Chevron Lobbies White House to
Pressure Ecuador to Stop $12 Billion Amazon Pollution Lawsuit
an Amy Goodman interview
Chevron is being accused of promoting
geopolitical blackmail in its efforts to stave off a lawsuit accusing
it of contaminating the Ecuadorian rain forest. Nearly 30,000
Amazon residents are seeking $12 billion from Chevron for dumping
billions of gallons of toxic oil waste. According to Newsweek,
the oil giant is urging the Bush administration to yank special
trade preferences for Ecuador if the country's government doesn't
force the Amazon residents to drop the case. If the White House
agrees, it would be the second major lobbying victory for Chevron
in just a matter of weeks. Last month, the Senate dropped an effort
to penalize Chevron for maintaining extensive ties to the military
junta in Burma.
Michael Isikoff, investigative correspondent
for Newsweek. He wrote about Chevron's lobbying efforts against
the Ecuador lawsuit in last week's issue of Newsweek. The article
is called "A Sixteen Billion Dollar Problem."
Atossa Soltani, Executive Director of
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Chevron, the
oil giant based in California that's being accused of promoting
geopolitical blackmail in its effort to stave off a lawsuit accusing
it of contaminating the Ecuadorian Amazon rain forest. Nearly
30,000 Amazon residents are seeking $12 billion from Chevron for
dumping billions of gallons of toxic oil waste. Activists have
described the disaster as an Amazon Chernobyl.
Earlier this year, a court-appointed expert
recommended Chevron be required to pay up to $16 billion to clean
up the rain forest. Now, Newsweek magazine has revealed new details
of how Chevron is lobbying the Bush administration to pressure
Ecuador. Chevron is urging the Bush administration to yank special
trade preferences for Ecuador if the country's government doesn't
force the Amazon residents to drop the case.
Chevron's lobbying team includes former
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, former Democratic Senator John
Breaux, and Wayne Berman, a top fundraiser for John McCain. The
Ecuadorian government has staunchly backed the case. In an interview
for Democracy Now! earlier this year, Ecuadorian President Rafael
Correa told journalist Greg Palast "Ecuador is no longer
PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: Well, with these
lawsuits, well, they don't go to interrupt the oil production
in the third world. They go to push these big international companies
in order to be a lot more careful when they want to extract our
oil, because they did and they do in the third world things that
they don't do in the first world. So it's a double standard.
Ecuador is no longer on sale, you know? Now, Ecuador has a sovereign
and nationalist government. That is the huge different-difference,
AMY GOODMAN: That's the Ecuadorian President
The Bush administration has confirmed
it's considering Chevron's request to pressure Ecuador to drop
the case. If the White House agrees, it would be the second major
lobbying victory for Chevron in just a matter of weeks. Last month,
the Senate dropped an effort to penalize Chevron for maintaining
extensive ties with the military junta in Burma. The Senate approved
new trade sanctions against Burma but excluded a provision that
would have eliminated a large Chevron tax break. Burmese activists
had supported the provision to pressure Chevron to end its ties
with the junta. The measure had been named after the late Tom
Lantos, a Burma advocate and the only US lawmaker to have survived
the Nazi Holocaust.
Well, to talk about these developments,
I'm joined by three guests. I'm going to start with Michael Isikoff
, investigative reporter with Newsweek magazine, who broke the
story on Chevron's recent lobbying of the Bush administration
to pressure Ecuador.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Michael, can
you lay out what exactly is happening around this lawsuit against
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, as you pointed
out, Amy, there was the finding by the court-appointed expert
a few months ago, which held that Chevron could be liable for
up to $16 billion in this lawsuit. And at that point, Chevron
stepped up its lobbying campaign in Washington, essentially, to
take the case-get the case out of Ecuador and make its pitch in
Washington. The specific proposal that it has publicly filed with
the US Trade Commission is that Ecuador be denied benefits under
the Andean trade preference program, which expires at the end
of the year, unless it take action to essentially squash the legal
It has hired a formidable lobbying team,
as we reported-John Breaux, Trent Lott, Wayne Berman and a host
of others-who have been pressing the case, both within the Bush
administration and in the White House and Special Trade office,
the State Department-a Chevron executive recently met with Deputy
Secretary of State John Negroponte on this-and in Congress.
Now, I should point out that the plaintiffs'
lawyers here and Ecuador do have a potential key ally. This first
came up a couple of years ago, the idea that Chevron might go
to Washington. The chief plaintiffs' lawyer, Steve Donziger, did
go to an old Harvard Law School friend of his, the junior senator
from Illinois, Barack Obama, laid out what Chevron was trying
to do, and Barack Obama, together with Patrick Leahy, did write
a letter to then-US trade rep Rob Portman, urging him not to take
any action that would take this away from the Ecuadorian court
system. So Obama is on record as being against what Chevron wants
to do, and Obama's office reaffirmed his stand on that as recently
as two weeks ago, when I wrote the story.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote that after Donziger
took this story to Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois.
Obama consulted with the senior senator from Vermont, Patrick
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Correct. Leahy has a
long history of working on Latin American human rights issues.
