Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Photo Essay: Ecuadorean Delegation Tours BP’s Oil Disaster in the Gulf

Amazon Watch is supporting the Ecuadorean delegation to the Gulf Coast this week along with our allies at Rainforest Action Network (RAN). RAN's Jon Mcintosh posted a powerful photo essay of our first day out on the Gulf Coast on the Change Chevron blog. I've re-posted the essay in its entirety below:

On Tuesday, June 29 Houma and Grand Bayou American Indian leaders showed Ecuadorean leaders the impact of BP's oil disaster on their coastal communities. The boat left from Port Sulphur and visited devastated wetlands, oil soaked wildlife, and the Grand Bayou village.

The Indigenous Ecuadorean leaders are in the Gulf coast to meet with American Indian tribes in the Gulf region and share their experiences coping with decades of Chevron's massive oil contamination in their home.

Ecuadorean Indigenous Leaders Visit Gulf Coast Oil Impacted Communities
Emergildo Criollo (right) is a leader of the Cofan tribe in Ecuador's Amazon Rainforest. Humberto Piaguaje (left) is the representative of the Secoya people to the Assembly of Delegates of Communities Affected by Chevron/Texaco.

Oil spill boat trip with Houma and Ecuadorean leaders
Michael Dardar, Vice Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation sits with Emergildo Criollo, Humberto Piaguaje, Mariana Jimenez as they take a boat trip into the marshland to see BP's oil disaster.

Houma and Ecuadorean leaders Tour the Gulf Oil Spill
Local resident Philip Simmons takes Houma and Ecuadorean leaders in his boat to see BP's oil disaster.

On the Boat to Bay Baptiste
Mariana Jimenez on the boat ride leaving from Port Sulphur heading out to Bay Baptiste. She is a 71-year old grandmother from near Lago Agrio, Ecuador. Her home was soon surrounded by oil spills and contamination. Her husband, who worked for Texaco (now Chevron), and her sister, both died of cancer.

Oil in Louisiana’s Bay Baptiste
Oil contaminates the wetlands in Louisiana’s Bay Baptiste.

Oil near Grand Bayou, Louisiana
An oil boom laying in the marshland grass with oil on both sides.

Oil in Louisiana’s Bay Baptiste
Thick brown oil covers marshland grass while oil sheen floats on top.

Mariana Inspects the oil spill
Mariana inspects the oil spill saying the smell and feel of the oil reminds her of the oil contamination left by Chevon (formally Texaco) in her Amazon home.

Mariana Inspects the oil spill
Mariana's oil coated hand after picking a blade of grass from the mash.

Humberto Piaguaje inspects BP's oil disaster
Humberto Piaguaje inspects BP's oil disaster in the marshlands.

Rosina Phillipe of Grand Bayou Nation welcomes Ecuadorean leaders

Rosina Phillipe of Grand Bayou village welcomes Ecuadorean leaders to her home on the water.

Rosina Phillipe talks about oil impact on her community
Rosina Phillipe and the delegation share stories and lessons learned from living with oil contamination. (From left: Rosina Phillipe, Maria Ramos, Matiana Jiminez, Mitch Anderson, Humberto Piaguaje, Emergildo Criollo)

Emergildo Criollo on the way to Grand Bayou  Village
Emergildo Criollo in the boat leaving Grand Bayou Village.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Amazon Indigenous Leaders Bringing Lessons for Coping With Oil Disasters to Native Residents of U.S. Gulf Coast

Four very different people arrived last night in New Orleans on a late flight from Quito, Ecuador. One is a quiet but fierce 71-year-old grandmother with 27 grandchildren. Another is a gentle, soft-spoken man who is a leader of his Indigenous tribe from the Amazon. Another is a serious and sober man who has won worldwide acclaim for his unique work. And the last is another Indigenous man from the Amazon, who is more sharp-tongued than his traveling companion, but shares his good humor and dignified demeanor.

The four Indigenous and community leaders from Ecuador's Amazon rainforest are on the front-lines of the nearly two-decade struggle to demand oil giant Chevron clean up the massive contaminate the company left behind in their lands. I've written profiles of two of them here before; Cofan leader Emergildo Criollo was in the U.S. in early March to help deliver 350,000 letters of support for cleanup in Ecuador to new Chevron CEO John Watson and campesina activist Mariana Jimenez was in Houston just a few weeks ago to speak out at Chevron's 2010 shareholder meeting.

With them is Humberto Piaguaje, a leader of the Secoya tribe who has been outspoken about Chevron's impact on his people, and Luis Yanza, who has helped organize the 30,000 people who have mounted the historic legal action against Chevron. In 2008, Luis won the Goldman environmental prize, often described as the Nobel Prize for the environment. Luis Yanza (center) with Emergildo Crillo (right) speak out at Chevron's 2008 shareholder meeting in San Ramon, CA.

They have come to the U.S. Gulf Coast in order to share their experiences with the long-term impacts of oil pollution with communities dealing with the tragic BP oil spill that continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico.

