By Atossa Soltani, San Francisco Chronicle
23 April 2008
Chevron's PR offensive against two of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize winners shows the degree to which senior management at the San Ramon-based oil major has lost its way. In this age of growing social and environmental awareness, with good corporate governance increasingly seen to have an ethical dimension, Chevron risks becoming a corporate anachronism, with executives fixated on the quarterly bottom line but lacking a long-term vision for their brand.
Lawyer Pablo Fajardo and community leader Luis Yanza were honored with the Goldman environmental prize for spearheading a class-action lawsuit against Chevron (which it inherited with its 2001 purchase of Texaco) for dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater in the Ecuadoran Amazon, triggering a public health crisis. A 1990s remediation by Texaco was so inadequate that it cost less than 1 percent of what is now thought to be the price of a true cleanup. According to a court study, the contamination has caused approximately 428 confirmed cancer deaths so far.
Earlier this month, an Ecuadoran court-appointed expert set damages against Chevron at between $7 billion and $16 billion. Should the judge rule against Chevron, the corporation will face one of the world's largest ever compensation payouts, dwarfing the damages resulting from the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Beyond the numbers, the Ecuadoran lawsuit has already set a major precedent: The extractive industries' age of operating with impunity away from the public spotlight in the developing world is nearing an end. No longer can transnational corporations simply walk away from the environmental and human tragedies associated with oil operations in remote corners of the globe.
No wonder the entire oil industry is tracking the case.
The reality of the industry's behavior in places such as Alaska, Burma, Ecuador, Nigeria and Peru has been widely publicized, and it starkly belies the soothing "green" branding. The world has changed, and it will take more than slick but vacuous advertising campaigns for the oil industry to catch up.
In September, a San Francisco court will hear from Nigerian villagers suing Chevron for its alleged involvement in the slaying of protesters at an oil platform in 1998. Other environmental or human rights abuses related to Chevron's operations are also alleged in Angola, Burma, Kazakhstan and the Philippines. Now add in the elevated cancer rates in communities in the shadow of Chevron's Richmond refinery, right in the company's backyard. Clearly, senior management at the United States' second-largest oil company is out of touch with global standards of human rights and corporate social responsibility.
One is reminded of other corporate cover-ups - Enron collapsing like a pack of cards, the tobacco industry's doomed cancer denials, and PG&E's Hinkley negligence, subsequently immortalized in the film "Erin Brockovich." Does management really want Chevron's brand tarnished with such associations?
The truth will win out. Shareholder unrest, a tainted brand and growing criticism of the squandered millions on a losing legal strategy are now catching up with Chevron, as is the slow but painstaking progress of a historic lawsuit in a modest courtroom in Ecuador's isolated northern Amazon.
One way or another, the chances are that Chevron will pay the price for its Ecuador problem either by funding a comprehensive environmental remediation there or from opportunities lost elsewhere for refusing to do so. It is now time for Chevron's board of directors to insist on an independent review of management's handling of the Ecuadoran disaster, looking at everything from the harm to Chevron's brand to the lives lost in Ecuador. Nothing less will do if the board is to live up to its fiduciary duties of providing scrutiny and checks on behalf of shareholders.
Atossa Soltani is the founder and executive director of Amazon Watch.