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.
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.