Chevron Walks the Talk — in New Guinea

What follows is a long, thoughtful, detail-packed excerpt from Jared Diamond’s epochal "Collapse." This particular excerpt concerns the actions of a Chevron subsidiary in a Papua New Guinea, a part of the world close to Diamond’s heart, since he worked there as an ornithologist decades ago.

In a nutshell, Diamond suggests that–at least in this example–that Chevron is an environmental hero. We might have to see it to believe it, but thanks to the miracle of the printed word–and the Internet–here we can:

(from Jared Diamond’s "Collapse," the "Big Business and the Environment" chapter, pp442-446)

Diamond first briefly discusses seeing a horror of an oil field in Indonesian New Guinea in l986. In contrast…

"My second experience was of the Kutubu oil filed that a subsidiary of the large international oil company Chevron Corp. operated in the Kikori River watershed of Papua New Guinea… The environment in the Kikori River watershed is sensitive and difficult to work in because of frequent landslides, much limestone karst terrain, and one of the highest recorded rainfalls in the world (on the average, 430 inches per year, and up to 14 inches per day). In l993 Chevron engaged World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to prepare a large-scale integrated conservation and development project for the whole watershed. Chevron’s expectation was that WWF would be effective at minimizing environmental damage, lobbying the Papua New Guinea government for environmental protection, serving as a credible partner in the eyes of environmental activist groups, benefiting local communities economically, and attracting World Bank funding for local community projects. From l998 to 2003 I made four visits of one month each to the oil fields and watershed as a consultant to WWF. I was allowed freedom to travel throughout the area in a WWF vvehicle and to interview Chevron employees privately."

"As my airplane flight from Papua New Guinea’s capital of Port Moresby droned on towards the field’s main airstrip at Moro and was approaching its scheduled arrival time, I looked out the airplane window for some signs of the oil field infrastructure I expected to see looming up. I became increasingly puzzled still to be seeing only an uninterrupted expanse of rainforest stretching between the horizons. Finally, I spotted a road, but it was only a thin cleared line ten yards broad through the rainforest, in many places overhung with trees growing on either side–a bird-watcher’s dream. The main practical difficulty in rainforest bird studies is that it’s hard to see birds inside the forest itself, and the best opportunities to observe them are from narrow trails where one can watch the forest from the side. Here was such a trail over 100 miles long, from the highest oil field at an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet on Mt. Moran down to the coast. On the following day, when I began walking along that pencil line of a road during my surveys, I found birds routinely flying across it, and mammals, lizards, snakes, and frogs hopping, running, or crawling across it. It turned out that the road had been designed to be just broad enough for two vehicles to pass safely in opposite directions. Initially, the seismic exploration platforms and exploration oil wells had been put in without construction of any access roads at all, and had been serviced instead just by helicopter and on foot."

"My next surprise came when my plane landed at Chevron’s Moro airstrip, and again later when I flew out. Although I had already gone through baggage inspection by the Papa New Guinea Customs Department upon my arrival in the country, on both arrival and departure at Chevron’s airstrip I had to open all my bags for further inspections more thorough than on any other occasion I had experienced except when I flew to Israel’s Tel Aviv airport. What were those inspectors looking for? On the flight in, the articles absolutely prohibited were firearms or hunting equipment of any sort, drugs, and alcohol; on the flight out, animals or plants or their feathers or parts that might be smuggled. Violations of those rules results in immediate automatic expulsion from company premises, as a WWF secretary innocently but foolishly carrying a package for someone else discovered to her misfortune (because the package turned out to contain drugs)."

"A further surprise came the next morning, after I had walked out on the road before dawn to bird-watch and returned a few hours later. The camp safety representative summoned me to his office and told me that I had already been reported for two violations of Chevron regulations, which I was not to repeat. First, I had been noticed stepping several feet out into the roadway to observe a bird. that posed the hazard that a vehicle might hit me, or that in swerving to avoid hitting me it might crash into an oil pipeline at the side of the road and cause an oil spill. From now on, I should please stay off the road while bird-watching. Second, I had been seen bird-watching while not wearing a protective helmet, but this whole area was a hardhat area; at this point the officer gave me a hardhat, which I should henceforth please wear for my own safety while bird-watching, e.g., in case a tree fell."

"That was an introduction to Chevron’s extreme concern, constantly instilled in its employees, about safety and environmental protection. I have never observed an oil spill on any of my four visits, but I do read the reports posted each month on Chevron bulletin boards about incidents and near-incidents, which are the concern of the safety representative who travels around by plane or truck to investigate each. Out of interest, I recorded the full list of fourteen incidents from March 2003. The most serious near-incidents requiring scrutiny and review of safety procedures in that month were a truck backed into a stop sign, another truck was reported with its emergency brake improperly set, a package of chemicals lacked the correct paperwork, and gas was found leaking from a compressor needle valve."

"My remaining surprise came in the course of bird-watching. New Guinea has many bird and mammal species whose presence and abundance are sensitive indicators of human disturbance, because they are either large and hunted for their meat, hunted for their spectacular plumage, or else confined to the interior of undisturbed forests and absent from modified secondary habitats. They include tree kangaroos (New Guinea’s largest native mammals); cassowaries, hornbills,  and large pigeons (New Guinea’s largest birds); birds of paradise, and Pesquet’s Parrot and other colorful parrots…and hundreds of species of the forest interior. When I began bird-watching in the Kutubu area, I anticipated that my mail goal would be to determine how much less numerous these species were inside the area of Chevron’s oil fields, facilities, and pipeline than outside it."

"Instead, I discovered to my astonishment that these species are much more numerous inside the Chevron area than anywhere else that I have visited on the island of New Guinea except for a few remote uninhabited areas. The only place that I have seen tree kangaroos in the wild in Papua New Guinea, in my forty years there, is within a few miles of Chevron camps; elsewhere, they are the first mammal to become shot out by hunters, and those few surviving learn to be active only at night, but I saw them active during the day in the Kutubu area. Pesquet’s Parrot, the New Guinea Harpy Eagle, birds of paradise, hornbills, and large pigeons are common in the immediate vicinity of the oil camps, and I have seen Pesquet’s Parrots perching on the camp communications towers. That’s because there is an absolute prohibition against Chevron employees and contractions hunting any animal or fishing by any means in the project area, and because the forest is intact. The birds and animals sense that and become tame. In effect, the Kutubu oil field functions as by far the largest and most rigorously controlled national park in Papua New Guinea."

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