SAN RAMON -- During a contentious annual meeting Wednesday, Chevron executives touted the company's $26 billion in annual profit and robust production efforts, but skeptics peppered management with pointed questions about its environmental practices.
"We had a very strong year," Chevron's chief executive, John Watson, said during a question-and-answer session after the annual shareholders gathering.
Chevron said it's an industry leader on several fronts, including earnings of $23.70 a barrel. That is $5.50 a barrel -- or 30 percent -- higher than its nearest competitor, Chevron asserted.
The Chevron Richmond refinery, which recently resumed operations after its main crude oil unit was knocked out by a fire in August, is approaching full refining capacity, Watson said in the session with reporters.
Much of the shareholders meeting focused on Chevron's environmental, legal, refining and exploration practices. In recent years, Chevron has come under criticism stemming from contamination of the rain forest in Ecuador and an oil leak in the ocean off Brazil.
Several speakers criticized Chevron for not cleaning up the pollution of the Amazon jungles of Ecuador caused by Texaco, which Chevron later acquired.
"I am a living witness to the crimes in Ecuador," said Servio Curipoma, a resident of the South American nation, speaking through a translator. "We will continue to fight until Chevron pays us for the damage they have done."
In 2011, plaintiffs won a $19 billion environmental damages award against Chevron, which has mounted an aggressive counterattack. Watson dismissed the litigation as "a fraud and a fabrication from the beginning."
The annual meeting grew heated, with some speakers complaining about the time allotted to talk. One called for Watson to be fired. Another complained that Chevron was not tough enough in debunking what he described as the myth of global warming.
At one point, Atossa Soltani, founder of Amazon Watch, a group tracking environmental damage in the South American jungles, shouted repeatedly at Watson until security guards escorted her from the meeting.
Outside the meeting at Chevron's headquarters in San Ramon, dozens of protesters demonstrated, brandishing signs saying "Free America from the tyranny of oil," "Fire Watson" and "Chevron makes orphans."
Inside, Chevron officials asserted that the company has improved its safety for workers and the environment. They said Chevron workers' number of days away from work are the best in the industry and that the company's spill incidents are at a 10-year low. Chevron also cited a 2012 survey of 1,258 analysts that determined Watson is the best U.S. CEO.
Watson said the repairs to the Richmond refinery will make it safer, and that the facility is now running "close to capacity" at 220,000 barrels a day.
In his meeting with reporters, Watson said the "jury is out" on the Monterey shale formation in the San Joaquin Valley and that he does not yet see hydraulic fracturing there as an economically sound bet.
He also said Chevron sees rising potential for liquefied natural gas, including projects in western Canada, the Gulf of Mexico and in the ocean off west Australia.
Responding to a question from this newspaper, Watson said the large liquefied natural gas project in Australia known as Gorgon should be completed by late 2014 and begin first shipments in early 2015. The Wheatstone project in Australia will begin LNG shipments in 2016.
In the next five years, 50 Chevron-financed projects that are now in development are due to begin production. Chevron has invested at least $250 million in each of these 50 projects, and is investing at least $1 billion in 16 of the 50.
"Our portfolio of projects is very strong," Watson said.
Contact George Avalos at 408-373-3556 or 925-977-8477. Follow him at Twitter.com/george_avalos.
$26.2 billion: Profit in 2012
$242 billion: Revenue in 2012
+29.5 percent: Stock price performance over past 12 months
$23.70: Profit per barrel of oil produced, 30 percent more than its nearest competitor
$19 billion: Judgment against Chevron in Ecuador for environmental damage
Source: Chevron and Yahoo Finance