Tuesday, June 30, 2009

US Senators Send Message to Chevron: Don’t Come Crying to Us

UPDATE: The Obama Administration today rejected all Chevron attempts to cut trade benefits to Ecuador. See update HERE. ----

Recently four US senators sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk (view the letter HERE) urging him to take NO action after Chevron’s lobbying blitz calling for the US government to intervene in the $27 billion lawsuit they are facing in Ecuador. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) voiced their deep concern with Chevron pushing the US Government to cut trade benefits for Ecuador. Woah, now lets back up just a second. Is Chevron actually lobbying for the US to cancel the trade preferences to Ecuador because they don’t like the possible verdict from Ecuador’s independent judiciary? You bet Chevron is. Chevron is willing to punish an entire country’s people and economy in a weak attempt to dodge accountability. Desperate times, huh? Actually, it’s pretty simple. Chevron wanted the trial moved to Ecuador and they got it. Now as a mountain of evidence solidifies their guilt in the lawsuit they are scrambling for any life-line they can find. Fortunately, representatives like these four senators realize that the Ecuadorian communities “deserve their day in court”, and no amount of bullying from Chevron will stop that.

– Nick

Nick Magel is Communications Manager at Amazon Watch. Prior to joining Amazon Watch, Nick was Director of the Freedom From Oil campaign at Global Exchange. Nick’s critiques of the US oil addiction have run in The New York Times, USA Today, and San Francisco Chronicle. Previously, Nick had worked on campaigns to stop new liquefied natural gas infrastructure on the west coast and developed climate based curricula for classrooms across the country. He received his MA in education from Lesley University.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Part II: Black Gold & Texas Tea

With the landmark Aguinda v. Chevron lawsuit underway in the Superior Court of Lago Agrio since 2003 (after ten years in New York courts), this town and the surrounding one million hectares of Texaco's former concession is home to what has been dubbed the "trial of the century" and the "Amazon Chernobyl". There is no lack of evidence backing these grand descriptions, including dozens of judicial inspections, a global damages assessment, and more than 64,000 soil and water samples. [Joe Berlinger documents much of the legal process in his award winning film Crude – coming soon to a theater near you.]

Despite Chevron's attempts to delay and derail the trial, the marathon case is in its final lap. The trial's home stretch has produced a flurry of activity out here. So it's no surprise that as we check into the hotel in the ramshackle town to begin our multi-day tour of Chevron's toxic legacy, we see some familiar faces.

Chevron tecnicos and lawyers can often be found milling around the Grand Hotel de Lago, surely aggravated by having been stripped of their privileged digs in their private villa on the grounds of Ecuador's military base. Their suites at the hotel are probably more swanky than the military base, but less politically convenient. Collusion between the military and Chevron has been commonplace and dates back to the Texaco years when the military served as the company's de facto private security force. Texaco's contract for oil production was signed by none other than General Guillermo Rodriguez Lara, Ecuador dictator-in-chief brought to power by a military coup in 1972.

Fast-forward about 40 years, and not much has changed. Ecuador's military was still doing Chevron's bidding. The company, literally in bed with the RAYO 24 brigade in Lago, managed to get their buddies at the base to come up with a bogus military report canceling an historic judicial inspection poised to be extremely unfavorable for the company.

The inspection of the Guanta station was to be the first on indigenous land, a symbolic moment for the Cofan who had been waiting decades to see the faces of those responsible for this disaster and the Ecuadorian lawyers who were defending them. The Cofan planned to mobilize by canoe and bus to bear witness to the inspection and provide first-hand testimony to the judge, only to have him cancel the inspection at the last minute due to a phony report that accused the Cofan of harboring plans to kidnap Chevron employees. [The Cofan have sued for defamation].

But Chevron's extra-judicial tactics blew up in their face. The report was later proven to be totally baseless, the military individuals involved were reprimanded, and the company was finally booted from the base by current Ecuador president Rafael Correa.

At the hotel, we eat lunch at a table adjacent to Chevron tecnicos, keeping our conversations low, and pack up to head towards Lago Agrio #1 — where it all started. The well was Texaco's first, and after hundreds of thousands of barrels, it's still pumping today.