The United Houma Nation, a Native American tribe living on the Gulf Coast in southeast Louisiana and already suffering serious consequences of the spill, are hosting a cultural exchange with their Ecuadorean counterparts. Read/listen to this National Public Radio report on the BP spill's impact on the Houma tribe: Native American Group Hit Hard By Oil Spill. Photo of burning oil and oil slick on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico by James Duncan Davidson, part of the powerful TEDxOilSpill Expedition photography set.

The Amazon leaders will tour areas of the Bayou affected by the spill, have community exchanges with the Houma and other Gulf coast residents, and participate in a public Town Hall forum in the heart of the largest Houma community this coming Thursday evening.

Today, with the support of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign and our allies at Rainforest Action Network's Change Chevron campaign, the Ecuadorean leaders released a report, entitled The Lasting Stain of Oil: Cautionary Tales and Lessons from the Amazon.

The report begins:

While BP and the United States Government work to stop the oil that continues flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, coastal residents are preparing for the long-term impacts of the oil spill, and working to determine how they will maintain their environment, culture, and livelihoods in the wake of such a disaster. What can Gulf Coast residents learn from other communities that have suffered the terrible consequences of oil industry recklessness?

The report contains ten lessons from the Ecuadoreans' experience with Chevron that Gulf Coast residents – and others affected by oil spills – can learn from in order to hold polluters accountable, and design strategies for recovery from environmental disasters. Here is the first of the ten sections:

1. Public Awareness and Support is Invaluable It took decades for communities in the remote Ecuadorean Amazon to draw the world’s attention to Chevron’s systematic pollution of the rainforest. While affected communities in Ecuador have spent years working to raise public awareness of their plight, there has thankfully been worldwide attention focused on BP’s tragic oil spill in the Gulf since day one. Gulf Coast communities have a tremendous opportunity to hold BP accountable by capitalizing on the worldwide attention this terrible tragedy has garnered. Although BP says that it plans to take full responsibility for the damages caused by its spill and restore the Gulf Coast to the way it was before – “make it right" – the experience in Ecuador shows that oil companies do the right thing only when compelled to do so by a combination of political, financial, media, and community pressure. Nearly half a century has elapsed since Chevron began oil operations in the Ecuadorean Amazon, and the company is still fighting tooth and nail to evade responsibility. Lesson: Seize the moment. With support of environmental and health organizations, affected communities must take advantage of widespread attention on the BP disaster, and make clear and strong demands now for a permanent place at the table in all decision-making about remediation and restoration of their communities and the environment.

We'll share additional excerpts from the report throughout the week but please download and read it, and share it widely.

In addition to excerpts from the report, we will be reporting from the Amazon delegation to the Gulf Coast all week, and sharing photos, video, and stories from this exchange of solidarity between front-line communities affected by oil.

Stay tuned here, and on Facebook and Twitter.

– Han

Han Shan is the Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

BP's Gulf Spill Drawing New Attention to Chevron's Oil Disaster in Ecuador, Shell's in Nigeria

While BP's rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf has been undoubtedly tragic and the long-term impact on the U.S. Gulf Coast could be horrific, the catastrophe has at least brought renewed attention to other international oil disasters. A long, powerful article in the New York Times last week looked at the "5 Decades Old" scourge that oil has been to the Niger Delta in Nigeria:

Far From Gulf, a Spill Scourge 5 Decades Old Hannah Baage walked through polluted Gio Creek in Kegbara Dere. She said recently, “There is Shell oil on my body.” Photo by Jane Hahn for The New York Times

BODO, Nigeria — Big oil spills are no longer news in this vast, tropical land. The Niger Delta, where the wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on the surface, has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless.

Perhaps no place on earth has been as battered by oil, experts say, leaving residents here astonished at the nonstop attention paid to the gusher half a world away in the Gulf of Mexico. It was only a few weeks ago, they say, that a burst pipe belonging to Royal Dutch Shell in the mangroves was finally shut after flowing for two months: now nothing living moves in a black-and-brown world once teeming with shrimp and crab.
And of course another oil disaster nearly five decades old that is getting some new attention is Chevron's 'Rainforest Chernobyl' in Ecuador's Amazon region. Here's a Reuters report that breaks down the companies recently making headlines "for winning or losing credibility based on environment-related activity." I'm re-posting the Chevron section in its entirety:

The Green Gauge: Chevron slides on oil spill news Ecuadorean workers cleaning up an oil waste pit built by Texaco.Photo by Guillermo Granja/REUTERS

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico strikes close to home for Chevron as it faces a $27 billion lawsuit brought on by the indigenous people in the Amazon region of Ecuador for water pollution, and a fresh Chevron oil spill in Utah, a bi-weekly analysis of companies in the news by ASSET4 data providers shows.

Company selections were made by Christopher Greenwald, director of data content at ASSET4, a Thomson Reuters business that provides investment research on the environmental, social and governance performance of major global corporations. These ratings are not recommendations to buy or sell.

Here is a breakdown of the companies that made headlines June 5 to June 18 for winning or losing credibility based on environment-related activity.

