By David R. Baker, San Francisco Chronicle
29 May 2012
San Francisco, CA – For many Chevron Corp. investors, Wednesday's annual shareholders meeting in San Ramon represents a chance to hear top management extol their company's profit and plans for the future.
For activists drawn to the meeting from around the world, it's a chance to confront a company they say has poisoned their land, water and air.
In what has become an annual event, activists from places as far-flung as Angola, Brazil, Nigeria and the East Bay gathered Tuesday in San Francisco to criticize Chevron - and urge the company to change its ways.
The loose coalition, known as the True Cost of Chevron Network, has for years used the company's shareholders meetings to present a united front to Chevron management and plead with shareholders to join their cause. The activists held a news conference and teach-in on Tuesday, and plan to protest outside the gates of Chevron headquarters during Wednesday's meeting. Some will try to enter the meeting and address shareholders directly.
"Chevron's definitely dealing with a lot of legal problems, and with them, investors are being exposed to greater financial risk," said Ginger Cassady, director of the Change Chevron campaign at the Rainforest Action Network environmental group.
Chevron executives have compared the network's reports and public statements to a funhouse mirror, distorting reality beyond all recognition.
"The facts tell a different story," said Chevron spokesman Brent Tippen on Tuesday. "They show that we respect the law, we support universal human rights, we work hard to protect the environment and we operate in a way that benefits the communities where we work."
But the activists will come to this year's meeting with more ammunition than usual.
Chevron has faced a difficult year abroad. An appeals court in Ecuador upheld an $18 billion judgment against the company in a long-running pollution lawsuit, a judgment that Chevron argues was the result of fraud. In Brazil, an offshore oil spill in November has led to fines against the company and criminal charges against several Chevron employees. In January, a gas explosion at an offshore rig near Nigeria killed two people.
Network activists hope the confluence of so many problems will force Chevron executives to change their approach to safety, both for workers and the environment.
"If they perceive that they're forced to have a long-term vision, they'll change," said João Antonio de Moraes, general coordinator of the United Federation of Oil Workers in Brazil, speaking through a translator. "If they persist in only thinking of profits, I think they're going to fall, they're going to fail. I don't see a future for big companies if they don't respect the environment, communities and government."
The activists also hope that their pressure, and that of the Brazilian government, finally prods Chevron into settling the lawsuit in Ecuador.
Chevron has vowed not to pay the judgment and no longer has any assets in Ecuador that its opponents there can seize. But it does have a major investment in Brazil, particularly in the offshore Frade field that was the source of November's leak. The Ecuadorans suing Chevron could try to seize some of the company's Brazilian assets if the company doesn't settle.
"I think the Brazilian case will help the Ecuadoran communities obtain justice," said Robinson Yumbo, president of the National Indigenous Federation of the Cofan Tribe in Ecuador, speaking through a translator. "Now that the ruling (in Ecuador) is final and enforceable, let's see if Chevron actually realizes that its economic interests are finally being affected, that Chevron cannot continue to delay, delay, delay."
Last week, the New York State Common Retirement Fund joined 39 other institutional investors calling on Chevron to settle the suit, arguing that the company's efforts to fight the judgment were only damaging its reputation. The company has rebuffed similar calls before, from many of the same investors.
"Chevron does not believe that the Ecuador judgment is enforceable in any court that observes the rule of law," Tippen said.