By George Avalos, Contra Costa Times
28 May 2008
SAN RAMON - Despite a record-setting financial performance in 2007, Chevron Corp. faced a fusillade of criticism about its operations in several countries during the company's shareholders meeting here Wednesday.
Protesters attired in colorful garb held picket signs a few hundred yards from a room at Chevron's San Ramon headquarters where the shareholders gathered. Inside the room, company officers reviewed a dynamic set of financial results in 2007 and sketched strategies to build on that success during 2008.
"2007 was another strong year for Chevron," said Peter Robertson, Chevron's vice chairman. "We achieved a fourth-consecutive year of record earnings." Chevron's profit of $18.7 billion, Robertson added, was "the largest year-over-year percentage improvement of our peer group."
Yet Chevron is being besieged on multiple fronts over its activities in Ecuador, Myanmar, Iraq, Nigeria and other countries. The company also is taking heat as gasoline prices skyrocket.
Activists appeared at the meeting Wednesday to offer questions and comments about Chevron's overseas actions. One comment about an incident in 1998 in Nigeria produced a rebuke from Chevron's top executive.
The incident occurred in late May 1998, when protesters from a village took 200 Chevron and contract employees hostage, according to news accounts. Chevron negotiated with the protesters, but the hostage situation on an oil platform continued.
Nigerian police killed two protesters and removed others, ending the incident and liberating the hostages.
"Ten years ago today, I was shot by soldiers bought and paid for by Chevron," Larry Bowoto, a Nigerian, said at the shareholders meeting. Bowoto said he and the other villagers were unarmed. "We were there to protest the loss of our fish, our clean drinking water and our food trees, all of which are taken from us when Chevron pollutes and destroys our homeland," Bowoto said.
David O'Reilly, Chevron chairman and CEO, criticized Bowoto's comments.
"This is the most outrageous presentation I have ever seen as chairman of Chevron," O'Reilly said.
Other skepticism emerged about Texaco's oil operations in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. Chevron bought Texaco in 2001 and now must contend with a multibillion-dollar lawsuit linked to widespread pollution in Ecuador.
Texaco operated numerous oil wells in Ecuador, partnering with Petroecuador, that nation's government-owned oil company. In 1993, residents and tribal leaders from Ecuador sued Texaco over oil contamination in that area, where Texaco operated from 1972 to 1990. Petroecuador took over the operation after 1990.
Mercedes Jaramillo, a citizen of Ecuador, said she was born next to an oil well operated by Texaco.
"We don't have any water to drink because it is contaminated," Jaramillo said. "We can't cultivate our lands."
The pollution has caused Jaramillo and her brothers to suffer a skin disease, she said.
"There are problems in Ecuador," O'Reilly said in response. "The indigenous people have been treated badly. But Chevron is the wrong target here."
Chevron was also questioned about its involvement as a minority partner in a French company's oil venture in Myanmar. Activists accuse Myanmar's ruling military junta of human rights abuses. They demand that Chevron press the country's military rulers to halt the misdeeds.
"I really want you to think about the human rights abuses" in Myanmar, said Naw Musi, a native and a refugee from the junta's activities. "People are dying."
One shareholder, Shelton Ehrlich of Palo Alto, said he is unhappy with Chevron's numerous opponents.
"I've really gotten fed up with criticism of this company," Ehrlich said. "Chevron wouldn't have to be in Burma (Myanmar) if it could drill in the United States. They wouldn't be messing around in these faraway places if they could do it in the U.S."
In a brief interview with this paper after the meeting, O'Reilly indicated that the company's domestic and overseas operations could help slow the rise in crude oil prices. He said there is often a lag period between increased production and lower prices.
"More production will come on stream in 2009 and 2010," O'Reilly said. "That should tend to moderate prices."