Chevron Corporation

The recent news surrounding the creation of a $20 billion escrow fund to pay for claims in the Gulf of Mexico has led to renewed attention in the past weeks to the $27 billion case against Chevron brought by indigenous people in the Amazon region of Ecuador.

The lawsuit which has stretched on for nearly 17 years seeks reparations for environmental- and health-related damages caused by the dumping of over 18 billion gallons of polluted water in Ecuador by Texaco between 1964 and 1990. Last week two protesters were arrested during a House Energy Committee meeting after attempting to give a bottle of contaminated water from the Amazon region to Chevron’s Chairman John Watson.

Chevron last week also faced an embarrassing oil spill of 500 barrels of oil from a leaking pipe, which devastated a lake at a local park in Salt Lake City, Utah.

– Han

Han Shan is the Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hard-Hitting 60 Minutes Investigation of Chevron's Toxic Legacy in Ecuador Wins Prestigious Journalism Award

Last year, 60 Minutes took a long, hard look at Chevron's toxic legacy in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest and its terrible impact on the indigenous people and poor farmers in the region. Today, that investigation won a prestigious award for excellence in journalism.

Reported by correspondent Scott Pelley, 'Amazon Crude' was honored today with the 2010 Edward R. Murrow Award for "Video Investigative Reporting." The award is a repudiation of Chevron's whiny complaints about the hard-hitting investigation, and of the sloppy Columbia Journalism Review 'audit' solicited by the oil giant.

Watch the award-winning 60 Minutes report, 'Amazon Crude:'

As I wrote about here a couple months ago, the probe by 60 Minutes threw Chevron's PR team into a tizzy.

Knowing it was likely to be pummeled by the professional investigative powerhouse, Chevron hired a former CNN reporter named Gene Randall, who peddles his previous credibility to make contract videos for corporate clients. They commissioned a video to respond to what Chevron knew the 60 Minutes piece would inevitably contain, i.e. the troubling truth.

The production Randall delivered is bizarrely similar in length and tone to a standard 60 Minutes segment. In fact, many critics immediately charged the company with attempting to pass it off as a news report. The New York times even weighed in with an article criticizing the company for trying to trick the casual observer into thinking they were watching real journalism rather than corporate propaganda. The oil giant posted it on Youtube and on its website three weeks before 60 Minutes aired 'Amazon Crude.'

When 60 Minutes' investigation finally did air in May 2009, it caused quite a stir. It was probably the most high-profile investigation into the issue, and one of the most in-depth (after the exhaustive William Langewiesche article in Vanity Fair). As I wrote previously, Chevron's PR hacks were so miffed about their inability to spin their way out of the critical spotlight 60 Minutes turned onto their legacy in Ecuador, they even tried to fight the story after the fact.

They reached out to Martha Hamilton of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), and were eventually successful in soliciting an 'audit' of the 60 Minutes report:

In an article about the audit I posted here on April 20th, I quoted CJR's Hamilton introducing the 'audit:'

A few months ago, Chevron turned to The Audit, the business-news desk of the Columbia Journalism Review. As part of its mission of covering business news and its upholding standards, The Audit from time to time has taken up complaints of business news subjects who feel they’ve been treated unfairly by news outlets. Now we’ve formalized the process with the creation of a dedicated Audit Arbiter. That would be me. In each case, I’ll look at the facts and render a judgment.

And here's my previous commentary on her audit:

It turns out that Hamilton thinks Chevron was treated unfairly. The only problem with her take on the journalism is that with the exception of a few minor things she could have found in even the most rigorous of reports, her criticisms are all based on Chevron's complaints that their viewpoint didn't come across properly.
More troubling still is that Chevron lied to Hamilton in presenting the company's grievances about the report. For more on that, I encourage you to read the analysis of the Amazon Defense Coalition on its 'Chevron Pit' blog.

I think the muckraking journalist Edward R. Murrow would have been quite proud of the 60 Minutes team for its powerful investigative report. And it seems to me that the bestowal of the award in his name upon the report is a final repudiation of Chevron's objections. Of course, with this latest affirmation that they're on the wrong side of the truth, it's hard not to worry that the oil giant and its 'take no prisoners' lawyers at Gibson Dunn will decide to go after 60 Minutes in court in the same way they have with CRUDE filmmaker Joe Berlinger.

Chevron's pattern is deceptively simple; since it's losing on the facts, it attacks the process... it impugns the motives of those daring to reveal the truth... it uses its mammoth resources to drain the resources and energy of those trying to hold the company accountable for crimes against people and nature.

When will it end?

– Han

Han Shan is Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

Friday, June 11, 2010

Whistleblower Receives Death Threat for Revealing Chevron Corruption in Ecuador

As I wrote about here on Wednesday, the whistleblower Santiago Escobar returned to Ecuador to testify before the Prosecutor General's office – the Fiscalia – about the corrupt activities of his former friend and longtime Chevron contractor Diego Borja.

