Oil for Prophets

Illustration by Tenaya HillsTelevangelist Pat Robertson's call for the assassination of Venezuela's president spurred all flavors of righteous indignation. That he could issue a death warrant against Hugo Chvez with the same breath he used to spout the words of Jesus drew vehement condemnation from the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Fidel Castro and even, if ever so gently, the evangelical-lovin' White House. By the time Robertson's fellow hard-line conservatives started calling him irrelevant, old Godboy backed down, saying people had “misinterpreted” him.

Actually, Robertson very clearly said Venezuela's popularly elected, leftist president should be taken out. That is the part of his Aug. 22 statement on his Christian Broadcasting Network's The 700 Club that drew the ire of bloggers, newspaper editorials and even radio fatheads across the land. The watchdog Media Matters website (mediamatters.org) included the preacher's full quote, but here is the part that was boldfaced:

You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. . . . We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.

But what's also intriguing is what's between those ellipses:

And I don't think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger and the United . . . This is in our sphere of influence, so we can't let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, we have other doctrines that we have announced. And without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly.

Why would the founder of the Christian Coalition of America busy his head with concerns about oil flow?

It could have something to do with the fact that Robertson is also overlord of the Robertson Charitable Trust. Among the trust's holdings is Lakeland Development Corp., which until three years ago was known as CENCO, a company that in 1998 found itself in the cross hairs of local environmentalists, the Huntington Beach City Council and government regulators.

CENCO, which stood for Creative Energy Co., seemingly arrived in HB out of nowhere with a $20 million bankroll to reopen the moribund Golden West Refining Co. terminal. The company planned to dump another $200 million into unshuttering the 62-year-old Powerine refinery in Santa Fe Springs, an industrial city in southeast LA County. CENCO's grand vision: pump crude from tankers anchored off Huntington Beach to the onshore terminal and, from there, through a dormant pipeline to Santa Fe Springs.

The venture vowed it would produce up to 50,000 barrels a day and promised to create 300 jobs and $500,000 in annual property tax revenue. Of course, profits would help fund the trust's evangelical work. Robertson boasted the refinery would be “the most environmentally friendly refinery in the entire United States.”

A win-win-win-win—Huntington, oil, consumers and Jesus?

Hardly. Huntington Beach was less than eight years removed from the disastrous tanker spill of more than 400,000 gallons of crude. Many residents still recalled plucking seabirds slathered in black stuff off the sand and trying desperately to clean them off. Beachside merchants lost business. Proposing such a massive oil operation at that time would be like going to Laguna Beach now and seeking approval of collapsible canyon estates, Millie's Mystery Mud Slide or Hugo's House of Fire.

Residents in Santa Fe Springs, which is composed mostly of working-class Latinos, weren't too keen on the project either. They said nasty fumes still came from Powerine, even though the refinery had been closed for three years. When it was open, the plant had the worst air-quality record in the region, and residents said oily buildup from Powerine ate the paint off their cars.

But CENCO pressed on. They sweetened their offer. They paid fees Powerine still owed the South Coast Air Quality Management District. They reached an agreement with the feds to reduce Powerine's previous emissions by 85 percent. And, critics charged, they began contributing to local officials along the way.

When it was pointed out that this massive, potentially eco-threatening undertaking would have to go through the normal environmental review process any similar new project would, CENCO balked. Lawyers for the firm argued that the pipeline and refinery should be grandfathered in under the same clearances that allowed the previous companies to operate. They also sought fast-track approvals under a program then-Governor Gray Davis had cooked up amid the state energy crisis. That generated more threats of legal action from local agencies and a massive, grass-roots campaign by neighborhood activists in Santa Fe Springs. The biggest surprise came in Huntington Beach: the City Council, notoriously anti-consumer, filed suit to prevent CENCO from supplying crude oil to Powerine.

The pipeline phase of the operation was abandoned quickly in 1998. And by the summer of 2001, a defiant Robertson was claiming that California oil companies and other “behemoths controlling the oil industry” were conspiring to kill his upstart refinery by making it impossible for CENCO to obtain financing. “I feel a little like David vs. Goliath,” he told TheNew York Times. “The majors are extremely big, and it looks like they are trying to stop our restart.”

But the American Petroleum Institute called the allegations unfounded. Robertson did not help his cause by declining to identify the banks that supposedly refused to loan him money. He couldn't even come up with the names of the oil companies he claimed were behind CENCO's downfall. However, investigative reporters, wondering how the plant snagged early AQMD support, discovered a business partnership between Robertson, the district's then-chairman William Burke and Liberia's brutal leader Charles Taylor in a gold-extraction operation in that African country. Powerine's former employees, land surveyors and even the lawyers who'd represented CENCO in court later sued Robertson for back pay and/or unpaid bills.

After three years, Robertson claimed that a company rep dispatched to Orange County had concluded that his Southern California holdings were “real-estate deals,” not energy operations. “This refinery will never, ever be switched on again,” Robertson sheepishly vowed before quickly changing the name CENCO (emphasis on “sin”) to the friendlier-sounding Lakeland Development Co.

But let it be duly noted that there's no evidence Pat Robertson ever called for the assassination of any bankers or oil execs.

A version of this story originally appeared Aug. 24 in the online column A Clockwork Orange.

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