Joe Mathews: Chevron may be a big oil company, but it’s California’s

Chevron is one of California’s oldest companies, is still the largest by revenue and has a visible presence across the state.
Chevron is one of California’s oldest companies, is still the largest by revenue and has a visible presence across the state. Associated Press file

Dear Chevron,

I will not compare thee to a summer’s day. But make no mistake: I love you.

You are unaccustomed, I know, to getting letters like this. Love is usually reserved for younger, sexier companies – Apple or Twitter – across the bay from your San Ramon headquarters. You and other oil companies are villains in today’s California – polluters, price gougers, perpetrators of climate change. In this fall’s gubernatorial debate, Jerry Brown disapprovingly noted your $21 billion in profits last year while blaming Big Oil for forest fires and rising sea levels. And I’m not going to mention the 2012 explosion at your refinery in Richmond that caused thousands of people to seek medical treatment.

I forgive you none of your sins. Still, I can’t help loving you. You’ve always been what’s most important in any relationship – present.

In California, companies come and companies go. But not you. You’ve stayed for 135 years. And while you’re one of our oldest companies, you’re still potent. You’re No. 1 among all California companies in revenue.

But I’m not just a gold digger. I love how you connect the state in a way that few institutions, other than our universities and our prisons, have managed. Your operations bridge north and south, coast and inland, with refineries in the Bay area (Richmond) and Los Angeles (El Segundo, a small city named after your second refinery) and oil fields in Kern County.

You also connect us to a past too many Californians have forgotten. Your story – you were once part of the Standard Oil empire – reminds us of the first quarter of the 20th century, when we were the leading oil-producing state in the country. In those years, oil attracted millions of people here and kept them employed (including my grandfather, who once reported on Long Beach wells for the Munger Oilgram). Then in the 1980s, you bought Gulf Oil to become the mega-company Chevron. Even as other oil companies, most recently Occidental Petroleum, departed California, you stayed and served as a stabilizing force in a volatile state.

Despite all these ties, California and Chevron have grown apart. For all your slick publicity about your alternative energy investments, you’re still a global oil and natural gas company, and our state is now committed to moving the world away from carbon.

Can our love survive? It hasn’t escaped my notice that you’ve been messing around with Houston – relocating hundreds of jobs there and becoming the title sponsor of the Houston Marathon.

So let me say this now: Please don’t go. I know it’s not easy, but you and California are still better together.

It is precisely because you and California are so different that we remain useful to each other. Your CEO, John Watson, gets this, telling Forbes: “There are some pluses in being here. It gives you a window on what a non-oil community thinks about our industry. That helps prepare us for what we see around the world.”

This dynamic cuts both ways. Your armies of lobbyists and political strategists are a healthy check on our tendency to restrict energy production. You won’t be able to derail our environmental movement, but you do slow us down. You are essential because California still runs on oil, and will for quite some time.

While our environmentalists will never admit it, your wholesale departure would leave a void to be filled by smaller companies that are less responsible than you and don’t have your history with California.

It’s hard to change those you love, but I do have one request. I wish you would give yourself a human face – preferably a powerful Chevron executive who is a Californian and can become a constant, recognizable presence in the state’s debates over energy. Yes, you run ads with California-based employees, but because it’s always somebody different doing something different, it’s hard to get a fix on who and what you are. This state needs an oilman with whom we can talk and argue. Sure, activists will continue to protest you, but many Californians would appreciate sharing in your knowledge and perspective.

You may be a big ruthless oil company, but you’re our big ruthless oil company.

Very truly yours,

Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews is California and innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.