Escobar made public recordings he made of Borja admitting to helping Chevron tamper with evidence in the trial over the oil giant's contamination in Ecuador. And only hours after giving his testimony, he received a threatening email message, which his father reads briefly in this news report from Ecuador's Gamanoticias:

The chilling email Santiago Escobar received that evening suggests the sender was watching Escobar:

"you looked good today at the Prosecutor's office"... "are you really safe in the place where you find yourself?"..."as they say, it's only a matter of time."

The message was signed "we'll be in touch -cmdte. nestor." Of course, cmdte is an abbreviation for comandante, or commander.

The email came from an "Arturo Benitez" with an email address of Arturo Benitez is the late founder of the Chilean Air Force and the 'condor' in the address may refer to 'Operation Condor,' the brutal campaign of political repression led by Chile and waged by the military and intelligence services of several right-wing governments throughout South America in the 1970s. Condor involved kidnappings, assassinations, and mass disappearances of political enemies.

Examination of the email by tech-savvy experts revealed very little about its possible origins, but it must be taken seriously. At the very least, the Fiscalia should re-instate the security detail it briefly supplied.

And of course, as Pablo Fajardo, lawyer for the Amazon communities, says in the report, the shocking allegations of Chevron's corruption in the trial must be thoroughly investigated. Fajardo told other journalists on Wednesday that Chevron's misdeeds may have little overall effect on the trial in Ecuador expected to conclude this year. Nonetheless, the international arbitration that Chevron has sought and been granted over the case is based principally on its accusations of corruption by Ecuador's judiciary. And the company's main evidence for that? The phony "corruption scandal" that its 'dirty tricks guy' Diego Borja concocted with secret videos of the presiding judge.

Amidst the startling news about whistleblowers, dirty tricks, and oil company corruption, let us not forget the ground truth. While Chevron mounts ever more desperate efforts to evade responsibility, indigenous people eat canned tuna instead of fishing like their ancestors from rivers now polluted. Campesino children continue to get sick from drinking poisoned water. Elders die of cancer instead of old age.

– Han

Han Shan is Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Whistleblower Testifies Before Ecuador's Prosecutor General About Chevron's Dirty Tricks

Today in Quito, reporters packed a press conference called by Santiago Escobar, the high-profile whistleblower who yesterday testified before Ecuador's Prosecutor General about Chevron's attempts to corrupt the trial over its oil contamination of Ecuador's Amazon rainforest region.

News of Escobar's testimony –– and the evidence backing up his explosive allegations of Chevron's corruption –– has been headline news for the past couple days in Ecuador, where the ongoing trial is closely watched. Escobar, who now lives in Canada with his wife, was summoned to Quito by the office of the Public Prosecutor.

Mr. Escobar dropped a new bombshell on the assembled media this morning. Escobar described how his former friend, longtime Chevron contractor Diego Borja, confessed that he was involved in "clandestine activities" for Chevron to help "sink the lawsuit." In the latest shocking revelations, Escobar described Borja bragging to him that he had helped bribe corrupt military officers to issue phony security reports that resulted in the cancellation of a judicial inspection at a contaminated site during the trial.

Judicial inspections are official court proceedings that take place in the field at the site in question in the trial, and there has only been one inspection canceled in such a way. In 2005, the first judicial inspection scheduled for the indigenous territory of the Cofan people was canceled after Chevron attorneys filed a suspicious military report with the court alleging that there would be security risks to Chevron employees if the inspection was to proceed.

At the time, the Cofan –– one of the indigenous groups in the Ecuadorean Amazon devastated by Chevron's operations in their lands –– were peacefully mobilizing community members to train attention on the inspection. Reporters from The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and other major media outlets were camped out at the Hotel Lago waiting to cover the event of historic importance.

After significant outcry about the cancellation, Ecuador's Ministry of National Defense conducted its own official inquiry into the incident. The investigation found that a Chevron security employee named Manuel Bravo had inappropriately pressured the head of intelligence for a Special Forces unit to produce the report. That intelligence officer was Arturo Velasco.

In the official report, Velasco writes,

"I was approached by a Texaco functionary and a Texaco security service employee and by an ex-military colleague, Captain (ret.) Manuel Bravo, who explained to me that they had to attend a judicial procedure in the Guanta sector with other Texaco functionaries..."

Now one has to wonder whether any of the "Texaco functionaries" was longtime Chevron contractor Diego Borja, or who else involved in this farce got a stack of money from him.

During the press conference, the whistleblower, Mr. Escobar said that he has known Diego Borja for 15 years, explaining that they ran in similar social circle in Quito. Escobar described how, for six years, Borja spoke openly about his relationship with Chevron and the "clandestine activities" that he carried out for the company. Escobar told the reporters that for some time, he didn't understand much about the issues, nor the level of what Borja was doing for Chevron.

According to Escobar, in June 2009, Borja had bragged to him that he had arranged "the biggest business deal of his life" and that he would "take down the lawsuit" and that he had received "a ton of money." Less than two months later, Chevron released videos secretly taped by Diego Borja that the company claimed exposed corruption implicating the judge presiding over the trial. Soon, the phony corruption scandal –– concocted by Diego Borja along with an American convicted felon and drug trafficker named Wayne Hansen –– began to unravel. And Escobar, disgusted, began to record his conversations with his friend, Chevron's dirty tricks guy.