We ride down Lago's dusty main street, and head out of town. Several oil pipelines parallel the road, snaking between trees, over hills and streams, passing through children's front yards.

About fifteen minutes outside of town, we arrive at Lago Agrio #1. It's rather unassuming now. A pumpjack (or nodding donkey) silently plugs away, pulling the last barrels out of what was once the largest find in South America. Lago #1 is now run by Petroecuador and produces about 27 bpd (barrels per day) compared to the 1500 bpd at its peak. A sign in the background marks the history of the site, which drastically changed the trajectory of this small Andean nation.

When Texaco found oil, it was a Beverly Hillbillies moment ("oil that is...black gold...Texas tea"). Touted as a new era, oil was supposed to be the silver bullet that would bring Ecuador out of poverty and permanently put Ecuador on the road to prosperity and international importance. So said Texaco.

In 1972, Texaco's first barrel of oil was paraded through Quito's historic center. Historic footage shows people lunging to touch the barrel for luck. The archdiocese of the Catholic Church blessed the feted barrel. Texaco promised to bring state of the art, modern U.S. oil industry technology. Ecuador joined OPEC. It gained access to international credit lines, and borrowed with gusto.

But it wasn't long until the blessing turned into a curse. Oil was no panacea. Ecuador didn't become a bastion of prosperity. And, unlike Jed, Jethro, and the Clampett kin, local indigenous peoples couldn't just flee to some fancy enclave and start anew. This was a sitcom where a foreign company drills for oil on the Clampett's land without their permission, dumps all the toxic wastewater and crude byproducts in their drinking water, then takes the money and runs. Not exactly must-see TV.

We leave Lago #1 and head to one of Texaco's infamous "remediated" pits. Chevron claims it carried out a government-supervised $40 million clean up. Local residents affirm, and videos from the time show, pits were merely covered with dirt. In the next post, we'll look at what we find.

– Kevin

Kevin Koenig is Amazon Watch's Northern Amazon Program Coordinator. Kevin lives and works Ecuador and has spent extensive time on the ground with affected communities and partner NGOs. Prior to joining Amazon Watch, Kevin worked as the Ecuador researcher/organizer with the Rainforest Action Network as part of the Beyond Oil Campaign. At that time, he lived and worked in Ecuador for nearly four years, collaborating with indigenous and environmental NGOs on oil and gas issues.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Part I: Northern Exposure

This is the first in a series of reports from the field in Ecuador's northern rainforests, site of perhaps the largest oil related disaster in the world and ground zero of Chevron's $27 billion liability in the ongoing Aguinda v. Chevron lawsuit.

Only a few steps down the airplane staircase, and I could feel the beads of sweat starting to drip from my brow. I began second guessing the "triple protection" claims of my deodorant – clearly R & D never tested it in a place like this. Whether the sweat was from the stifling heat or fear of the military guys decked out in camo with automatic weapons greeting the plane, I'm not sure. Either way, Lago Agrio's welcome wagon could use some work.

Lago Agrio – literally "Sour Lake" – was named after Texaco's first big oil discovery in Texas. In the early 1960s, Texaco scoured this pristine, tropical rainforest – the headwaters of the Amazon – with a massive civilian and military force unheard of at that time in South America. Billions of barrels of crude lie beneath the rainforests of Ecuador, and Texaco was going to find it by any means necessary. Before Texaco's arrival, this area was home to several indigenous populations – the Cofan, Secoya, Siona, Huaorani, Kichwa – and two nomadic groups living in voluntary isolation – the Tetetes and the Sansawari. Blessed with some of the most biodiverse forests on the planet, and thriving rivers like the Aguarico ("Sweet Water"), these groups made their living by hunting, fishing, gathering, and cultivating small traditional crops in this incredibly fertile landscape. With Texaco's first oil well, that all changed.

It is well documented by recent major news media that Texaco built over 300 wells, dumped 20 billion gallons of toxic wastewater, and spilled over 18 million gallons of pure crude between 1972 and 1990. During that time, huddled in a boardroom in upstate New York, Texaco's smartest guys in the room made a cost cutting decision that would prove lethal to Ecuador's Amazon communities. Instead of following standard industry practice and complying with Ecuadorian law, Texaco insisted on dumping toxic by-products directly into the rivers, streams, and rainforest land instead of re-injecting them back into the ground (have a look at the Aguarico River after Texaco). To save a buck, Texaco had condemned these communities to decades of environmental destruction and human suffering. This double standard appears to be a pre-cursor to the pattern of racism of senior Texaco management and board, which came to light in a landmark anti-discrimination suit in the 1990s.

