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The Face of a Corporate Citizen

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The Face of a Corporate Citizen

I have written previously on these pages (here, for example) about my concerns when a corporation assumes, or is granted, the status of an individual in our society, but only recently have I had the opportunity on a personal basis to encounter a serious corollary of that circumstance, specifically, what happens when an individual assumes to himself the ethos of a corporation.

Some background. I am a resident of Massachusetts who has aligned himself with a grassroots movement to protest and defeat the intention of a mega corporation, a joint venture of Amerada Hess and Poten & Partners, to site a terminal for offloading liquefied natural gas (LNG) at a location abutting a densely populated neighborhood in the city of Fall River. As proposed, to get the refrigerated (-259 degrees F) liquefied gas to the proposed terminal in Fall River, LNG will be transported in specially designed ships, one thousand feet long and requiring a depth of 40 feet of water by navigating a narrow and winding route which begins at Newport, Rhode Island, proceeds north in Narragansett Bay under the Claiborne Pell Bridge (commonly called the Newport bridge) which connects Newport to the island of Jamestown, then after several miles takes a right turn to pass under the Mt. Hope Bay bridge, and from there most of the length of Mt. Hope Bay, to a yet to be constructed pier, where the LNG will be transferred from the ship to a cryogenic pipe to carry the refrigerated liquefied gas another four and quarter miles to the proposed site in Fall River. The project envisions a minimum of 70 transits annually, which means, at a minimum, 140 passages, incoming and exiting. The distance from the mouth of Narragansett Bay to the proposed facility in Fall River is 26 miles, and includes, of course, two states, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Prior to operation, the project requires the construction of the pier that will receive the ships, an ungainly structure three stories high and long enough to accept the 1000 foot vessels, construction and deployment of the lengthy cryogenic pipe, and construction of the facility at Fall River where the LNG will be deliquified, and the resulting gas stored in tanks and distributed. Before operation can begin, massive dredging will be necessary to permit the ships to gain access to the offloading pier in Mt Hope bay, ships that, as has been mentioned, require a water depth of more than 40 feet, and additional dredging will be needed to bury the four and a quarter mile cryogenic pipe to carry the LNG to the Fall River facility which will also need to be constructed.

In operation, each passage of the ships to the inland facility will require Coast Guard escorts whose responsibility will be to see that a security zone is maintained ahead of, abeam, and behind the LNG carrier, a security zone that will effectively lock down commercial and recreational boating for two miles ahead and one mile astern of the boat. The passages will occur, for security reasons, unannounced and at unscheduled times, dependent on the corporate needs of Hess and tides high enough to float the deeply laden vessels. The two major bridges providing access to Aquidneck, the original "island" of the formal state designation, The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, will be closed when the LNG vessel passes underneath.

That is a bare bones description of the project, and predictably, many stakeholders who would be affected by its implementation have objected to it. Given that the arguments against it are so profuse, based on so many different grounds, it is hard for those of us who oppose the project to understand why, after almost a decade of discussion, and thousands of pages forwarded to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), we are even still talking about it. Objections include concerns for public safety, concerns about the inevitable economic havoc that will affect two states that rely enormously on the beauty and accessibility of the bay for marine commercial and recreational interests, not to mention the tourist industry which accounts for significant state revenues, concerns about the ecological assault that the dredging would inflict on the marine environment, including the destruction of a spawning ground for a particular kind of flounder, and on and on. Virtually every adjacent town council, conservation group, and the two attorneys general for the two states have formally expressed opposition to the venture, and yet the corporate conglomerate of Hess plows on, with apparently limitless finances and extraordinary use of legal talent.

Against this backdrop, I found myself attending yet another public meeting in Middletown, RI, to listen to Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch spell out the persuasive and seemingly limitless litany of objections to this project. Although the meeting was framed to make the case against Hess, the meeting was public, and Hess representatives of the proposal were there. They were publicly acknowledged as present in the audience by the hosts. When asked, the spokesman for the Hess group declined an opportunity to speak, beyond a simple generalized assertion that the presentation by the Attorney General was factually inaccurate. The spokesman then indicated that he and his three associates would be available at the conclusion of the meeting to answer any questions that those present might like to raise.

He didn't have to wait. A resident of Middletown, during the public question portion of the meeting, stood, and addressing the Hess spokesman directly, commented that those opposed to the project were not opposed to LNG nor the propriety of Hess to make money by transporting, processing, and distributing it. What he didn't understand, and wanted an answer to, was, "Why, given your awareness of the extensive objections to the siting of this facility, and the predictable negative consequences that would ensue, do you not follow the lead of others in your trade, and set up an offshore facility to receive the ships and transfer the LNG where problems, should they occur, would not have a catastrophic effect on our extended community? Why are you doing this?"

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After a brief pause, the Hess spokesman stood up and allowed that the questioner had raised a "serious" question that "deserved an answer." Then, in what seemed to be a response unrelated to the question, the spokesman went on at length about the elaborate permitting requirements that Hess would have to acquire to go forward. The Hess man had responded to the "why" question with a "how" answer, seemingly unaware of the distinction between the two.

The moment passed quickly, and soon the meeting ended. Still annoyed by the spokesman's unresponsive response, I engaged him in discussion, pointing out that he had not in fact answered the earlier question. After some predictable verbal sparring, it began to dawn on me why he felt that his earlier answer was responsive, and it was a fairly simple position. He was a businessman, and his responsibility was to achieve as high a profit margin as he could. If any proposal he made in that endeavor was illegal, then my concerns were protected by various entities that would have to "permit" him to go forward. In other words, doing the "right" thing was not part of his calculus. He was focused on doing the "permitted" thing. As a businessman, the negative consequences of his actions were to be adjudicated by legal entities, not by conscience. It was his responsibility to get the permits, not to concern himself in any way with the likely societal consequences that would ensue if he were successful. Left unsaid, obviously, was any reference to the fact that the Hess Corporation would finance his legal interests, whereas mine were largely dependent on an organization whose revenues are heavily dependent on spaghetti suppers.

The experience put me in mind of testimony given earlier in the week before Carl Levin's investigatory committee by Goldman Sachs executives. Their lack of remorse or personal responsibility for the reprehensible consequences of their actions was evidence of their apparently unquestioned acceptance that whatever they were "permitted" to do in the context of their capitalistic financial community needed no further examination. I submit that these "businessmen" have opted, consciously or otherwise, to replace what the rest of us would call a conscience, with the amoral, literally unconscionable ethos of the legal entities called corporations.

Painfully, the Supreme Court recently decided that in the financing of political election campaigns, corporations were entitled to a kind of personhood that would allow them enormously increased influence in affecting the execution, and thereby the results, of campaigns by "corporation" approved candidates. Retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the four member minority, addressed the issue as follows:

"In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races"

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Justice Stevens' formal opinion is in "the context of election to public office," but the analysis applies equally well to the consequences of allowing corporations and their amoral ethics to have undue influence in questions regarding "quality of life" issues, issues which conceptually are simply not part of corporate thought.

I conclude with a declaration taken from the Hess web site:

"At Hess Corporation, we understand the importance of responsible Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) management to our growth, profitability and long term success. Guided by our Company value of Social Responsibility, we are committed to meeting the highest standards of corporate citizenship by protecting the health and safety of our employees, by safeguarding the environment, and by creating long-lasting, positive impact on the communities where we do business." [emphasis provided]

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I am a retired boatbuilder with a fascination for political thought. Most of my life I cheerfully described myself as an "eastern establishment, knee jerk, liberal Democrat."

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The old joke is that just because you are a parano... by Donald de Fano on Friday, May 7, 2010 at 9:02:35 AM