Chevron Guilty of Oil Contamination in Amazon: Historic Corporate Accountability Victory or Business as Usual for Big Oil?


 "We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this--companies that have made big investments around the world." - Chevron Lobbyist, anonymously quoted by Newsweek in 2008


Big Oil is a dirty business. But is the dirt--the spills, the leaks, the pollution, the illnesses, the lawsuits--just part of an oil company's bottom line?  

Yesterday, an Ecuadorean judge found Chevron guilty--to the tune of more than $8 billion--of massive oil drilling contamination in the Amazon rainforest. The judgment ranks second in environmental damage cases behind the $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility.  

The case is historic; not only because of the dollar amount but also it is the first time Indigenous peoples from the rainforest have sued an American oil company in the country where the crime was committed...and won. It is an incredible story of a small rainforest community's 18-year fight against a major multinational oil corporation.  

This case could also set a precedent for corporate accountability, transforming the way Big Oil operates around the globe.  

"The case really sends a message that companies operating in the undeveloped world cannot rely on a compliant government or lax environmental rules as a way of permanently insulating themselves from liability," said Robert Percival, a law professor and director of the environmental law program at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.  

Not, however, if Chevron has anything to say about it. Chevron, the second largest U.S. oil company, has vowed to fight the multi-billion dollar judgment. In fact, the oil giant has repeatedly refused to pay for a clean up even if ordered to by the court. In one chilling statement, Charles A. James, Chevron's vice president and general counsel, told law students at UC Berkeley that Chevron would fight "until hell freezes over, and then skate on the ice."  

As William Adams, a portfolio manager at Resilience AG in Zurich, told Bloomberg: "It's cheaper for Chevron to pay the lawyers than to pay for the lawsuit. It's a simple business case for them."  

While the lawsuit (and an appeal) will undoubtedly continue because of the cold calculus explained by Adams, the court of public opinion has a major role in holding Chevron accountable as well. Chevron's corporate arrogance and unwillingness to take responsibility for a crime it has been found guilty of reflects on the United States' reputation as a global citizen. It also reflects an outdated and outrageous business model that factors environmental disasters, legal battles and illness into its bottom line. A model that is all too common in U.S. companies operating internationally and whose time has come.  

Chevron was found guilty because they are guilty. Between 1964 and 1990, Texaco (which Chevron acquired in 2001) drilled for oil in a remote northern region of Ecuador's Amazon rainforest. Using obsolete technology and substandard environmental controls, the company deliberately dumped 18.5 billion gallons of highly toxic waste sludge into the streams and rivers that local people depend on for drinking, bathing, and fishing. Making many people seriously sick. The company dug over 900 open-air, unlined waste pits that continue to seep toxins into the ground. The sludge contains some of the most dangerous chemicals known -- including benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) -- in lethal concentrations.  

We in the U.S. have a responsibility to hold Chevron to this guilty verdict. It is in our country's name that Chevron has perpetrated these horrific environmental and human rights crimes. It is also in the U.S where the judgment may have to be enforced.  

Plain and simple, Chevron's executives think that because they're big and rich they can get away with anything. Yesterday, the Amazon people of Ecuador proved otherwise. Let's make sure we keep it that way.  

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