You barely have to leave the airport to see oil extraction's impact on the region. While most of us expect to see a line of taxis waiting outside airports, in Lago Agrio you are greeted by Lago Agrio well #11 and its adjoining waste pits, sitting directly across from the airport. We pass by and head into town, where giant oil storage tanks, gas flares, flow lines, satellite dishes, and worker encampments hum behind fences.

It is here, in Lago, where Texaco set up shop decades ago. Texaco made Lago the headquarters of its drill and ditch oil operations on-the-cheap. Texaco stopped operating in 1990 and turned things over to the state run Petroecuador in 1992, and the U.S. oil giant's dump and run legacy was cemented.

Lago is a bustling boomtown (think gold rush kind of boomtown) a mere 12 miles from Ecuador's border with Colombia. Paramilitaries and left wing guerrillas from Colombia's 40-year civil conflict often cross over the border for some R & R, and the province is one of the poorest despite being the country's largest oil producer. As we get into downtown, it's full of telling symbols that point to the human tragedy and criminal acts that devastated the region's indigenous peoples, farmers, and the rainforests they inhabit. Hotels named "Oro Negro" (Black Gold), bus cooperatives named "Flota Petrolera" (Petroleum Fleet), and pharmacies on virtually every corner, illustrate a legacy these communities face everyday. And in what has to be one of the most ominous signs that a culture is on the decline, hotels named after the indigenous groups who once occupied the area – the Cofan and Secoya.

Here in Lago we were met by members of the Amazon Defense Coalition, a grassroots organization comprised of thousands of campesino farmers and representatives of five indigenous nationalities, all of who are affected by Texaco's reckless oil operations and part of the ongoing class action lawsuit against Chevron (Chevron bought Texaco in 2001). The Frente, as the group is known in Spanish, will be our guides over the next few days as we look at some of the 1,000 toxic waste pits abandoned by Texaco. These pits were allegedly "cleaned-up" by the company, but as we would soon learn nothing could be further from the truth as we begin to meet and talk with local people suffering the human effects of systematic contamination over almost four decades.

– Kevin

Kevin Koenig is Amazon Watch's Northern Amazon Program Coordinator. Kevin lives and works Ecuador and has spent extensive time on the ground with affected communities and partner NGOs. Prior to joining Amazon Watch, Kevin worked as the Ecuador researcher/organizer with the Rainforest Action Network as part of the Beyond Oil Campaign. At that time, he lived and worked in Ecuador for nearly four years, collaborating with indigenous and environmental NGOs on oil and gas issues.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More lipstick on Chevron's pig

Sooner of later, no matter how much you try to pretty it up, the neighbors are going to smell that tremendous mountain of decaying garbage you've been hiding in the backyard for more than three decades. Nowadays everyone seems to be smelling Chevron’s trash, as more criticism surfaces about their attempts to mislead the public with fake "reports". This time it’s the Columbia Journalism Review calling out former CNN correspondent Gene Randall for shilling for Chevron (as did the National Journal Online).

The New York Times published an article in May exposing Chevron's attempt to pass off its corporate propaganda as legitimate news and using YouTube to spread it - an attempt which is failing miserably, as the video has been viewed fewer than 6,000 times in several weeks (follow this link to watch it if you like, but be warned, Chevron won’t let you comment on it there). Perhaps Chevron should have considered hiring one of Jon Stewart’s “correspondents” instead; the news would be just as fake, but they would have gotten more hits.

One expects more savvy from the company that produced the overly-slick Will You Join Us? commercials. However those ads seem to have more people joining the communities fighting Chevron’s toxic operations than joining in Chevron's greenwashing efforts. In fact, Chevron's PR efforts seem to backfire every time. Another apparent Chevron tactic: Shower sponsorship money on PBS' Newshour and see what coverage surfaces with Chevron’s spin in it (or settle for no coverage on the issue at all).

