Leaving a wave of controversy in its wake, one of the most visible reminders of the Bush administration's ties to big oil - the 129,000-ton Chevron tanker Condoleezza Rice - has quietly been renamed, Chevron officials acknowledged yesterday.
"We made the change to eliminate the unnecessary attention caused by the vessel's original name," said Chevron spokesman Fred Gorell.
The double-hulled, Bahamian-registered oil tanker carrying the moniker of Bush's national security adviser was renamed the Altair Voyager, after a star, Gorell said.
The unannounced decision to rechristen the tanker was made by Chevron officials in late April, after "we had been in discussions with (Rice's) office," said Gorell. Asked if Rice or the White House had specifically requested the name change, Gorell said, "that's not for me to discuss."
Rice's spokeswoman, Maryellen Countryman, did not return calls on the matter yesterday.
The Chronicle reported a month ago that the White House had faced questions over the appropriateness of the tanker's name -- particularly as California struggled with the effects of an energy crisis.
The giant vessel was part of the international fleet of the San Francisco- based multinational oil firm, christened several years ago in honor of Rice, a longtime Chevron board member. Rice, a former Stanford University provost, served on Chevron's board from 1991 until Jan. 15, when she resigned after Bush named her his top national security aide.
But critics said the ship served as a giant floating symbol of the Bush administration's cozy ties to the oil industry.
"It does underscore that there's never been an administration in power in this country that has been so close to a single industry -- in this instance, the oil-and-gas industry," Chuck Lewis of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity said last month when the watchdog organization first raised the issue.
The tanker's name also raised more serious questions of possible conflict of interest for Rice because Chevron does business on six continents and 25 countries and has been sued for alleged human rights abuses in Nigeria.
Last month, White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted that the issue of the tanker had "already been addressed" by Rice, and he added, "she will uphold the highest ethical standards in office."
Chevron officials argued last month that the ship's name was entirely appropriate because it was a special honor for Rice -- part of a longstanding tradition of naming ships after members of the Chevron board. They noted that George Shultz, David Packard and Kenneth T. Derr were all afforded similar honors, and that those names did not change even when honorees went into government service.
"We would not be renaming the Condi Rice tanker," said Bonnie Schiken, spokeswoman for Chevron, in early April. "If you remember, Carla Hills was on our board, and went off the board to take a role in the administration . . . we did not rename the tanker."
Pat Moloney, executive director of the Pilot Commission and master of the historic liberty ship Jeremiah O'Brien, said yesterday, "In the old sailing ship days, they'd say it was bad luck to change the name of a ship."
But in modern times, it's not only common but prudent, he said, noting that the infamous Exxon Valdez was changed to the Sea River Mediterranean after its environmental disaster.
Chevron's move "makes good sense . . . because the ship has potential for high profile," said Moloney of the Condoleezza Rice. "The companies don't want an asset like that with an obvious political liability.
"As soon as I heard she was named (to the administration)," he said, "I figured they'd get out the paintbrush."