Monday, September 25, 2006

Bechtel vs.The Generator Man

So who's the Generator Man? Well, it's like this. Here in America, we get power from the power company, you know, nice neat little cables that run safely up and away (or underground where only idiots can dig themselves into trouble). Said power companies here in the US give us totally uninterrupted service 24/7 at a relatively known cost (which we may not like but at least it's regulated--just like the voltage and current are in those cables) and nothing short of an Act of G-d (you know, a storm) will be an acceptable reason to us Americans for a power outtage.

Now, let's take a look at the Middle East. It doesn't quite work that way over there. First off, power isn't regulated the same way. Oh, I don't just mean the costs (naturally those are at the mercy of whoever holds the, uhhh, power) but no, the voltage might spike at any time for any number of reasons and brownouts as the power grid switches and reloads are pretty much a daily expectation--on a good day.

If you're in Iraq, right now, it's even worse. There's a war going on there, you know? Power grids are pretty typical targets for destruction, so you can just imagine. But still there are civilians trying to actually live--not to mention military and government officials (both Iraqi and our fair fellows in the allied forces trying to fight the War).

So what you get is a Black Market for Power Generation. As always, when a product makes a profit in the black market, you get a grey market cutting in on it, too. The Black Marketeer in Iraq is called The Generator Man--he's the local shyster who owns and runs the neighborhood power generator when the power grid shuts down--and it does, right on schedule. The NY Times has a pretty sour picture of the Generator Man, but there's another culprit here. The Grey Marketeer aka Bechtel.

Waaaaaay back in January, 2004 the US government "awarded Bechtel a $1.8 billion contract--on top of $1.1 billion in work already granted--to become a leading contractor in Iraq." (see CNN Money for how well that idea was working out right from the start).

But wait! There's more!

How well has Bechtel performed its pivotal role in Iraq? The company has been criticized by military and coalition officials there; in particular, they've complained that some of Bechtel's efforts to repair Iraq's power grid and schools have been slow or slipshod, and questioned whether cost-consciousness may be to blame.

Bechtel defended its work, and according to the aforementioned March, 2004 article in CNN Money, "in fairness, the security situation in Iraq is so chaotic that the company has at times been forced to halt work and evacuate its employees." (I don't find it fair when you're handed more than 2 billion dollars over 2+ years to go off and do slipshod work or pinch pennies to ensure yourself a profit back home). But some past and present employees say damaged morale, the pressure to cut costs, and other aftershocks from the BEn problems have affected even the critical work in Iraq. "The cost cutting is across the board," a former longtime manager says. "Everyone is sharing the pain."

Well, not everyone. The Generator Man is doing just fine. And how's Bechtel doing? Oh, life is catching up to them. Just last month, two years after they were already blowing the job,
"A comprehensive U.S. government audit has exposed gross mismanagement by the company." (no kidding!) As AlterNet points out:
As the auditors plan to expand their investigations to all of Bechtel's $2.85 billion in Iraq contracts, they are sure to discover a pattern of failure. Not only should Bechtel be dropped from all of its failing contracts, but the company should be required to refund all misspent U.S. taxpayer and Iraqi funds so that Iraqi contractors can get to work and real reconstruction can finally begin.

On Sept. 30, 2006, all unobligated money for reconstruction in Iraq reverts back to the U.S. Treasury. This means that unless action is taken now to ensure that this money goes to Iraqis, U.S. corporations will keep their billions, while Iraqis are left with failed projects and little money to recover.

There's only 5 days left. So what's Bechtel's status? What will become of The Generator Man's happy little business? Is anyone out there even watching to find out?

Well, Bechtel is pretending they did a fine and dandy job and everyone's happy as a clam with their results. Not true. The Generator Man is just as unhappy as his neighbor-customers--but he has a better air conditioner so maybe he's a little happier. And who's out there watching all this? USAID claims to be, but they're not doing much. They've issued this "2006-2008 Strategy Report" which, basically, says zero about how the country's power generation problems are going to actually be solved.

Then there's the US State Dept. who's supposedly overseeing this whole budget overrun. They said in a daily press briefing, "While our $680 million contract with Bechtel captures the media spotlight, it certainly does not define our engagement with the Iraqi people." Well, no, you haven't factored in The Generator Man yet.

And how's Bechtel doing? In 2005 they reported $18.1 billion in revenue. Guess they're doing a-okay. Oh, and Mr. Bechtel himself is listed as #103 on Forbes List of 400 Richest Americans. Just barely missed the top 100, guy, them's the breaks. Maybe next year, if you can keep doing nothing in Iraq but getting paid prettily for it.

Bottom line, it's up to the American public--again. If you're in the San Francisco area, you can join this anti-Bechtel protest on Wednesday, September 27, 2006 at Bechtel's corporate Headquarters.

While I'm pretty much against every single thing these folks think about the War in Iraq, at least someone's going to rally against the Bechtel and Halliburton leeching of the American tax dollars to stand around for years and do nothing, while the US Army Corps of Engineers takes all the blame for the utter lack of progress. Well, except for The Generator Man. He's pretty happy with the rate of progress. To be honest, if I had to choose between Bechtel and The Generator Man, I think I'd go with the local guy. At least he's not sitting in an air-conditioned office blaming the US military for his profits.


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