In 2008, Chevron took out a full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle attacking Goldman Environmental Prize winners Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza. The result: Every news station in the Bay Area and many national outlets ran stories about the Ecuador disaster and Chevron was doing damage control once again. The New York Times, Washington Post, CBS News, Bloomberg, and many other mainstream news outlets have since reported on the case, but never in the way Chevron wants you to hear it (as if they bore no responsibility in the disaster).

We know a sure-fire way for Chevron to finally get some good press: Do the right thing and clean up their toxic mess and restore a clean and healthy environment to the 30,000 Ecuadorians suffering from their irresponsible actions.

– Paul

Paul Paz y MiƱo is the Managing Director at Amazon Watch and supervisor of the Clean Up Ecuador Campaign. Paul has an MA in International Affairs from George Washington University, is currently an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and for over 14 years has been a Colombia Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. Paul was the Guatemala/Chiapas Program Director at the Seva Foundation for seven years and has lived in Chiapas, Mexico, and Quito, Ecuador, promoting human rights and community development and working directly with indigenous communities.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Just how does one hide a $27 billion Ecuadorian "elephant in the room" at the Commonwealth Club? (hint: you can't.)

There was more evidence on Wednesday that the future of Chevron is inexorably tied to how it handles its growing environmental problem in Ecuador. Last week at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, David O'Reilly, the CEO of Chevron, debated Carl Pope, the president of the Sierra Club, ostensibly about America's energy future. However, questions about Chevron's potential $27 billion liability for environmental damage in Ecuador became a topic for exclusive discussion. This was all the more significant given that O'Reilly had insisted the Ecuador issue be taken off the table as a discussion topic.

Just minutes into the debate, the moderator departed from the evening's focus on the energy future of America to question O'Reilly about Chevron's past in Ecuador. O'Reilly's internally inconsistent responses were painfully predictable: Chevron is not responsible for the pollution even though there is no danger from pollution, Texaco cleaned up the pollution even though it never polluted, and we were released by Ecuador's government even though the release does not apply to private claims. And then this whopper – Chevron is being held "hostage" by American trial lawyers even though Chevron has admitted Texaco deliberately dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxin-laden water of formation into Amazon waterways. O'Reilly's canards held little sway over the audience, and he looked unnerved about Ecuador. He had no answer for Pope's common-sense call that "it is important for Chevron to come to the table with the local communities who have been harmed by oil extraction."

Beyond all of the drama at the debate, one thing is abundantly clear: before Chevron is able to realize its vision of a new energy future, the company is going to be forced to deal with its past. Though Chevron has been trying to ignore its responsibilities to the indigenous communities in Ecuador, the company has been pummeled over this issue recently as shareholders, activists, and the general public has become aware of the enormous financial and reputational risk faced by Chevron in Ecuador. In recent weeks Chevron has faced a number of distractions stemming from the company's human rights problems: a shareholder revolt as more than $37 billion worth of Chevron stock voted against company management on the issue, an inquiry by NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo into potential violations of securities laws, a slate of media stories exposing the company's potential Ecuador liability, and a rising tide of concerns about a lack of independent oversight from the Chevron Board of Directors.

David O'Reilly's response to questions about the company's exposure in Ecuador is a perfect example of Chevron's response to its huge problem in Ecuador: he stammered through his talking points and scoffed when as a member of the audience, I invited him to go to Ecuador and see the damage for himself. Instead, O'Reilly stuck his head in the sand and hoped that his talking points would be enough to stall long enough that he wouldn't have to be the guy who actually has to deal with Chevron's responsibility for the worst oil-related environmental disaster in the world. One thing is clear: Chevron cannot be a part of a cleaner, greener future until it owns up to its complicated past as a polluter of the Amazon in Ecuador.

– Mitch

Mitchell Anderson is a lead advocate in the Clean Up Ecuador Campaign as the Corporate Accountability Campaigner at Amazon Watch. Mitch works closely with organizational partners on the ground in Ecuador and has first-hand knowledge of the devastation left by Texaco in the Amazon. Prior to joining Amazon Watch, Mitch worked in Chiapas, Mexico, coordinating a regional human rights investigation, which sought to document and expose the effects of militarization on the collective human rights of indigenous communities. Mitchell has also worked as a freelance journalist and is a certified Spanish-English interpreter.