So, over several months last year, Escobar made more than six hours of tape recordings of his conversations with Diego Borja in which Borja confesses that Chevron “cooked” evidence in the trial and that Borja could ensure a victory by the Amazon communities if Chevron failed to pay him what he was promised for concocting the phony corruption scandal to smear the Ecuadorean courts.

At today’s press conference, Santiago Escobar said that he testified before Ecuador's Prosecutor General that Borja admitted that he tampered with evidence, switching out contaminated samples for samples free of contamination before submitting them to the testing lab. He or his wife Sara Portilla –– who worked for the U.S. lab that Chevron used for testing –– would then submit the samples and test results to the court.

Expanding on previously released evidence to the reporters, Mr. Escobar said, "For example, one time, in his office, where the 'independent laboratories' operated that did the analysis of soil samples that are the evidence that supposedly 'vindicates' Chevron, he told me, 'look, we didn't take these samples from the contaminated sites, we took them from between 10-30 kilometers away from there.'"

Escobar continued, "In this office, there were three tables and some big industrial refrigerators where they kept the samples... they themselves got the insurance, they themselves sent the samples by DHL to the United States, they did everything. So, apparently, the laboratory, which is not independent because it was run by his wife, supports and justifies the remediation, and that the reason people are dying is because of contamination."

Escobar had previously released recordings and saved MSN chats of Borja bragging about how he set up at least four 'front' companies to manage Chevron's testing of contamination samples during the trial, how his wife worked for a U.S.-based lab that Chevron used for testing samples, how he lied to gain entry to the lab where the plaintiffs were testing their samples with his Florida-based Chevron boss (the company's Latin America offices are based in Coral Gables), and how Chevron is paying him the equivalent of $10,000 U.S. per month in Ecuador, and paying the rent on a $6,000/month house in a gated community minutes from Chevron headquarters in San Ramon, CA, where he isn't subject to a subpoena from the court in Ecuador hearing the case against Chevron.

As I've written in previous posts here, Borja also told Escobar that he has damning evidence stored on his iPhone, and hidden in Ecuador, that would destroy Chevron's defense in the trial once and for all. He says his wife knows all about the evidence too. It's time for Chevron's dirty tricks guy Diego Borja –– still hiding out on the company's dime –– to go back to Ecuador and tell the truth.

Sometimes it seems that Chevron can't stoop any lower in its efforts to evade responsibility for massive suffering in Ecuador.

And then, somehow, they find the 'Human Energy' to plumb new depths.

– Han

Han Shan is Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

Estimates of BP Liability for Gulf Spill Suggest Chevron's $27 Billion for Ecuador Disaster Too Low

When, during the trial over Chevron's massive oil contamination in Ecuador, a court-appointed expert said the company should pay up to $27 billion in damages, lawyers and executives for the oil giant were apoplectic.

The figure shocked analysts and shareholders and sent shockwaves through the industry.

But that probably had more to do with the long history of impunity that multinational oil companies have enjoyed. And in Chevron's case, it certainly had a lot to do with the fact that the Board of Directors have been asleep at the wheel for years, while senior management and the legal team have deceived investors, shareholders, and the public about the scope of its liability in Ecuador.

But really, $27 billion? That's an inconceivable amount of money to almost everyone. But don't forget, we're talking about a company that took home $24 billion in profits in 2008 alone.

To put it all in perspective, I point you to yesterday's 'Dealbook' column in The New York Times. In an article entitled 'Imagining the Worst in BP’s Future', wunderkind financial reporter and author Andrew Ross Sorkin takes a look at the potential liability BP could face in the wake of its massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

And in comparison, suddenly, the $27 billion damages estimate for Chevron in Ecuador looks pretty damn low.

Sorkin writes:

BP’s costs for the cleanup could run as high as $23 billion, according to Credit Suisse. On top of that, BP could face an additional $14 billion in claims from gulf fisherman and the tourism industry. So while conservative estimates put the bill at $15 billion, something approaching $40 billion is not out of the question. After all, little about this spill has turned out as expected.

The company has about $12 billion in cash and short-term investments, but there is already a debate about whether it should cut its dividend out of fear that it could run out of money. Of course, it could sell assets or seek loans, which in this environment is still not that easy.

But all those numbers don’t account for the greatest possible threat: a jury verdict against BP. Such a verdict might push the cost of the spill into the hundreds of billions. If that happened, even BP might buckle.
Sorkin goes on to say that while this scenario may seem "far-fetched" right now, there's actually a term Wall Street bankers use to describe such a possibility: "The Texaco Scenario." No, actually, they don't mean the potential liability Chevron faces for the deliberate damage done by its wholly-owned subsidiary during its decades of operations in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest. They are referring to when Texas oil giant Texaco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1987 because it didn't have enough money to pay a $1 billion jury award after it was sued by Pennzoil (more on that case here).

