Bechtel, whose global headquarters is in San Francisco, received more than $2 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds to fund infrastructure rebuilding projects in Iraq. Its Pentagon contracts increased $700 million in 2009 after heavy lobbying on the military spending bill, and rose to $2.49 billion in 2011. “While Bechtel’s CEO, Riley Bechtel, has a net worth of $3.2 billion, millions of Americans suffer unemployment and lack access to health care and education,” said John Lindsay-Poland of Fellowship of Reconciliation.
“The money that goes to Bechtel comes out of our pockets, but it doesn’t benefit the people here or in the rest of the world,” said Kirsten Moller of Global Exchange.
“Military contractors profit from unfinished contracts,” said Dottie Guy of Iraq Veterans Against the War, “while funding is cut from government programs aimed at providing health care, education and other benefits for veterans returning home from war.”
The Bechtel Corporation is one of the largest engineering and construction firms in the world, and the fifth largest privately held firm in the United States. Headquartered on Beale Street right where we gave you this sheet, Bechtel has grown with the global U.S. empire. It has become a dominant player in new fields technologically and geographically with each generation, from railroads and pipelines in California, to airports and refineries in the Middle East, and from hydroelectric dams and shipyards to nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Today, Bechtel builds and manages huge petrochemical, transportation, and mining projects worldwide and is one of the largest U.S. military contractors. It received nearly $40 billion of federal money in that last ten years, most for military and nuclear contracts. Bechtel has built a significant part of the world we inhabit, shaping economic and technological choices that affect us all.
HISTORY IN ENERGY: From its roots in general construction and railroad work Bechtel moved into the construction of oil refineries and pipelines and dam construction. In the New Deal years Bechtel became a major federal contractor that helped build the Hoover Dam, and during World War II built ships, an aircraft factory, and shipyards, including those in Richmond and Marin.
Bechtel’s work building electricity infrastructure and its projects for the military made Bechtel a leader in the development of nuclear technology for both power generation and weapons. Bechtel built infrastructure at Hanford, Washington for the secret Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. It continued its government nuclear work in the early post-war years with construction and engineering for a prototype nuclear reactor at the government lab in Idaho, nuclear test-related work at the Nevada Test Site, and work on the early phases of what would became the Livermore National Laboratory, one of the two main nuclear weapons design labs.
PARTNERING WITH REPRESSION: Bechtel also expanded its overseas operations, building petroleum, electric power, and transportation infrastructure in the Middle East. After doing work during for the Bahrain operations of U.S. oil companies, Bechtel began working for the Saudi royal family in the 1940s, building railroads, highways, port facilities, and electric power plants. As the official history on the company web site describes it, “Bechtel was building the foundations of a partnership with Saudi Arabia that would last for decades.”
As one of the largest engineering and construction firms in the U.S. during the years of its most rapid ascendance, Bechtel became an integral part of the U.S. power structure. John McCone, who partnered with Bechtel in its WWII business enterprises, then chaired the Atomic Energy Commission and directed the CIA. Bechtel general counsel Caspar Weinberger went on to serve as president Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, and Bechtel Group president George Schultz as Reagan’s Secretary of State.
REACTOR RISK: Today, Bechtel is one of the world’s leading nuclear engineering and construction firms, providing construction support services for nuclear power plants around the world. Bechtel has provided engineering and construction services at 88% of U.S. nuclear electricity generating plants, including the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants in California. Both plants are up for relicensing and face growing public opposition in the wake of the Fukushima disaster over the dangers of operating nuclear plants, each with storage pools full of highly radioactive spent fuel rods, in a seismically active region.
NUCLEAR INSPECTIONS ANYONE?: Bechtel co-manages facilities that manufacture, test, and maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal at Los Alamos Laboratory, Livermore Lab in the East Bay, the Pantex plant, where nuclear bombs and warheads are assembled, refurbished, and dismantled, and the Y-12 plant in Tennessee, which produces explosive power for thermonuclear weapons. The Bechtel Marine Propulsion Corporation operates the Bettis and Knolls Atomic Laboratories, which develop power for U.S. aircraft carriers and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.
Bechtel will play a major role in the ambitious plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. At Y-12 the government plans to build a large new Uranium Processing Facility, and at Los Alamos a huge new plutonium building is planned, the two together estimated to cost between $8 billion and $12 billion. With Lockheed Martin, Bechtel manages the Ronald Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll, where missile tests launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast land. Kwajalein likely will play a central role in the development of the next generation of U.S. long-range missiles and other nuclear delivery systems.
THIRSTY OR AT WAR? PAY BECHTEL FOR WATER. Bechtel has played a significant role in the privatization of infrastructure. A Bechtel water privatization effort in Bolivia received a great deal of attention, mainly due to intense local opposition that thwarted the project. Bechtel bills itself as “a one-of-a-kind industry leader in infrastructure privatization,” not only providing engineering and construction work, but arranging financing for infrastructure development projects in several countries. Bechtel’s infrastructure work, Middle East experience, penchant for privatized solutions, and political connections also led to contracts for billions of dollars in federal money for Iraq reconstruction, where Bechtel fulfilled less than half its projects.
SAILING IN A SEA OF POVERTY: Bechtel has built much of the infrastructure underlying our current form of modernity in cities around the world, from the refineries and power plants that power our homes and offices to the highways and transit systems we use to travel between them. But the infrastructure Bechtel has designed and built serves a starkly two-tier global society. “Mammoth projects create the impression of urban gloss,” says Indian Economist Amit Bhaduri, “with fancy express-ways, underground metros, flyovers etc. at public cost… Manhattan-like world-class cities are set as our goals, when 25% to 60% of the urban population lives a subhuman existence in slums. So why this bias, and whom does it benefit?”
Big projects like Bechtel’s - oil, mining and metal facilities, airports, nuclear power plants - are largely geared to supporting global production chains for an international trade in goods consumed by a privileged minority. Bechtel has grown rich building a global economy that has left much of humanity on the outside looking in. Even here in one of the wealthiest countries, this economy is creating islands of wealth in a sea of poverty.
With an environment strained to its limits and growing competition for oil and other key resources, this way of life systematically generates desperation in hundreds of millions of human beings, and hence conflict and war. Yet war and preparing for war and even profiting from war’s devastation all are seen as additional profit centers by the Bechtels of the world. How will we move towards a world that is more fair and ecologically sustainable, when governments serving the will of the wealthy pour immense resources into growth paths and weapons that risk all of our futures? In answering this question, every human being on earth has a right to an equal voice.
Sources of information for this sheet and on Bechtel:
Laton McCartney, Friends in High Places: The Bechtel Story: The Most Secret Corporation and How It Engineered the World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).
U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, Fiscal Year 2011 Stockpile Stewardship Plan, Annex A, May 2010
Amount of Bechtel’s federal contracts, by agency that awarded them and year, with some data on what they’re for, available at www.usaspending.gov
“Bechtel Meets Goals on Fewer Than Half of Its Iraq Rebuilding Projects, U.S. Study Finds,” New York Times, July 26, 2007.
“Bechtel: San Francisco will remain our home,” San Francisco Business Times, July 6, 2011.