A dangerous precedent

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AUGUST 24, 2012

Chevron prides itself on accountability. On its website, the oil company cites two principles that guide its actions in the workplace: “do it safely or not at all” and “there is always time to do it right.”

Yet in the wake of the recent Richmond refinery fire, some of Chevron’s actions are casting doubt over the legitimacy of those sentiments. An article this week in the San Francisco Chronicle suggests that the fire may have been preventable, focusing on the inability of a detailed plan to avert the disaster.

Chevron created the plan in 2009 to avoid an incident similar to the Aug. 6 fire at the Richmond refinery, which sent scores of people with respiratory problems in surrounding areas, including Berkeley, to local hospitals. The company has unacceptably denied to release the report publicly or even disclose its contents.

But during a maintenance shutdown in November, Chevron neglected to replace one of two pipes that were identified as problematic in the unit where the recent fire ignited. Analysts are worried about the decision-making process behind that choice — also a key element of the federal Chemical Safety Board’s inquiry.

It could be the case that Chevron had a perfectly legitimate reason for not replacing the pipe, but the decision looks suspect, and it will remain that way unless Chevron provides a clear understanding of its analysis. Until Chevron releases the 2009 report, the public is left to wonder why the plan failed.

Some of the other facts are troubling, too. For example, in January 2010, Chevron argued against a proposed requirement that refinery diesel engines be equipped with emergency shut-offs as a way of avoiding igniting vapor clouds, according to the Chronicle. A top maintenance and reliability specialist told a government panel that such rules were “a solution in search of a problem.”

Clearly, there was a problem. In any case, preventative measures shouldn’t be based on accidents that have already happened — they should stop them from occurring. It is understandable that businesses would shy away from tighter regulations, but when it comes to public safety, companies must go through any and all lengths to keep the public safe. Cutting corners should not be part of the process.

And this is not the only energy-related disaster in recent years that appears to have been avoidable. The infamous 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, was criticized similarly. That disaster, which spilled more than 170 million gallons of fuel, was found by a presidential panel to have arisen from a series of preventable failures.

If we are to have any faith in Chevron, the company must prove that it stands by its mantra of fostering a responsible and safe workplace. Chevron owes it to the public to be completely transparent.

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AUGUST 23, 2012