Sorkin spoke to a number of financial analysts and bankers who suggest that BP is at serious risk of bankruptcy or being taken over by a competitor.

In a press release from the Amazon Defense Coalition yesterday, Pablo Fajardo, lead attorney for the affected communities in Ecuador said, "We believe the damages estimate in Ecuador is glaringly low in light of the latest assessments of BP’s liability by Wall Street analysts,”

To quote the release at length:

The Ecuador disaster is still considered the world’s largest oil-related catastrophe, though it often is not “ranked” because it was the product of deliberate planning to cut costs rather than a spectacular accident, according to representatives of the plaintiffs. “Chevron dumped more than 18.5 billion gallons of toxic waste -- about 4 million gallons per day for more than two decades -- and the world paid almost no attention,” said Mitch Anderson, an American organizer who works with the affected Amazonian communities.

Experts have concluded that Chevron discharged at least 345 million gallons of pure crude into the Amazon as part of its illegal dumping – far more than both the 11 million gallons spilled in the Exxon Valdez and the enormous amounts of crude spewing out of the BP well in the Gulf.

The Chevron Ecuador disaster poisoned an ecosystem roughly the size of Rhode Island that is even more sensitive to its indigenous inhabitants than the coastal marshes of Louisiana are to local fishermen, according to Luis Villacrecis, an environmental consultant who works with the plaintiffs.

“We have long said that the $27 billion damages number for Chevron in Ecuador is too low because it does not take into account the true restoration of the rainforest,” said Villacrecis.

“Because this is far away from the United States, and because the victims are mostly indigenous, Chevron believes it can receive a discount on the actual damages,” he added. “Whether that is true remains to be seen.”

Is Chevron in the same boat as BP? Could the company be facing imminent bankruptcy or takeover after mishandling the liability for years? After 17 years of litigation, the oil giant continues to fight tooth and nail to evade responsibility for an oil-related disaster more devastating than the BP Gulf spill.

But as they have all these years, Chevron still has a choice. It can do the right thing by cleaning up the toxic mess it made in Ecuador, and compensate the communities it devastated. Or it can continue to fight until its liability is unimaginable and sinks the company like a ruptured tanker.

I hope for the former but if it's going to be the latter, let us pray they don't have too much oil on board.

– Han

Han Shan is Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Victory for First Amendment, Filmmakers, & Amazon Communities in Battle Vs. Chevron Over Ecuador Footage!

Chevron suffered a significant legal setback in the courts today in its sprawling cynical effort to evade accountability for its environmental devastation in Ecuador.

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger will get an Appeals Court hearing of his appeal of the lower court decision ordering him to turn over 600+ hours of raw footage shot during the making of his award-winning documentary CRUDE. The ruling by the three-judge panel of the Circuit Court also 'stays' the subpoena ordering the production of the footage while Berlinger's appeal is pending.

This is excellent news for supporters of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, and documentary filmmakers and investigative journalists– and everyone that benefits from the work done by these people to shine a spotlight on issues of social and political importance. In other words, this is great news for everyone.

Furthermore, this is a victory for those who have dared to discover the truth about Chevron's environmental disaster in Ecuador, and the communities struggling to hold the oil giant accountable.

Chevron's lawyers from corporate law behemoth Gibson Dunn hope to mine the CRUDE outtakes for any material that they might find useful to their relentless legal and public relations schemes to discredit the plaintiffs, their attorneys and supporters, and the courts in Ecuador.

In response to the ruling, Mr. Berlinger's lawyer Maura Wogan told The Wrap:

"Today’s decision signals that the appeals court takes seriously the rights of investigative journalists like Joe Berlinger."

And Joe Berlinger had this to say:

"I am delighted that the appellate court seems to understand the significant public interest in my appeal being heard. The stay that was granted today will allow us to argue the merits of our position before the Court."

The ruling by the Circuit Court of Appeals vindicates the position of the growing number of high-profile supporters who have spoken out for Berlinger.

On Friday, film legend and environmental activist Robert Redford penned a powerful opinion article in the Huffington Post, entitled 'Joe Berlinger vs. Chevron: Why We Must All Defend Independent Filmmaking'.

Redford's argument couldn't be more straightforward:

Filmmakers like Joe Berlinger fulfill a crucial role in today's society by providing independent information on pressing contemporary human rights and social issues. Their success as storytellers depends on access to those men and women willing to talk on camera. If the subjects of those documentaries are fearful of the ramifications of telling the truth then the filmmaker has no story.

Without a shield law, there is no recognized journalist/filmmaker/source protection, creating the very scenario we have now. The judges in this case must recognize this is first and foremost a first amendment issue. The higher courts need to overturn the decision and adhere to higher standards of journalistic privilege.

If we allow the voice of the independent artist to be stifled we should expect nothing less than extreme repercussions for freedom of information... and freedom in general.

