Within the oil industry, Chevron Corp. has long enjoyed a reputation for safety.
But the last two years have put that reputation to the test.
In June 2011, an explosion ripped through a Chevron refinery in
Wales, killing four men. Later that month, a Bakersfield man died after
falling into a sinkhole filled with steam in one of the company's Kern
County oil fields.
In November, an oil spill near one of Chevron's deep-sea wells off
the coast of Brazil prompted fines and a criminal investigation. In
January, a blow-out and fire at an offshore natural-gas platform near
Nigeria killed two men and kept burning for 46 days.
And last week, a hydrocarbon leak at the company's Richmond refinery
triggered a fire that a dozen workers narrowly escaped. The Aug. 6 fire
closed the refinery's crude-oil processing unit, sent 9,000 people to
hospitals complaining of breathing difficulties and drove up gasoline
prices throughout California.
These were very different incidents, involving very different
operations within a truly global company. And yet their proximity raises
the question of whether something has gone wrong with Chevron's vaunted
safety culture, known inside the company as "the Chevron Way."
"We're asking ourselves, with these incidents, has anything changed?" said Wes Lohec,
the San Ramon company's vice president of health, environment and
safety. "We've been very reflective with these incidents. Can we connect
the dots between them? Is there some kind of pattern? And so far, the
answer is 'no.' "
Many in the industry point out that the business of finding, pumping
and processing crude oil is inherently dangerous, and even the most
diligent company will suffer accidents.
"They can't get it to zero," said Bob Bea,
a UC Berkeley engineering professor and risk-management expert who has
consulted with Chevron. He says the company takes safety seriously, more
so than other companies he has studied.
"What's important is these things are not allowed to propagate," Bea
said of last week's refinery fire. "They take immediate steps to contain
it and then make sure it doesn't happen again."
Some industry critics counter that all oil companies need to tighten
their safety practices. That's particularly true with refineries, said Kim Nibarger, a refinery safety expert for the United Steelworkers union.
He noted that the week before the Richmond fire, a blaze seriously
damaged a refinery in Tulsa, Okla., although the incident didn't receive
much public attention.
"It's an industry issue," Nibarger said. "I don't think Chevron's any
better or any worse than anyone else. I think the industry needs to
step back and say, 'We're having a fire a week. We need to do something
different, here.' "
On accident statistics, the company typically fares as well as - and often better than - its peers.
Chevron's global workforce of 61,000 employees and roughly 200,000
contractors suffered five fatalities last year - four at the Pembroke
refinery in Wales, and one in Kern County. Exxon Mobil Corp. had nine
fatalities, according to the company's 2011 Corporate
Last year, Chevron's lost-time incident rate - which counts both
deaths and work-related injuries that are serious enough to keep
employees at home - was .20 incidents for every million work-hours.
Exxon's was .38 incidents.
And yet, Chevron has experienced a spate of highly visible accidents.
-- On June 3, 2011, a tank containing a chemical used in the refining
process exploded at a refinery in Pembroke, Wales, killing four. The
government's investigation into the incident has not concluded, Lohec
said. The explosion occurred as Chevron was in the process of selling
the refinery to Valero Energy Corp.
-- Robert David Taylor,
a Chevron construction engineer, was swallowed by a sinkhole near Taft
on June 21, 2011, as he and several colleagues were investigating an
area where steam had been spotted coming from the ground. Chevron and
other companies operating in Kern County use steam to coax petroleum
from the region's aging oil fields.
-- In November, about 2,400 barrels of oil seeped from the seafloor
above a reservoir Chevron was exploring off the coast of Brazil.
Although the size of the spill paled in comparison to the 2010 BP spill
in the Gulf of Mexico (4.9 million barrels), the incident led to a
criminal case against Chevron and some of its executives, with Brazilian
prosecutors seeking roughly $20 billion in damages.
-- On Jan. 16, a gas exploration platform off the Nigerian coast
suffered a blowout and fire after unexpectedly high pressure built up
within a well. Two men were killed. Several survivors claimed that
workers had asked the company to evacuate the platform days before the
fire, because smoke was emerging from the borehole. Chevron says that no
one on the platform requested evacuation.
All of the company's workers have the authority to stop operations at
a facility if they notice something happening that they consider
dangerous, Lohec said. (Federal investigators examining the Richmond
fire are studying the decision by refinery operators to keep the
facility running for two hours after discovering the hydrocarbon leak
that would eventually cause the blaze.)
But Nibarger said employees often feel they can't simply bring
operations to a halt, considering the economic cost of stopping a
refinery or a drilling rig.
"You can pretty well draw a conclusion about how well that authority
works," he said. "You have stop-work authority if your manager agrees
Some of Chevron's critics contend that the company's safety reputation has always been too kind.
For the past four years, a coalition of activist groups has published
an alternative corporate report called "The True Cost of Chevron" that
accuses the company of environmental and human rights abuses across the
globe, from Richmond to Kazakhstan. Company officials have compared the
report to a funhouse mirror. They also see it as part of a long-running
lawsuit against Chevron over oil-field contamination in Ecuador, a suit
that the company considers extortion. Ecuadoran courts have ordered the
company to pay $19 billion, but Chevron continues to fight the judgment.
"They've always had a poor record of global respect for human rights,
the safety of the community, the safety of workers and adhering to the
judgment of governments," said Antonia Juhasz, one of the
For their part, Wall Street analysts who cover the company say it has
a real commitment to safety, in spite of recent incidents. With close
to $27 billion in profit last year, Chevron doesn't need to skimp on
safety at its facilities, said Brian Youngberg, senior energy analyst
with the Edward Jones investment company.
"It'll take a few months to figure out exactly what happened, and
Chevron will take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.
"They want to run as tight a ship as they can. It's not a cash
David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com