ARCO's Swan Song

Aug. 2, 1999
This week, OGJ turns its spotlight on ARCO and how it improvised its way through a daunting challenge in Ecuador`s rainforest (see story, p. 19).

This week, OGJ turns its spotlight on ARCO and how it improvised its way through a daunting challenge in Ecuador`s rainforest (see story, p. 19).

It makes for a fascinating, even inspiring, story, but it is hardly a first for ARCO. In almost 2 decades of covering the industry for OGJ, I have had other opportunities to witness first-hand this company`s innovative style-most notably when sensitive environmental values were at stake.

Environmental initiatives
As one ARCO official told me in Ecuador, referring to the Villano project profiled this week, "Part of this is about being a better corporate citizen; (but) one of the real incentives is what we have with our properties in Alaska. As environmental issues keep getting bigger and bigger, this sort of success opens up other opportunities for us to work elsewhere. We haven`t had any responsible criticism of this project from the environmental groups. We have a major retail market in California and certainly don`t want to have a bad image on the environment there.

"We think we`ve learned a lot here that is useful elsewhere-how to get people to think about this in a more environmentally and culturally sensitive way, how to use these applications and thought processes in other ways."

Another ARCO official cited the company`s initiative on Indonesia`s tiny, remote Pagerungan Besar Island, where ARCO built a gas processing plant: "Pagerungan has served as a model for sustainable development, a nonpatrimonial ideal to help the locals be self-sufficient. We went to an island with basically a sailboat technology and provided them with an ice plant for fish processing, and now that island has a thriving fish processing business."

Then there are ARCO`s unusual artificial production islands in Long Beach Harbor, where facilities have been camouflaged to protect the sensitive "viewsheds" of Californians by enclosing them in modernistic structures so attractive they still elicit inquiries by real-estate brokers curious about those "nifty condos."

Of course, there is the ultimate example of innovation and improvisation in the name of oil extraction in an environmentally sensitive area: Alaska`s North Slope, where ARCO has been a leading pioneer.

The company has invariably demonstrated this same kind of can-do spirit coupled with openness in telling its story to OGJ readers. From my first days on the job as West Coast Editor in 1981, ARCO has always been accommodating, even affable, in its dealings with a pushy, persistent journalist with a lot to learn.

Swan song
But Villano may prove to be ARCO`s swan song. The company is about to disappear into the maw of a colossal new supermajor, BP Amoco plc. This raises concerns for some folks in Alaska, where much of the innovation on the North Slope has resulted from a spirited if friendly rivalry between ARCO and pre-merger BP, operating opposite sides of the Prudhoe Bay Unit.

Mergers occur routinely in the oil industry, and companies disappear. Remember Gulf? Getty? ARCO`s name may disappear in a few months, but it would be a shame for the industry to lose the singular kind of exuberant innovation and accessibility that has been the hallmark of this company.

If it`s not too premature: So long, ARCO-and thanks.

Bob Williams
Executive Editor