Also last week, Floyd Abrams, perhaps the best-known First Amendment lawyer in the country, filed an Amicus Curiae (friend-of-the-court) brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The brief was joined by 13 (!) major media organizations– ABC, CBS, NBC, HBO, The Associated Press, Dow Jones, The Washington Post, The New York Times Company, Gannett Company, Hearst Corporation, the Daily News, the Directors Guild of America, and the International Documentary Association.

The New York Times' Dave Itzkoff, who has been following the case closely for the Arts Beat blog at, wrote:

The brief says the district court’s ruling “was fundamentally flawed” in its interpretation of the 1999 case Gonzales v. NBC, in which the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that even confidential materials can be released if they are likely to be relevant to a significant issue in the case and are not reasonably obtainable elsewhere.

Judge Kaplan’s ruling, the brief said, “effectively shifted the burden of alleged unfairness onto the filmmakers, rendering this circuit’s requirement of a relevance showing meaningless,” and “made it far too easy for Chevron to obtain far too much, precisely what Gonzales forbids.”

In the June 1, 2010 amicus brief, Abrams writes more on Judge Kaplan's misreading of the Gonzalez case and gets to the the real heart of the matter:

The vast distance between the District Court's reading of Gonzales and its text and spirit is illustrated by the Court's emphasis in both its May 10 and May 20 orders on the proposition that, because the individual subjects captured in the outtake footage voluntarily chose to expose themselves to public scrutiny through the inevitable screening of a completed film, it would "not credit any assertion that the discovery of the outtakes by Petitioners would compromise the ability of Berlinger or, for that matter, any other film maker, to obtain material from individuals interested in confidential treatment." This analysis completely ignores the relationship between a documentary filmmaker and the individuals that he or she interviews; it assumes, wrongly, that the participants in such a project would see no difference between the public circulation of a final film painstakingly prepared and edited by the filmmaker who solicited their contribution and whom they entrusted with telling their story and the potentially unlimited display of their every word in a widely-publicized multi-billion dollar international litigation.

And lastly, last week ahead of today's hearing, NPR's All Things Considered covered the legal battle in a story called 'A 'Crude' Awakening: Chevron Vs. The Documentarian'. The story predictably gives Chevron lawyer Randy Mastro of Gibson Dunn and company spokesman Kent Robertson each a chance to weigh in with their cynical spin. After today's loss in the courts over their attempts to get at Berlinger's CRUDE outtakes, I'm sure they're huddling up to devise their next tactic in Chevron's treacherous strategy to deceive, deny, and delay... until it all goes away.

But the communities in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest have other plans, and have vowed to struggle until they get the justice that has been denied them so long.

And of course, Berlinger's legal battle isn't over. While the Circuit Court stayed the lower court's order to turn over all his raw footage to Chevron, Berlinger still has to argue his case on appeal. Want to help with the costly legal battle? Any amount you can donate to the CRUDE First Amendment legal defense fund is deeply appreciated.

And if you still haven't seen the explosive, award-winning documentary CRUDE, see it, and judge for yourself.

– Han

Han Shan is Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

Monday, June 7, 2010

NY Times Columnist Bob Herbert Looks at BP in the Gulf & Chevron in the Amazon

On Saturday, The New York Times published a powerful Op-Ed by columnist Bob Herbert called 'Disaster in the Amazon', in which he writes, "what has happened in the rainforest is heartbreaking, although it has not gotten nearly the coverage that the BP spill has." Herbert goes on to compare the BP spill in the Gulf to Chevron's deliberate dumping in Ecuador's Amazon Rainforest.

In looking at the actions of the oil companies, he concludes:

They’re dangerous. They need the most stringent kind of oversight, and swift and severe sanctions for serious wrongdoing. At the same time, we need to be searching with a much, much greater sense of urgency for viable energy alternatives. Treating the Amazon and the gulf and the Arctic as if they were nothing more than toxic waste sites is an affront to the planet and all life-forms that inhabit it.
It's an excellent piece, and one can hear the seething outrage in Herbert's voice. In fact, it's not the first time he has looked at Chevron's 'Disaster in the Amazon.' In 2005, he penned another Op-Ed called 'Rain Forest Jekyll and Hyde' in which he looks at the company's hypocritical attempts to portray itself as a clean, cuddly, conservationist. This past Saturday's column 'Disaster in the Amazon' in full after the jump...

The New York Times: Op-Ed Columnist

Disaster in the Amazon
Published: June 4, 2010

BP’s calamitous behavior in the Gulf of Mexico is the big oil story of the moment. But for many years, indigenous people from a formerly pristine region of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador have been trying to get relief from an American company, Texaco (which later merged with Chevron), for what has been described as the largest oil-related environmental catastrophe ever.

“As horrible as the gulf spill has been, what happened in the Amazon was worse,” said Jonathan Abady, a New York lawyer who is part of the legal team that is suing Chevron on behalf of the rainforest inhabitants.

It has been a long and ugly legal fight and the outcome is uncertain. But what has happened in the rainforest is heartbreaking, although it has not gotten nearly the coverage that the BP spill has.

