By Kate Ackley, Roll Call
7 February 2006
Two Democratic Senators have sent U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman a letter urging the trade negotiator's office not to intervene in a lawsuit filed against Chevron in Ecuador.
Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.) said in their letter to Portman that they don't want the oil company to use trade talks over the Andean Free Trade Agreement to leverage its way out of the lawsuit in Ecuador.
Roll Call reported in November that plaintiffs in the case, which was brought by indigenous Amazon rainforest residents, wrote a letter complaining to lawmakers about lobbying by Chevron.
"Chevron is reportedly lobbying Members of Congress and your office to use the leverage of the Andean Free Trade Agreement to pressure Ecuador to dismiss the case," Obama and Leahy said in their letter. "While we are not prejudging the outcome of the case, we do believe the 30,000 indigenous residents of Ecuador deserve their day in court."
The rainforest residents allege that a subsidiary of Texaco, which was later acquired by Chevron, dumped oil waste that has polluted their area. The Obama-Leahy letter said that experts consulted by the plaintiffs estimate cleanup costs to be about $6 billion.
Chevron spokesman Jeff Moore said Texaco Petroleum performed a $40 million environmental remediation program, which was inspected and approved by the government of Ecuador. The government then released Texaco Petroleum from any further obligation.
"To date, the government of Ecuador has failed to honor that contractual obligation. We believe that is a legitimate issue the U.S. government should be aware of when negotiating a new trade agreement with the government of Ecuador," Moore said.
He also said that last week court-appointed experts in Ecuador issued a report saying one of the sites in question had been successfully "remediated" by Texaco Petroleum. "We believe the plaintiffs' trumped up concerns are intended to divert attention from the fact that their legal case is falling apart in Ecuador," he said.
A spokeswoman for the USTR office did not provide a comment in time for deadline.
A Leahy aide said the two Senators had not yet gotten a response to their USTR letter. The aide added that Leahy has long had an interest in environmental issues and matters that relate to indigenous people.
Leahy serves on the Appropriations subcommittee on State, foreign operations and related programs. Obama is on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Meanwhile, Amazon Watch, an environmental group, recently filed a request with the Securities and Exchange Commission, saying Chevron should report in its SEC filings the potential liability from the suit.
"Chevron can't have it both ways," said Steven Donziger, a New York lawyer representing the plaintiffs, who contributed $1,000 to Obama's campaign in 2004. "They can't pay high-priced lobbyists to undermine the rule of law in Ecuador, while at the same time telling their shareholders the case is no big deal and requires no disclosure in its public filings."
Moore said that, on the SEC issue, the lawsuit doesn't seek a specific amount of money and called the idea that Chevron was withholding information from shareholders "preposterous." The company, he said, has devoted an entire Web site, in English and Spanish, to providing details on the case.