My Journey Towards “Greener Pastures:” A Mid-Course Correction

by Justus Peterson

On Jan. 15, 2016, I went back to work for a small, local, design/build residential contractor, after 10 years of lucrative employment in the oil industry.  I turned my back on the oil industry for a number of reasons, but ultimately it was for my health, both physical and mental.

But my journey goes deeper than being just about me; my journey sheds light on our culture’s ‘jobs versus the environment’ debate; on this region’s challenge to manage the explosive nature of oil by rail; on carbon energy’s horrendous contribution to heating up our world.

Looking back now, my mid-course correction to a safer and saner means of employment has softened my impact upon all of my spheres of influence — in my own skin, at home, everywhere. Every step I take I can feel, appreciate and adore my reduced ecological footprint. My shoe size has plummeted!

In 1997 I was 19 years old when offered a great paying job by my friend’s father as a laborer for an industrial contractor. Little did I know how this offer, which I accepted, would change my life forever.

I began my new job inside the Arco Cherry Point refinery, then moved around to a few different plants. In November 1998 I discovered why they paid so well — I was working at the Equilon refinery in Anacortes as a maintenance hand when suddenly an explosion erupted in the Coker unit killing 6 men. I stood in disbelief and literally watched these men die []. When I came home from that tragic day, my girlfriend — now my wife — was crying on the phone with my father. I had phone messages from my family waiting to hear if I was alive.
I made the decision to leave that world behind and find something more humane, something safer, something softer on the planet. Monetary security was not worth my life.

I applied for, and was hired by, A-1 Builders in April 2000. I quickly fell in love with this company and its vision, seeking green business and building practices. I found peace in its simple approach to life and the pursuit of happiness — working to live instead of living to work. For the next seven years my life was full of education and creative freedom.
But money again nudged its aggressive power. Towards the end of 2006, at the seven year mark working at A-1, Ben Franklin showed up, along with the dead Presidents, saying they would fill my pockets with dough if I’d sacrifice my soul. So I returned to work at the refinery as a carpentry foreman.

At the ripe old age of 28 I thought I had made it — over the next 10 years I made more money than most men in my family, and I gloated about it. To earn that money I averaged about 2,500 to 2,700 hours a year, 25 percent to 35 percent more than a typical fulltime job.

My wife and I welcomed our first child in 2008 and our second in 2011, yet both times I was at work when I got the call that she was in labor. I had sold my soul to the company store… again.

In 2012, three days after my son’s first birthday, disaster struck again. A major fire erupted at the BP Cherry Point Refinery [] destroying a large portion of the plant I was in. I ran as fast as I’ve ever run as those flames reached as high as 400 feet. Reaching safety, I was able to call my wife to tell her I was OK … after a 60 to 90-minute delay since the fire broke out. As she wept on the phone my heart pounded and I thought to myself: it’s time to get the hell out of this place for good.
I spent the next 16 weeks working nights, each shift being 4:45 p.m. to 6:45 a.m., seven days a week — that’s a 98-hour work week — to get the plant back into operation. I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked, and in the end the plant and its money were flowing again. I gave and they took. I was offered and accepted promotions. They seemed to embrace the level of devotion and care I invested.

But I was wrong!

I came in the office which I had helped build, and they asked if I’d manage their next large projects out of town! I said, “No.” My family was here and needed me home every night. I then asked for the time I would need to coach my son’s tee-ball team, and they cringed.
I longed for the days of being with a company that had heart and direction. I began to despise the pursuit of financial gain being the end all, be all, of my life. I knew who and where I was meant to be.

Let’s move the clock ahead to late 2015. I was on a break in the plant when I came across a web posting that A-1 Builders was seeking new employees: my chance to abandon the life of a refinery rat, an insignificant cog in a dying, heartless industry. I applied and was hired back into the world of the living.

The grass is greener in these pastures. This team cares about our impact on our community and on our planet. Most of all we care about each other.
Amory Lovins nailed it when he wrote that … “Economies are supposed to serve human ends, not the other way round. We forget at our peril that markets make a good servant, a bad master and a worse religion.”