Chevron CEO John Watson is getting roughed up in the days leading up to the company's annual shareholder meeting this week as risk related to his historic $11 billion environmental liability in Ecuador continues to increase. The judgment has now been confirmed unanimously by Ecuador's Supreme Court while Canada's Supreme Court has ruled the affected communities can try to seize some of the company's $15 billion worth of assets to pay for a clean-up.
(For background, see this press release put out by the environmental group Amazon Watch.)
In all, 18 consecutive appellate judges in Ecuador and Canada have rejected Chevron's arguments and ruled in favor of indigenous and farmer villagers from the Amazon who first brought suit in 1993. Chevron's global game of forum shopping is running out of steam -- the company is facing a true litigation catastrophe in Canada -- and Watson no doubt will be called out by shareholders at the meeting for his abhorrent and irresponsible mistreatment of indigenous groups in the Amazon.
The annual meeting, at company headquarters in San Ramon, will be highlighted by a face-to-face showdown between Watson and renowned Ecuadorian indigenous leader Humberto Piaguaje. Piaguaje, a Secoya elder, has traveled from his jungle home to attend the meeting. He is being hosted by Amazon Watch, an environmental group that is organizing a major protest outside during the meeting.
Watson and Chevron's Board will be on the hot seat over a number of issues:
**The company's Ecuador liability -- originally $9.5 billion -- is getting worse by the day as statutory interest in Canada (where the villagers are trying to enforce their judgment against Chevron's assets) has pushed up the amount to roughly $11 billion. Just last week, two top Chevron executives were forced to answer questions under oath in a deposition in Canada; a critical court hearing is scheduled for September that has the chance of knocking out all of the oil giant's defenses.
**Under Watson's leadership, Chevron is flailing not only over the Ecuador issue but over its core business. The company recently reported its first quarterly loss in 13 years; revenue is down 75%; and climate change threatens to leave shareholders with billions of dollars of "stranded assets" as the world moves away from fossil fuels.
**A major Chevron shareholder, Newground Social Investment, has filed a resolution that asserts that Watson's management team "has mishandled a number of issues in ways that significantly increase both risks and costs to shareholders. The most pressing of these issues is the ongoing legal effort by communities in Ecuador to enforce a $9.5 billion Ecuadorian judgment for oil pollution." The resolution follows a complaint to the SEC by a U.S. Congresswoman that suggests the company is trying to downplay its Ecuador liability to shareholders.
**It is increasingly clear that Chevron is responsible for one of the world's most dire humanitarian catastrophes in Ecuador. Numerous independent studies confirm that cancer rates in the region where Chevron operated have skyrocketed; thousands of indigenous peoples and farmers have died of cancer and other oil-related diseases. Yet at great cost, Watson continues to pay 2,000 lawyers from 60 law firms to fight some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.
In the press release put out by Amazon Watch, Piaguaje said
Our leaders plan to confront Mr. Watson with judgments from multiple courts mandating that the company pay its pollution bill to the people of Ecuador. Mr. Watson needs to accept responsibility for Chevron's environmental crimes in Ecuador, apologize to the company's victims, and abide by court orders that compensation be paid. Until he abides by the rule of law, Mr. Watson and Chevron's Board members will be considered by us to fugitives from justice subject to arrest for crimes against humanity under principles of universal jurisdiction.Well said, Humberto. Perhaps you should consider making a citizen's arrest of Watson at the meeting.
In previous shareholder meetings, Watson has suffered a series of biting rebukes over the Ecuador liability. One resolution critical of Watson's mishandling of the case received a whopping 38% support from shareholders.
In addition, in 2011 several of Chevron's institutional shareholders with more than $580 billion in assets under management sent Watson a letter urging settlement of the Ecuador case. Amazon Watch also sent a letter to Chevron signed by 43 corporate accountability and human rights groups blasting the company for trying to silence its critics.
Chevron's shareholders should use the annual meeting to re-assess whether the conflicted Watson -- who made $22 million in compensation last year from a Board that he controls -- has the vision to fully grasp what it means to serve shareholder interests.