What’s not in dispute is that Texaco operated more than 300 oil wells for the better part of three decades in a vast swath of Ecuador’s northern Amazon region, just south of the border with Colombia. Much of that area has been horribly polluted. The lives and culture of the local inhabitants, who fished in the intricate waterways and cultivated the land as their ancestors had done for generations, have been upended in ways that have led to widespread misery.

Texaco came barreling into this delicate ancient landscape in the early 1960s with all the subtlety and grace of an invading army. And when it left in 1992, it left behind, according to the lawsuit, widespread toxic contamination that devastated the livelihoods and traditions of the local people, and took a severe toll on their physical well-being.

A brief filed by the plaintiffs said: “It deliberately dumped many billions of gallons of waste byproduct from oil drilling directly into the rivers and streams of the rainforest covering an area the size of Rhode Island. It gouged more than 900 unlined waste pits out of the jungle floor — pits which to this day leach toxic waste into soils and groundwater. It burned hundreds of millions of cubic feet of gas and waste oil into the atmosphere, poisoning the air and creating ‘black rain’ which inundated the area during tropical thunderstorms.”

The quest for oil is, by its nature, colossally destructive. And the giant oil companies, when left to their own devices, will treat even the most magnificent of nature’s wonders like a sewer. But the riches to be made are so vastly corrupting that governments refuse to impose the kinds of rigid oversight and safeguards that would mitigate the damage to the environment and its human and animal inhabitants.

Pick your venue. The families whose lives and culture are dependent upon the intricate web of waterways along the Gulf Coast of the United States are in a fix similar to that of the indigenous people zapped by nonstop oil spills and the oil-related pollution in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Each group is fearful about its future. Both have been treated contemptuously.

The oil companies don’t care. Shell can’t wait to begin drilling in the Arctic Ocean off the northern coast of Alaska, an area that would pose monumental problems for anyone trying to deal with a catastrophic spill. The companies pretend that the spills won’t happen. They always say that their drilling operations are safe. They said that before drilling off Santa Barbara, and in the rainforest in Ecuador, and in the Gulf of Mexico, and everywhere else they drill.

Their assurances mean nothing.

President Obama has suspended Shell’s Arctic drilling permits and has temporarily halted the so-called Arctic oil rush. What we’ve learned from the BP debacle in the gulf, and from the rainforest, and so many other places, is just how reckless and inept the oil companies can be when it comes to safeguarding life, limb and the environment.

They’re dangerous. They need the most stringent kind of oversight, and swift and severe sanctions for serious wrongdoing. At the same time, we need to be searching with a much, much greater sense of urgency for viable energy alternatives. Treating the Amazon and the gulf and the Arctic as if they were nothing more than toxic waste sites is an affront to the planet and all life-forms that inhabit it.

Chevron doesn’t believe it should be called to account for any of the sins Texaco may have committed in the Amazon. A spokesman told me that the allegations of environmental damage were wildly overstated and that even if Texaco had caused some pollution, it had cleaned it up and reached an agreement with the Ecuadorian government that precluded further liability.

The indigenous residents may be suffering (they’re in much worse shape than the people on the gulf coast) but the Chevron-Texaco crowd feels real good about itself. The big money was made, and the trash was left behind.

– Han

Han Shan is Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

Quito Rally to Demand Investigation into Chevron's Corruption of Ecuador Trial

Environmental, human rights, and indigenous organizations took to the streets of Quito, Ecuador, on Friday to denounce Chevron's numerous acts of corruption in the ongoing legal battle for justice in what is one of the worst environmental disasters on the planet.

People rallied in front of the office of the Attorney General (Fiscalia General), who is currently investigating two Chevron attorneys for fraud in the 1998 'remediation' of the company’s contamination, along with members of government who signed off on an agreement releasing Texaco of liability. Nearly all of the areas allegedly remediated still show toxic and illegal levels of contamination.

Several supporting civil society organizations delivered a letter to the assistant district attorney calling on the office to resist efforts by Chevron to stall and illegally delay the investigation, as has been its strategy in the ongoing Aguinda v. Chevron litigation underway in the Lago Agrio court system. They also called on the Attorney General to open an investigation into the latest charges of corruption that surfaced when a whistleblower released tape recordings of a Chevron contractor describing how he helped the company “cook evidence” in the trial.

The letter, signed by several organizations including Acción Ecológica, Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos (Permanent Assembly for Human Rights), CONAIE–La Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), among others, reads in part:

With great concern, we have watched the Chevron/Texaco case delayed year after year, without justice for the thousands of people who have experienced first-hand the disastrous effects of an oil exploration model that was irresponsible and disrespectful to nature and affected communities. We also consider it unacceptable that the legal actions taken by the victims have been undermined by delay tactics, that, far from ethical standards and the law, seek to ensure impunity for those who have done harm to Mother Earth.

Click here to download a PDF of the letter in Spanish along with my sloppy English translation. Click "read the rest..." below to see more photos.

This report was sent by Amazon Watch's Quito-based Northern Amazon Program Coordinator Kevin Koenig, and edited and posted by Han Shan, Clean Up Ecuador Campaign Coordinator.