By Michael Liedtke, Associated Press
25 April 2007
In what has become an annual rite, Chevron Corp.'s opponents in a South American environmental and legal quagmire have come to the United States in an effort to sway consumers, investors and politicians to support their cause.
The latest public relations campaign culminated during the San Ramon-based company's shareholders' meeting Wednesday when a delegation from Ecuadorean rain forests contaminated by decades of oil drilling confronted Chevron Chairman David O'Reilly.
As a prelude to that showdown, Chevron's Ecuadorean foes had hoped to recruit a powerful political ally in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been attracting national attention for promoting environmentally friendly policies. Chevron has paid its respects to Schwarzenegger by making more than $600,000 in political contributions since 2003.
Schwarzenegger turned down the Ecuadoreans' meeting request because of scheduling conflicts, spokesman Aaron McLear said Tuesday. Schwarzenegger offered to arrange for one of his senior staff members to meet with the group, but that gesture was rebuffed, McLear said.
"Everyone has their own ideas of what it is to be an environmentalist and to protect the environment," Schwarzenegger said during a Tuesday press conference in response to a question about why he declined to personally meet with the Ecuadoreans.
This marks the fourth consecutive year that a handful of the 30,000 jungle settlers and Amazon Indians represented in a class-action lawsuit against Chevron have protested at the company's meeting. The lawsuit seeks to force the second largest U.S. oil company to pay for an estimated $6 billion in clean-up costs.
Chevron has steadfastly denied any responsibility for the mess and instead blamed the Ecuadorean government, which held the majority stake in a joint oil venture that operated from 1964 through 1992.
The dispute has been embroiled in the courts for 14 years. After beginning in U.S. federal court, the bitter battle shifted in 2003 to a makeshift courtroom in the Ecuadorean village of Lago Agrio, which means "sour lake." The trial, which will be decided by a judge, isn't likely to be completed until next year. The appeals process could last two to three years after that.
Since the trial began 3 1/2 years ago, Chevron has earned $45 billion while its stock price has more than doubled, creating about $85 billion in shareholder wealth. Chevron shares closed Tuesday at $77.10, down 46 cents, on the New York Stock Exchange.
Meanwhile, the lawyers targeting Chevron say Ecuadorean villagers are still dying from cancer and other serious health problems caused by the 18.5 billion gallons of oily wastewater that the lawsuit alleges was dumped over 1,700 square miles of rain forest.
The alleged abuses occurred under Texaco Inc., which Chevron bought for $39 billion in 2001. Texaco spent $40 million cleaning up the Ecuadorean oil pits from 1995 to 1998, an investment that satisfied the Ecuadorean government at the time.
This year's effort to pressure Chevron into settling the lawsuit is being led by Pablo Fajardo, a former Ecuadorean farmer who became the lead attorney in the case against the oil company two years ago. Vanity Fair magazine detailed Fajardo's David-versus-Goliath crusade in a lengthy profile published in its May issue.
The previous efforts to turn up the heat on Chevron have included appearances by Bianca Jagger, a former actress who became a social activist after divorcing rock-and-roll star Mick Jagger.
Speaking through an interpreter Tuesday, Fajardo said he decided to come to California for the first time in his life to focus more attention on how Chevron behaves outside the United States.
"Our people don't want money. They just want to be able to live their lives with dignity," Fajardo, 34, said. "The truth is the operations of Chevron in Ecuador are contributing to the destruction of humanity."
In a statement Tuesday, Chevron said Fajardo and other opposing lawyers in the class-action have consistently distorted the case's facts in an attempt "to extort a settlement by attacking Chevron's reputation and integrity."
Fajardo still hopes to persuade Schwarzenegger to visit Ecuador so he can get see the damage caused by the country's poisoned rain forests. Schwarzenegger still hasn't had a chance to review all the material that Fajardo sent him, but plans to issue a "very thorough response" after he does, McLear said.