eastern U.S. where oil and gas companies are hoping to have a drilling field day.
At the beginning of 2011 Chevron picked up Atlas Energy for $4.3 billion, a company with major holdings in the Marcellus. Then in May it announced that it had picked up an additional 228,000 leasehold acres in the Marcellus from Chief Oil and Gas.
You better believe that Chevron will be doing all it can to make sure that any attempts to ban or even regulate fracking in the Marcellus are quashed.
In fact, Desmog Blog fingered Chevron as one of several big oil companies fronting an astroturf group called Energy in Depth, which alleged to be a collection of "small, independent oil and natural gas producers" but Brendan DeMelle has found exists courtesy of Big Oil. As DeMelle writes, "EID seems to attack everyone who attempts to investigate the significant problems posed by hydraulic fracturing and other natural gas industry practices that have been shown to threaten public health and water quality across America."
And even though Chevron hasn't spent as much money as Exxon Mobil (although it has come close), it sealed the top spot on this list because of its corporate irresponsibility, which seems strangely out of the Exxon playbook.
Chevron's malfeasance is long, including a spill right now off the coast of Brazil which dumped over 110,000 gallons of oil into the Atlantic. But Rainforest Action Network has more about the company:
Around the world, over and over again, Chevron's outdated practices and policies have consistently violated human rights, damaged human health, and worsened global warming.
In Kazakhstan, Chevron has contaminated land and water resources and impaired the health of local residents. In Canada's Alberta region, Chevron is invested in tar sands -- one of the most environmentally damaging projects on the planet. In the Niger Delta, Chevron is complicit in human rights violations committed by security forces against local people. In the Philippines, regular oil leaks and spills have sickened Manila residents. Chevron's operations in Burma are providing a financial lifeline to the Burmese military regime -- known for its appalling human rights record. In Western Australia, Chevron's liquefied natural gas facility threatens the health of local communities and fragile humpback whale and turtle populations.
But Chevron's worst legacy may be in Ecuador, where Texaco (now part of Chevron) spent 30 years decimating the ecologically rich Amazon rainforest and the many indigenous communities there.
As one of the campaigns seeking justice for Ecuadoreans reports:
Unlike the Exxon Valdez disaster that spilled over a billion gallons of crude during a one time cataclysmic event, Texaco's oil extraction system in Ecuador was designed, built, and operated on the cheap using substandard technology from the outset. This led to extreme, systematic pollution and exposure to toxins from multiple sources on a daily basis for almost three decades.
In a rainforest area roughly three times the size of Manhattan, Texaco carved out 350 oil wells, and upon leaving the country in 1992, left behind some 1,000 open toxic waste pits. Many of these pits leak into the water table or overflow in heavy rains, polluting rivers and streams that 30,000 people depend on for drinking, cooking, bathing and fishing. Texaco also dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic and highly saline "formation waters," a byproduct of the drilling process, into the rivers of the Oriente. At the height of Texaco's operations, the company was dumping an estimated 4 million gallons of formation waters per day, a practice outlawed in major US oil producing states like Louisiana, Texas, and California decades before the company began operations in Ecuador in 1967. By handling its toxic waste in Ecuador in ways that were illegal in its home country, Texaco saved an estimated $3 per barrel of oil produced.
Rainforest Action Network reports that "1,400 Ecuadoreans have already died as a result of the contamination in the Amazon, and some 30,000 more are at risk."
In an historic trial earlier this year ("the first time indigenous people have forced a multinational corporation to stand trial in their own country for violating their human rights"), the company was found liable for over $8 billion, but Chevron is still trying to escape payment. And just for comparison, the company has already made nearly $22 billion in profits so far this year.
Chevron's dirty business practices may not be washing up on our shores (yet), but they're still sickening.
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