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Pyle: A slap on the corporate wrist

Published August 2, 2013 5:41 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When his financial adviser and former legal guardian was attempting to call Charles Foster Kane on the carpet for indulging in the incredibly expensive fun of running a newspaper, Kane was well ahead of him.

"You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year," Kane pronounced. "You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in (perfectly timed grin and dramatic pause) 60 years."

"Citizen Kane" was fiction, so it had to be believable. Even though, in 1941, it might have been a little bit of a stretch to get audiences to believe that a young man such as Kane had $60 million to fiddle around with, it established his character as an interesting fellow with more dollars than sense.

Real life, often, is harder to swallow.

The other day, it was announced that Chevron, the owner of a refinery on Salt Lake City's industrial north end, had agreed to some $394,000 in penalties after being cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for air quality violations. Of that, $284,000 is cash to the taxpayers, and the rest is the cost of buying four new compressed natural gas-powered school buses for the Jordan School District.

Sounds like a lot of money. But, you know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of $400,000 per infraction, Chevron will have burned through its $245 billion in market capitalization in a (much more ominous pause) 612,000 years. Even the profits that Chevron cleared in 2012 alone would pay this fine and 64 more of the same size.

Even Charles Foster Kane would be impressed.

As a way to raise a few bucks to offset the cost of the federal employees who strive to enforce environmental laws, and as a way to get some local kids to school each day while breathing somewhat cleaner air, perhaps that fine isn't a bad day's work.

But as a way to really get Chevron's attention, or the attention of any other multi-national corporate giant, with enough force to push those companies to really change the way they do business, fines like this are likely to fall far, far short of their goal. A penalty that amounts to such a small fraction of a company's worth is not much more than a few eraser shavings on the corporate financial report.

There is another benefit to the area around the refinery, an area that, you probably have already guessed, is also home to a disproportionate population of poor folks and minorities. The company has agreed to rejigger its "fluid catalytic cracker unit" — I don't know what that is, either — the way that EPA inspectors told the company it should — five years ago.

So the deep-pocketed Chevron, like the owners of other polluting industrial facilities here and elsewhere, also incurred whatever it costs to keep their engineers and lawyers busy defending the indefensible. It is safe to assume that, again, the company's spreadsheet boys figured those expenses were less of a hit on the bottom line than the cost of obeying the law would be.

And it is maddening that, while the company agreed to pay the penalty to settle the case, it pointedly denies any wrongdoing. Thus it can technically claim that it hasn't been really found guilty of anything, just that it magnanimously agreed to settle in order to close that file.

There's a bumper sticker out that says something like, "I'll believe that corporations are people when Texas executes one."

The ultimate penalty for some garden-variety air-fouling might be a little strong. But, unless Congress or the states start slapping polluters with the kind of penalties that really rock their market cap, nothing's going to get better.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, agrees with C.F. Kane that it would be fun to run a newspaper. gpyle@sltrib.com




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