By Laura Suleimenova
Recently, advisor to the Kazakh branch of international NGO Crude Accountability Sergei Solyanik visited Atyrau.
Established in 2003 in the United States, the foundation deals with human rights and environmental protection issues in the Caspian region, including Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Russia and Azerbaijan.
The organization also monitors the activities of oil companies, investors, one of which is Chevron.
Not long ago, the organization's report "The Republic of Chevron — 20 Years of Pollution, Labor Disputes and Harm to Local Communities in Kazakhstan" saw light.
Ak Zhaik's Laura Suleimenova put a few questions to Mr Solyanik.
Oil giant vs village
L.S.: I have long known about your organization. Could you please tell about it to our readers?
S.S.: Our organization is registered in Alexandria, Virginia, the United States. We help non-governmental entities and communities suffering from oil and gas sector impact. We have only five people in personnel. The organization outsources specialists for certain activities.
L.S.: Why it is Chevron that pulls your attention here?
S.S.: Tengizchevroil LLP, and Chevron itself, is the largest private producing company in your country, which contributes a good deal into the Kazakhstan economy. At the same time, it makes serious "contribution" to contamination of the environment. Given this, Chevron plays a great role in US itself - it is the successor of the famous Standard Oil. And our organization is the member of True Cost of Chevron international coalition, created to inform Chevron stakeholders about negative sides of the company's business. In other words, we provide them with details that never exist in official reports.
For example, according to a court decision in Ecuador, Chevron should pay a 19 billion dollar penalty for environmental pollution. This is the case when the company's activities turn into money risks and serious image loss for stakeholders. Therefore, we work to let them know what is the cost of oil for Chevron.
There is a village named Berezovka in the West Kazakhstan Oblast. For nine years its dwellers have been suffering from H2S and other toxic substances related to production, they live in some five kilometers from the Karachaganak oil and gas condensate field. They are now struggling for relocation to a safer place. Independent studies have shown that nearly a half of population there have chronic illnesses - high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and visual deterioration. But the report of Karachaganak Petroleum Operating B.V. (KPO), of which Chevron is a member [20%], reads air contamination level does not exceed limits.
L.S.: Who are Chevron's stakeholders? Is there an opportunity for your employees to ask questions to the company management directly?
S.S.: As far as I know, among the stakeholders are large companies, various foundations, company employees and individuals. As to your second question - we can attend major meetings of stakeholders. That's a normal practice. I have once been to a such meeting in Houston in 2010.
L.S.: But TCO is a very closed company.
S.S.: That's common for Chevron at large. For example, to the gathering in Houston only 7 out of 37 members of our True Cost of Chevron coalition were allowed. The rest were just denied access. At these meetings one may ask any undesirable question to the management, which they have to answer. It is exactly there I read aloud the letter from the people of Berezovka demanding relocation. Of course, the reply failed to satisfy us. We were told Chevron is not the project operator and recommended to ask KPO directly, though Chevron is one of the partners. By the way, Tengizchevroil has the experience of moving people of Sarykamys, a village in 10 kilometers from the Tengiz field, to the Zhana Karaton settlement and the oblast capital Atyrau. Officially, the resettlement costed company $95 million. See, they can if they want! Moreover, it has been revealed that relocation and other social projects' costs are covered at the expense of Kazakh share in the oil produced. It turns out the company does not lose a thing - on the contrary, they earn political capital.
L.S.: Have you ever seen the agreement between Kazakhstan and Chevron?
S.S.: No. Chevron's coming to Kazakhstan and signing the largest contract is historical both for Kazakhstan and Chevron, however the document is still closed for wide public! The decision on Tengiz was taken by a small group from two sides - neither the parliament nor the country's government was involved in the decision making process.
We are not spies
L.S.: What's Chevron's reputation across the world?
S.S.: Chevron has never tolerated criticism, judging by the story in Houston - the company officials had expected what we would ask at the meeting, and therefore attempted to impede us from attending. To the best of my knowledge, there are difficulties getting to TCO office and obtaining required information in Atyrau too. In British companies like BP, officials are easy to contact and seek compromise, but Chevron from the very start takes a tough stance, as it did in Ecuador, where the oil giant refuses to pay for pollution. I read your article Ecology agencies see subsoil users as money bags - Chevron adviser, where a Chevron legal advisor tags local public "unqualified and from street"! A question emerges - is Mr Lawyer aware of the provisions in Aarhus Convention, of which Kazakhstan is a member? This is the sign of not too respectful attitude of the company towards local community.
L.S.: We say TCO is a state within a state.
S.S.: That's obvious. A simple case - last year we requested TCO to grant us access to the field area, but were denied. One may say Chevron behaves like a lord in someone other's land seeing the codes 400 and 500 that put some employees into so called black lists and the company's negligence towards independent trade unions.
L.S.: Recently Tengizchevroil announced it had reduced air pollution per ton of produced oil. Is this a reason for optimism?
S.S. This is of course good, but is not the ultimate solution. Given the scale of production and planned expansion of the project by nearly a third, the impact on the environment will inevitably increase. On top of that, commissioning of new facilities, start of production at Kashagan and construction of a gas and chemical complex near Atyrau will bring cascading effect on nature. Impact on environment and people is going to be a catastrophe.
L.S.: A thought appears that times may come when Atyrau itself will need relocation. I have a quite sensitive question - who sponsors your organization?
S.S.: We have already been accused of being funded by certain intelligence services. But there is no secret about our sponsors, to see who they are feel free to visit our web page www.crudeaccountability.org. Before all, among them are National Endowment for Democracy funded by the US Congress and private British foundation Sigrid Rausing Trust that supports human rights protection organizations. These countries well know that democratic values ensure stability in the state. No one including Chevron is interested in a raise of radicalism fuelled by dissatisfaction of people over political and economical issues. Everyone doing business in Kazakhstan is interested in stability. For this reason, they fund the development of civil society.
'Feel not like home'
L.S.: In developing countries, Chevron, as well as other western companies, behaves differently than in its home country. Outside their own countries they never rush to implement the latest environment-friendly technologies. How does Chevron behave in the United States?
S.S.: Indeed, there are such technologies, but it is cheaper to pay penalties than to adopt new developments. A half of our reports are dedicated to Chevron's activities in America. There are also many problems related to environment and labor conflicts. What's different, there exists a system of checks and balances, and laws, good or bad ones, are strictly observed. Plus, they have truly independent courts and mass media, which is a great power there. Western companies feel more freedom in the third world countries.
L.S.: What's your opinion about the recent initiative TCO and NCOC put forward to optimize environmental legislation of Kazakhstan?
S.S.: In the first place, it demonstrates the lack of wise environmental policy in the country. In one case we to the maximum collect penalties from users of nature and in other case we make their life easy. Everyman understands nothing about such maneuvers, the stance of government agencies that should defend him is not clear to him either. As far as I understood, domestic monopolist subsoil users are also standing for the proposed changes to the laws, claiming that big ecologic penalties will negatively impact the country's business environment. Allegedly it may cause a rise of communal tariffs. In my view, that's an empty statement. We pay them money by tariffs, they should invest that money in the construction of cleaning facilities and other new technologies. Instead, they blackmail us, they tell us "If you don't cut penalties, we will shut down our business here. Initiatives of this kind serve the interest of companies, not interests of people and nature.