Most people understand that fossil fuels are what “fuel” economic growth, as well as improve the quality of life for billions of people. That being said, the people have every right to expect that when big oil companies explore, locate and then extract this commodity from the earth, they do so in keeping with being stewards of the environment.
When they don’t keep that end of the bargain, the people are also right in expecting them to be held to account – only, that doesn’t happen when the environmental damage occurs in a small, poor country whose people don’t have the political power or structure to hold offending oil companies liable.
As reported by Courthouse News Service, the Second U.S. Circuit Court ruled last week that Ecuadoreans cannot collect a $9.5 billion judgment against oil giant Chevron for causing major damage to their rainforests, because the judgment was the result of bribery and fraud.
The ruling is a blow to indigenous peoples living in the rainforest who have been battling for more than two decades to receive compensation for what they have described as an “Amazon Chernobyl,” a reference to the meltdown and explosion of a Soviet nuclear reactor in 1986 that has contaminated that region for decades.
What is NOT in dispute is that the oil company Chevron acquired DID pollute the rainforest
In 1993, indigenous peoples and farmer residents of the Ecuadorean rain forest sued Chevron’s predecessor, Texaco, in a New York court, claiming that the company had left an environmental and public health nightmare for some 30,000 residents of the Amazon.
After acquiring Texaco, Chevron’s initial move was to convince the New York courts to move the lawsuit to the Ecuadorean city of Lago Agrio, site of the drilling. There, an Ecuadorean judge awarded plaintiffs $18 billion in February 2011, for the environmental disaster created by Texaco while running an oil consortium in the rainforest from 1972 until 1990. Three years later, Ecuador’s highest court upheld the lower court’s ruling, but reduced the overall judgment to its current $9.5 billion.
The oil giant promised it would abide by the judgment in order to secure transfer of the case, but then later charged that the obligation was null and void because of alleged fraud in the case.
Upon returning to New York City, Chevron attorneys accused lawyers for the indigenous Ecuadoreans – and in particular, a human rights attorney named Steven Donziger – of trying to “shake-down” the oil giant for billions by pushing them to pay up on an illegitimate ruling. In March 2014, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan agreed with Chevron, and ruled that the judgment from Ecuador had been “procured by corrupt means,” like bribery.
In his ruling, Kaplan devoted a pair of subsections in his 500-page decision to the Ecuadorean president, Rafael Correa, pertaining to his election and “influence” on the litigation. The sections detail how Correa allegedly pushed to prosecute Chevron’s attorneys. He also allegedly made an offer to call a judge, and then launched a public relations campaign bashing Chevron and its allies in order to help his citizens win in court.
But whatever shenanigans may or may not have gone on in the Correa administration and Ecuadorean courts, what does not seem to be in dispute is the damage caused by the oil companies.
Chevron needs to abide by its agreement to defer to the Ecuadorean courts
According to the group, Chevron Toxico, which is campaigning for justice for Ecuador in this matter, Texaco drilled some 350 oil wells after it was discovered in 1972 in an area roughly three times the size of Manhattan. When the company left the country in 1992, it had created some 1,000 toxic open waste pits, many of which have long since leached into the water table as overflow from heavy rains. That has left rivers, streams and other bodies of water that the locals depend on for drinking, bathing, fishing and farming very polluted.
In addition, Texaco unleashed 18 billion gallons of highly toxic and saline “formation waters,” which is a byproduct of the drilling process, into the rivers surrounding the drilling consortium.
When Chevron acquired Texaco, that included not just assets but Texaco’s liabilities as well. The company should abide by its original intent to follow what the Ecuadorean courts ruled, and make good on the rainforest claim.
Otherwise this is just another example of a big oil company polluting the earth for profits and getting away with it.