Politically incorrect since 2009
27 August 2014 12:39 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

No logo means carte blanche

  • Ivo Vegter
The eco-minded progressive classes usually aim their anti-corporate sentiment at big brands. By contrast, they advocate government regulation for all the ills foisted upon us. That this is so reveals a grave logical contradiction in their thinking.

Among the many personal attacks I've encountered in my conversations, public, private and in these pages, the most common lately is that I'm a shill for Shell.

Each time this happens, I repeat the truth. The only income I have received for my work on gas drilling in the Karoo is the fee I receive for these columns, and a nice dinner in return for speaking at the EE Publishers and Johannesburg Press Club debate on hydraulic fracturing, which I'll offset against the cost of boarding my pets for the night. I have not read any of Shell's public relations material, preferring instead technical manuals, scientific studies and regulatory reports to shine a light on what is peddled as prudence and even science by the green movement.

The same goes for Walmart, which as far as I can tell doesn't know I exist, and any other corporate evildoers the left loves to bang on about.

By contrast, the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, brags of having collected a war chest of R10 million, some of which is used to pay the expenses of pliant “journalists”. What's a little tarnish on the well-worn propaganda device of the righteous David against the big corporate Goliath?

What surprised me most, however, is that in response to my consistent and frequent denial of ever having taken money from Shell, nobody had the wit to accuse me of being on the payroll of Bundu Oil & Gas. In the vast expanse of comments under my first column on gas drilling, Bundu merited not a single mention. Falcon and Sasol got five mentions each. Shell was named more than 200 times.

You see, it's easy to hate a big company, with a big brand name. McDonalds makes you fat. Walmart makes you stupid. Pfizer makes you addicted to uppers, of all sorts. Shell makes you have three-headed double-gendered babies. If you're looking for bogeymen, just pick one from a billboard.

Big companies with big brands to protect catch a lot of flak. But in casting big companies as evil pillagers and exploiters, critics fail to recognise that they're generally staffed by people. Ordinary people like you and me. People with the same passions and concerns and emotional investment in the welfare of the planet and the prosperity of its people.

I once had a long series of conversations with someone who used to work for an oil major. I won't name names, because the conversations were personal and private, but they were fascinating. He was much more of an environmentalist than I'll ever be, and much like a certain environmentalist in the fracking debate also enjoyed extreme sport in the world's most extreme places.

I was surprised at the sheer scale of the departments filled with engineers and scientists dedicated to establishing, monitoring and reporting standards in areas as diverse as environmental management and occupational health and safety. They work in tough conditions. The conditions are often harsh, the processes complex, and the machinery dangerous. They face thousands of workers who resent cumbersome protective clothing and finicky operational rules. They face regulators (and journalists) with little knowledge of their operations and no relevant experience at all. They have to pacify environmental groups for whom nothing they do is ever good enough, and some of whom actively endanger staff, operations and the environment. (This is the charge brought by Cairn Energy against Greenpeace a few days ago.)

And they do all this at tremendous expense, because they are large companies, with big brands, and massive potential legal liabilities that can burn investors.

Would anyone have complained about – or even noticed – clothing sweatshops, for example, if the companies involved weren't known as Nike and GAP? Does anyone really think, now that the big brands know better, that sweatshops no longer exist?

Had anyone heard of Wasteman Holdings before it became involved in a scandal over illegal dumping in Welkom, in the Free State? If you still haven't, that wouldn't be surprising. The company stands accused of dumping medical waste on sites not capable of protecting groundwater against pollution, back in 2009. Does anyone know what the state of play in that case is? The latest news I could find was that eight people and nine companies were charged, but that counsel for the defence has petitioned to have the case thrown out, because the prosecution couldn't get its act together. The state asked for time to respond to this motion, because it was prepared only to ask for a postponement. Another one. Making it a dozen postponements to date. That petition was to be heard last week, but nobody appears to have cared enough to report on it.

Meanwhile, Wasteman Holdings has acquired a spill response specialist, appointed a national risk manager, suspended its CEO, and fired the responsible managers in the medical waste division. The site in question has long since been cleaned up to the satisfaction of the “Green Scorpions”, as government's environmental regulation authorities style themselves, as well as an independent expert on groundwater pollution.

Wasteman continues with its business, chastened, but now that it has become famous, publicly committed to actively guard against any further such damaging incidents in future.

Where are the angry mobs on this case? Where is the caped crusader with the R10 million war chest? Where are the reporters to keep us informed of the court proceedings? Where are the commentators, lamenting that the only answer to corporate malfeasance is more and stricter government regulation?

More pertinently, given the circumstances, did regulation hurt or help this case? How would more regulation have prevented the incident, or hastened the cleanup, or brought successful prosecution of the guilty parties? Would public visibility of Wasteman's operations, by contrast, have made a difference?

So far, the only mechanism that has worked even despite the low profile of the case, has been the free market.

Here's an even more astonishing example. Chevron has a refinery near Cape Town, and discharges waste water into Table Bay, some 500m offshore. It does so in full compliance with environmental regulations, and the water in question does no harm to marine life or anything else.

However, kite surfers didn't like it. They complained about the odd colour and smell.

Many companies in this situation would have told them to go drown. They'd wave their compliance certificates, and dare the whingers to take it to court.

Not Chevron. This nasty company built the largest waste-water treatment plant in South Africa, at a cost of R107 million. It didn't have to. But it did it anyway, because it has a big global brand to protect. It did this to alleviate the “the nuisance impact that the wastewater was having on kite surfers”.

You see, Chevron is a brand that customers can boycott, that activists can name in front of angry crowds, that well-funded environmental lobbyists can paint on protest placards, and that citizens can take to court. Its brand is big enough to hate.

The beautiful irony is that a lesser company, with fewer resources and a lower profile, would have used environmental regulations as a shield in the same circumstances. They could have hidden behind the fact that they did nothing wrong. And they would have been right.

Worse, the government that regulates these things is hardly an angel itself when it comes to environmental management. Many protests on environmental grounds are aimed at partially or wholly state-owned entities, such as Sasol and Eskom, or organs of state such as municipalities responsible for sewerage treatment plants.

In fact, the biggest problem in the Karoo gas drilling case, is the fact that the mineral rights at issue are not privately owned. If landowners in the Karoo owned their own mineral rights, they could negotiate contracts and hold mining and resources companies responsible before a court, like they would do with anyone else. Because they don't, the default response to any development anywhere near their land is “no”. Though not based on facts about actual risk, opposition to drilling is for Karoo farmers a perfectly rational decision, since the government has deprived them of their legal rights and recourse.

This government – owner of strip mines and overflowing sewerage works, expropriator of farmers, and provider of regulatory defences to under-the-radar operators – is who we want to entrust with protecting us from evil capitalists like Chevron, Walmart and Shell?

Frankly, I'd rather put my faith in the market. The big global brands that these companies own are not a threat to consumers. They are a weapon that consumers can wield to enforce high standards of environmental, labour and financial conduct. This weapon ensures that such companies minimise risks, and when they do mess up, that they take rapid remedial action. This weapon is why some, as in the case of Chevron, will go well beyond the call of duty.

And yes, I'm getting paid by Bundu Oil and Gas. Just kidding. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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