Unnecessarily confrontational: Industry leaders aren’t used to answering tough questions

A birdhouse is seen along ExxonMobil Baton Rouge’s Educational Trail, built over an old neighborhood the company bought out next to the refinery.

A post from LABB’s Program Manager, Anna Hrybyk:

On April 11, the Louisiana Department of the Environmental Quality presented 11 awards for Environmental Leadership in the areas of pollution prevention, community environmental education and outreach.

Who won these awards?

ExxonMobil in Baton Rouge won three awards. One of them was for the Wildlife Trail they constructed to attract birds and other pollinators to a former residential area around the plant the company bought out in the late ’90s. If it is not fit for human life why would the area attract birds and butterflies?

Monsanto and Valero Refining also won a total of five awards for their “environmental leadership.” It’s a strange state we live in when polluting industries that show little interest in reducing emissions and continue to damage the health of nearby residents are congratulated by the state for their environmental leadership.

On April 15,  I was invited to attend the Tulane Engineering Forum, in part because of our Refinery Efficiency Initiative, which researches the causes of refinery accidents in the state and encourages facilities to implement better technology and safety protocols. Sponsors of the Forum included ExxonMobil, Valero, ConocoPhillips and Shell. The keynote address was given by ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge Refinery plant manager on the oil giant’s energy outlook for 2030. He began his speech with a personal anecdote on how challenging it was to steer the refinery through Hurricane Gustav after just a few days on the job. He then presented a three-pronged approach to ExxonMobil’s energy outlook: Improving Efficiency, Mitigating Emissions and Expanding Supplies. In the question-and-answer period, I asked “Given your experience with Hurricane Gustav, a forced shutdown which resulted in over 1.2 million pounds of pollution, what lessons have you learned about future hurricanes to improve efficiency and mitigate emissions?”

I was told later that my question was “unkind,” “unnecessarily confrontational,” and that my tone “has reinforced the view that environmental groups typically do not collaborate very positively.” If we cannot ask for engineering solutions to pollution in an ENGINEERING forum, then where can we ask these questions? It seems to me that industry in our fair state is extremely sensitive to constructive criticism or feedback. It also shows how industry here is so unused to challenging questions. In fact, instead of challenges, they are given awards from the state for community outreach! Why is that?

A report in the Times Picayune on that very same morning tries to answer the question:

The problem in Louisiana, said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who is writing a book on the history of the environmental movement, is that there is no countervailing political pressure in the state. “I’m looking at all 50 states — and the most abused ecosystem is this ragged boot of Louisiana,” Brinkley said. But there has never been an effective environmental movement in Louisiana, he said, to call out the state’s political leadership when it toes industry’s line.

Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said he heard even sympathetic members of Congress muse aloud that “these people don’t take care of their environment like we do — why should we give them the money?” Boesch believes a more tempered reaction from Louisiana’s leadership could have positioned the state as a locus for new jobs in regulation and safety that instead set up shop in Houston.

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