Chevron lost a high-profile pollution case in Ecuador in 2011 and was ordered to pay $9.5 billion for cleanup of billions of gallons of toxic waste in the Amazon rainforest. So far, the company hasn't paid a dime – but a recent ruling in Canada might finally force Chevron to pay up.
Chevron appealed the 2011 ruling all the way to Ecuador's highest court, the National Court of Justice, which voted 5-0 in 2013 against the company. But Chevron still refuses to comply with the ruling, and since the Big Oil behemoth has no assets in Ecuador, the plaintiffs were forced to seek enforcement of the decision elsewhere.
Last Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously to allow Ecuadorian plaintiffs to pursue just such an enforcement action. In the majority opinion, Justice Clément Gascon wrote that the ruling had implications for attempts to hold the entire global oil industry accountable for its pollution and other abuses.
"In a world in which businesses, assets and people cross borders with ease, courts are increasingly called upon to recognize and enforce judgments from other jurisdictions," Gascon wrote in the 7-0 ruling, according to The Globe & Mail. "Sometimes, successful recognition and enforcement in another forum is the only means by which a foreign judgment creditor can obtain its due."
Some 30,000 Ecuadorians have been affected by the oil pollution in the Amazon, left behind when Texaco (which Chevron bought in 2000) ceased operating hundreds of oil wells in the country in 1990.
Humberto Piaguaje, the Coordinator of the Union of People Affected by Texaco, welcomed the ruling, saying in a statement, "after 22 years we can perform actions to collect the judgment against Chevron and immediately start repairing our territories."
Chevron is fighting a multi-front battle against the Ecuadorian judgement. The company secured a favorable ruling under RICO statutes in a New York court last year after its lawyers convinced a federal judge that the Ecuador ruling was the result of a corrupt judicial process.
The company has also entered into an arbitration process at the Hague, where its lawyers are attempting to argue that the government of Ecuador absolved Texaco of all liability when it ceased its Ecuador operations and left the country 25 years ago, though Chevron's main legal defense in that case recently hit a major snag when it was rejected by the arbitrators.
Chevron once issued a statement threatening the Ecuadorians with "a lifetime of appellate and collateral litigation" if they continued to pursue their lawsuit – a company official later vowed to "fight until hell freezes over … and then we'll fight it out on the ice" – and the company appears to be making good on that threat.
Still, the Canada ruling comes at a bad time for Chevron, which has lost as much as $100 billion in market value over the past year thanks to cratering oil prices and other factors. Among them is the fact that the company made $24.7 billion from operations over that same time period while laying out $41.7 billion in expenditures and dividend payments.
At some point, says Amazon Watch's Paul Paz y Miño, Chevron investors have to start wondering if the billions spent by the company on its aggressive, scorched earth legal strategy have really been worth it – especially as Ecuadorians continue to get sick and die as a result of the pollution still littering the forest floor.
"What does that say about [CEO John Watson's] leadership? If I were a shareholder I'd say you have to pay this back to the company. You can't mismanage the funds of our shareholders any further," Paz y Miño told DeSmog.
The Financial Post reports that Chevron has assets worth roughly $15 billion in Canada, more than enough to satisfy the Ecuadorian judgement.
The Canadian assets include a network of Chevron gas stations in B.C.; a 20 per cent-stake in the Athabasca Oil Sands Project in Alberta; a 26.9 per cent interest in the Hibernia Field and a 23.6 per cent interest in Hibernia South Expansion off the shore of Newfoundland and Labrador; a 26.6 per cent interest in the Hebron Field in Newfoundland; an interest in the Duvernay Shale Field; and an interest in the Kitimat LNG Project in B.C.The Ecuadorian plaintiffs say they want to seize and sell the shares of Chevron Canada to satisfy the $9.5 billion judgment – which has actually risen to $10 billion with interest, according to Amazon Watch's Paz y Miño, who says the Canadian courts will count that interest.
But even if the plaintiffs ultimately win the enforcement action in Canada, a judge will still have to sort through the so-called "corporate veil" and determine whether the seizure of assets owned by Chevron Canada, which is not directly owned by Chevron, can be used to satisfy the latter's debt. No less than seven companies stand between Chevron Canada and its US-based parent company, according to the Financial Post.
In the end, however, Paz y Miño says the lawsuit has never been about money.
"They're sitting there twisting a knife into the people of Ecuador," he told DeSmog. "This isn't about saying, ‘These people were responsible for something that happened in the past, and they should be held accountable.' It's about stopping the poisoning of people that's still going on. Chevron is continuing to poison people, and won't clean up the pollution."