By David R. Baker, San Francisco Chronicle
02 March 2010
As a verdict nears in the long-running environmental lawsuit against Chevron Corp. in Ecuador, both sides are ratcheting up the pressure.
This morning, a man who says oil field contamination in Ecuador's rain forest killed two of his children will try to meet with Chevron's new chief executive officer, John Watson. Together with some of his American supporters, Emergildo Criollo will go first to Watson's home in Lafayette, then to the company's headquarters in San Ramon, carrying with him petitions signed by 325,000 people asking Chevron to settle the suit.
"It's been 16 years of legal process," Criollo said Monday, speaking through an interpreter. "People are still dying. They're sick. So we're really hoping this new CEO takes a new position."
There's little sign, however, that Watson will change the strategy set by his predecessor, David O'Reilly, who retired at the end of last year. Under O'Reilly, Chevron fought hard against the lawsuit, which is slowly playing out in the courthouse of the small Ecuadoran town Lago Agrio.
Chevron fired its latest salvo three weeks ago, accusing a key court-appointed expert of hiding a conflict of interest that the company says should disqualify him from participating in the trial.
The expert, Richard Cabrera, estimated in a 2008 report that Chevron should pay $27.3 billion in damages and remediation costs if it loses the suit. According to Chevron, Cabrera did not disclose to the court his ownership of an oil field cleanup company that is registered to work with Petroecuador, the state-run company that still pumps oil in the region.
"We've got Cabrera, who appears to be lining his own pocket through his work," said Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson. "Cabrera's report is a fraud."
Representatives for the plaintiffs replied that Petroecuador isn't a party to the case, eliminating any potential conflict.
Both sides are pursuing much the same strategies that they have for years.
Chevron has sought to chip away at the credibility of the trial process and the people involved in it, including Cabrera and one of the previous judges. With Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa publicly stating his support for the plaintiffs, the company argues that the entire process has been tainted by politics and corruption.
The plaintiffs, working with American lawyers and activists, have focused on winning over the public. They favor camera-friendly events, such as Criollo's trip to Lafayette and San Ramon, that will rally public support to their cause and put pressure on Chevron to settle. The Rainforest Action Network, one of the groups supporting the plaintiffs in the case, recently placed ads in the New York Times with a picture of Watson, calling on him to change the company's position.
Different incarnations of the lawsuit stretch back to 1993. At first, they didn't involve Chevron.
Texaco pumped oil in Ecuador from 1964 to 1992, working in partnership with Petroecuador. As part of its operations there, Texaco dumped a mix of crude oil and water into open pits near the wells. When Texaco left the country, it agreed to clean up a portion of the area, while Petroecuador continued to operate the wells.
Chevron inherited the lawsuit when it bought Texaco in 2001. The company argues that any further cleanup in the area should be Petroecuador's responsibility.