Editor’s Notebook: Don’t Feed Them Cake

March 2014, Vol. 241 No. 3

Jeff Share, Editor

This is a story of how a boneheaded, albeit well-intentioned, PR decision destroyed years of image building in one fell swoop.

This happened last month when Chevron committed their faux pas after an explosion at a Western Pennsylvania gas well killed a worker. I should specify, as Chevron’s news release did, that the victim was a “contract” worker, as if that makes a difference. That was another error, something you don’t expect from a major company that generally has excellent public relations skills.

Here is what happened: shortly before 7 a.m. on Feb. 11 a Chevron well exploded as it was being prepared for production in rural Greene County about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh. Officials said the workers were preparing to install production tubing inside the well in order to start production of natural gas and the simultaneous removal of fluid. A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said it appeared the workers had not even touched the wellhead when the explosion happened, but were having a safety briefing when some workers noticed a malfunction at the wellhead and “there was some independent ignition source and the fire occurred.”

That fire took five days to burn itself out because, according to news reports, the flames that shot out of the Marcellus Shale gas well were so intense that a propane truck parked nearby exploded and firefighters were forced to retreat. Twenty people employed by Cameron International were working at the site and one man was killed.

Eight days after the blast, the remains of 27-year-old Ian McKee were found between a destroyed crane and tank on the well pad that was near the still-leaking wells. McKee was living in Morgantown, WV with his girlfriend who is due to deliver their child in July. Together for five years, they were planning to get married and buy a home, a family spokesman said. He started working for Cameron in March 2012.

This is the first serious blowout in the Marcellus Shale which last year produced 3.1 Tcf of natural gas and is revitalizing economically depressed southwestern Pennsylvania, helped in part by a business-friendly state government. But now they are starting to learn first-hand the cost of this transformation that natural gas has created. Two days after the explosion, 21 cars of an 118-car train carrying heavy Canadian crude oil and propane derailed 36 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, spilling several thousand gallons of fuel.

Though the train was passing through Pennsylvania en route to New Jersey, it’s indicative that the transportation, just like the production, of hazardous fuels is very dangerous. I’ve been to enough industry meetings where safety is the first priority. Accidents happen, but there is no form of energy development that does not come without risk.

In December 2012, nine months after Chevron began work on the ill-fated three-well pad, I was in Pittsburgh on a state-sponsored media tour aimed at promoting the Marcellus. Chevron managers said they were determined to be good neighbors with local residents because they were here to stay, at least for the next 60 years.

After the well explosion, Chevron was doing a good job keeping local residents informed of developments on its website. In an era when fracking is controversial, bad news will carry a long way. These people in Western Pennsylvania, my home state, are a different breed. They are proud, industrious and take enormous pride in their families and communities. Give them the facts straight and they’ll work with you; lie or mislead them once and they’ll never trust you again.

The same can be said of making fools of them which Chevron inadvertently did with its free pizza. To calm the nerves of local people the Chevron Appalachia Community Outreach went around the affected area and handed out a hundred $12 coupons for a combo pizza and 2-liter soda. “A token of appreciation,” Chevron explained.

Chevron has gotten reamed in the local and national media which has paid more attention to the pizza than the accident. “It’s like Marie Antoinette telling the French people to eat cake,” said one certificate receiver. Another tweeted, “nice community relations: if you are frightened by fire and explosion, relax, have a pizza!”

A couple days after the blast Chevron U.S.A. gave 27 local fire departments almost $50,000 as part of its initiative to help fire companies with Chevron gas wells operating within their coverage areas. Chevron is donating $240,000 to 90 volunteer fire departments and nine hazardous materials teams in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia where it operates.

The lesson here is pretty obvious. Marie Antoinette lost her head after her comments.

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