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Bechtel: Oil, Gas and Mining

by Pratap ChatterjeeSpecial to CorpWatch
May 1st, 2003

Fossil Fuel Facilities

Bechtel has played a major role in construction for the fossil fuel economy and the mining industry. Today as we lurch into a world where climate change has become a daily reality because of our over-consumption of fossil fuels Bechtel must take a share of the blame having built quite a few of the nation's as well as the world's major oil and natural gas production facilities and pipelines.

Bechtel built the Alaska pipeline and the trans-Canadian pipeline. Beginning in the 1940s Bechtel laid the foundations for a lot virtually all of Saudia Arabia and Kuwait's oil from the trans-Arabian pipeline and it continues to play a major role in the region such as the recent construction of the oil city of Jubail from scratch.

Bechtel also built Occidental's oil pipelines in Colombia as well as in Libya (just prior to Muhammar al Qaddafi's takeover of the country in 1969) and even won loan guarantees for Saddam Hussein's proposed Aqaba pipeline in Iraq which were later scuttled. Bechtel also built several major rigs in the North Sea off the shores of Scotland and Norway and the crude oil extraction facilities in the Athabscan tar sands of Alberta, just to name a few of the fossil fuel projects.

Bechtel prefers not to judge global warming or its impacts. "Clearly, industries around the world are paying increasing attention to scientific data about climate change and its causes and effects. Bechtel continues working with customers the world over to design and build facilities with environmental protection in mind. To the extent that we can design, build, and sometimes play a role in developing clean and efficient mass transit systems, airports, and other transit-related infrastructure-as well as ever-cleaner power plants-we're helping the situation," says company spokesperson Jeff Berger.

All That Glitters

Environmental problems abound at previous Bechtel construction sites, especially in the mining industry. One such project is the world's largest gold mine, the Grasberg mine in the remote highlands of the western half of New Guinea on the sacred mountains of the Amungme peoples, which is operated by Freeport McMoRan of Louisiana. Bechtel helped build the original gold mine in 1970. In 1998 Bechtel helped Freeport expand production and consequently waste dumping from 120,000 tons a day to 260,000 tons a day. On the other side of the island Bechtel built the Ok Tedi gold mine in Papua New Guinea.

Eight years ago an environmental review of the Freeport mining operations by the U.S. Overseas Private Insurance Corporation revealed that the mine was having an "irreversible impact" on the surrounding tropical forests.

Freeport daily dumps hundreds of thousands of tones of toxic waste from the mining operations directly into local rivers. When an accident at the mine dumpsite claimed four lives in May 2000, local activists demanded once again, as they have many times before, that the mine be shut down until there are suitable environmental safeguards to prevent such accidents. Bechtel refuses to make any comments on the Freeport gold mine. "Our contract with Freeport does not allow us to say anything about this project," says a Bechtel spokesman.

At the Ok Tedi mine indigenous peoples have succeeded in finding some justice. The dam Bechtel was building to contain the waste collapsed before gold was even extracted in 1984. In 1996 when the local people took them to court, BHP, the Australian operators of the mine agreed to spend up to $115 million to contain the toxic waste that they were dumping into the Fly river at a rate of 80,000 tons a day from the mine.

Asked why Bechtel's designs allowed waste to be dumped directly into local rivers at all these sites, a practice that is completely illegal in the United States, Berger replied somewhat cryptically: "These projects were completed in accordance with environmental standards and permits that were applicable and approved at the time of design and construction. As always, Bechtel is committed to meeting the environmental requirements of the day and to contributing to the body of knowledge supporting more sustainable development in the future."

"There are people who believe that development, ipso facto, is bad. That's a valid worldview even if we don't share it. And by that yardstick we will never be seen as green but a shade of dark brown," says Laubscher, former head of corporate communications for Bechtel.

Pratap Chatterjee is a Berekeley, California based investigative reporter and frequent contributor to CorpWatch