Is oil giant Chevron trying to stifle criticism of its Ecuadorian oil drilling operations by accessing private email accounts of critics?
By Alex White, The Guardian
15 July 2013
Oil giant Chevron has been granted access to "more than 100 email accounts, including environmental activists, journalists, and attorneys" involved in a long-running dispute involving damage "caused by oil drilling" in Ecuador, reports the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which, with EarthRights International (ERI), is opposing the New York court's decision says:
After years of litigation, an Ecuadorian court last year imposed a judgment of over $17 billion on Chevron for dumping toxic waste into Amazon waterways and causing massive harm to the rainforest. Instead of paying, Chevron sued more than 50 people who were involved in the Ecuador lawsuit, claiming they were part of a conspiracy to defraud the oil giant. None of the individuals represented by EFF and ERI has been sued by Chevron or accused of wrongdoing.
Both EFF and ERI have warned that Chevron's subpoenas will have a "chilling effect" on people who would speak out against the oil company's activities in Ecuador and elsewhere.
The background to the case was reported by Common Dreams staff writer Lauren McCauley:
The oil giant is demanding the records in an attempt to cull together a lawsuit which alleges that the company was the victim of a conspiracy in the $18.2 billion judgment against it for dumping 18.5 billion gallons of oil waste in the Ecuadorean Amazon, causing untold damage to the rainforest.
EarthRights International has also raised concerns that the presiding judge, Lewis Kaplan, who has been "accused of prejudice against Ecuadorians and their lawyers" made some sweeping and startling arguments in this case:
Kaplan's decision upheld Chevron's sweeping subpoena with an argument that is as breathtaking as the subpoena itself. According to Judge Kaplan, none of the accountholders could benefit from First Amendment protections since the accountholders had "not shown that they were U.S. citizens."
Now, let's break this down. The account-holders in this case were proceeding anonymously, which the First Amendment permits. Because of this, Judge Kaplan was provided with no information about the account holders' residency or places of birth. It is somewhat amazing then, that Judge Kaplan assumed that the account holders were not US citizens. As far as I know, a judge has never before made this assumption when presented with a First Amendment claim. We have to ask then: on what basis did Judge Kaplan reach out and make this assumption?
Regardless of what you think of the USA's first amendment rights, this case has some exceptionally worrying ramifications for people who oppose the environmental destruction caused by multinational oil corporations.
Chevron is one of the "rogue" fossil fuel companies named by global climate activist Bill McKibben in his Rolling Stone article, Do The Math, whose reserves, if burned, amount to a carbon bomb:
According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget.
In Australia, environmental groups and individual conservationists were targeted with SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuit against public participation), aimed at destroying community opposition to damaging developments.
David R Baker, writing in SFGate, commented in June 2013 on Chevron's litigation tactics:
That aggressive strategy has worked wonders, putting Chevron's opponents on the defensive and convincing many people that the Ecuador suit is a sham.
And you can trace much of that strategy back to a 2008 memo by San Francisco's master of crisis communications, Sam Singer.
Singer has built up an impressive practice of counseling companies, public agencies and government officials facing controversy. (Chronicle reporter Heather Knight, writing last year in our City Insider blog, called Singer the kind of crisis manager who can make shoplifting politicians seem sympathetic.) In October of 2008, he sent Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson a four-page memo outlining steps the company could take to change public perceptions of the Ecuador lawsuit.
Singer recommended going on the offensive. The company should portray Ecuador's court system as corrupt, with collusion between judges and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Pointing out the leftward tilt of Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa wouldn't hurt. And Singer recommended "counter attacks" on the plaintiffs and their legal team, particularly lead lawyer Steven Donziger.
It would appear that Chevron is using this subpoena to discourage opposition to its oil drilling operations.
You can read the court documents here (pdf).