He's on the-one of the subcommittees that deals with that. And
so, Obama, after hearing Steve Donziger lay out the case of what
Chevron was trying to do, his office then consulted with Leahy's
office, and they agreed to write this letter that was sent, actually,
in 2006 on this. But it pretty much staked out Obama's position
on where he is on this. So that has given, as I reported, you
know, some special urgency to Chevron's lobbying campaign. I mean,
I think they want this action taken against Ecuador this year,
some fearing, perhaps rightly, that the prospect of an Obama presidency,
they'll get a much less favorable hearing in Washington than they
might get now in the Bush administration.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the
effect of Chevron, before Chevron-it's ChevronTexaco now, it was
Texaco-in the Amazon and wanted to bring into the discussion Atossa
Soltani, who is executive director of Amazon Watch, a group that's
worked closely with the Amazon residents suing Chevron.
Welcome to Democracy Now! I wanted to
ask you about just the origins of this suit and what the Amazon
residents, these tens of thousands of residents, are claiming.
ATOSSA SOLTANI: Well, this suit was initially
brought by Texaco in 1993, but-by residents of the Amazon disaster
in 1993. The court case was initially filed in New York courts.
And after ten years of Chevron arguing and presenting motion after
motion asking that the court case be moved to Ecuador, the case
was finally sent to Ecuador in 2002.
And so, this case has to do with the fact
that for-from 1964 until 1990, Texaco operated in an area of the
Amazon Basin that was the size of Rhode Island, and they dug over
900 open waste oil pits, drilled over 350 wells, and dumped over
18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the rivers and streams
of this area that was formerly a pristine rain forest. Now, this
is a practice that was in breach of industry standards and even
illegal here in the United States at the time.
So, in breach of their own, you know,
industry standards, Chevron-back then, Texaco-made a decision
to save what would amount to $1 to $3 a barrel by not installing
a reinjection system that would have prevented all this pollution.
They also did not line the pits, so that every time-you know,
so that the oil waste and the drilling muds and all of that seeped
into the groundwater and contaminated the rivers and streams upon
which the local people depend on. I mean, there is no plumbing
in this part of the world. People live off the rivers and streams.
They fish and bathe and use water from the surface-from sources
in the rivers.
And so, in this case, you have a situation
where 30,000 people are poisoning themselves on a daily basis
living in this area. So you have high rates of cancer, birth defects.
The court-appointed expert, actually, in his reports attributed
428 deaths to the Texaco disaster, and that's just, we think,
you know, totally underestimating the real number, because most
of the people in this area don't have access to medical facilities
or never get tested and pretty much find out too late that they're
So this is a serious case. Texaco, now
Chevron, argued for ten years that this case should be sent in
Ecuador, and now that their own samples and the court case is
going poorly for them, they're now saying that the case-the trial
is not fair.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of Ecuador in
supporting this lawsuit of the tens of thousands of Amazonian
residents, what power does it have in this lawsuit, Atossa?
ATOSSA SOLTANI: This-I didn't hear your
question. Can you please repeat?
AMY GOODMAN: The power that the Ecuadorian
government has in this lawsuit?
ATOSSA SOLTANI: Well, first of all, for-again,
for over the last five years, Chevron has tried with previous
administrations to do everything it can in its power to get the
Ecuadorian government to dismiss this case-the Ecuadorian court
systems to dismiss this case without luck. Now, this is-you know,
what this case has the power to do is really-Chevron, for the
first time, is standing trial in an area where it operated without-you
know, up to now [with] impunity. It is now being asked to stand
trial and face justice. And we have to let the judicial process
have its course. You know, this is Chevron's attempt to interfere
with the due process of law, a pillar of democracy. So the fact
that, you know, Texaco argued this case deserves to be heard in
Ecuador, that Ecuador was a fair and transparent court system,
and then had to go and basically present itself in the jurisdiction
of the Ecuadorian courts, is where it is now, and now, you know,
the US court did say that that was the condition upon sending
the case to Ecuador, that basically Chevron would submit itself
to the jurisdiction of Ecuadorian courts. Now that things are
going badly for Chevron, I think it's now trying to squash this
And, you know, it's outrageous that, in
the Isikoff article, Chevron's spokesperson was quoted as saying,
"We can't let little countries screw around with big companies
like this." I think this is ultimately what this is about:
Chevron is used to bullying its way and, you know, playing power
politics. And this is not working out for them in Ecuador.
For the rest of the world, what this case
means, I think this is really a signal to the oil industry that
the days of operating in areas [with] impunity are over and that,
really, there is a way for communities in the developing world
to bring corporations to justice.
AMY GOODMAN: If Chevron were to get what
it wants, Michael Isikoff, an ending to the special trade preferences
for Ecuador, what would that mean for this South American country?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, it would have a
devastating impact on large segments of the Ecuadorian economy
that depend on exports to the United States-broccoli, flowers.
There are a number of economic sectors that are heavily dependent
on these Andean trade preferences, which have been, you know,
part of the law for the last several years. So, the Ecuadorian
ambassador to the United States told me this would have an enormous
disruption on his country's economy. Ecuador is a relatively impoverished
country to begin with, so to lose something like these trade benefits
would be-you know, would have a real impact.
AMY GOODMAN: So this is a race to the
finish here, Chevron pushing very hard in Washington, when you
have the prospect of an Obama presidency.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right. I should also
point out that the Andean trade preferences law expires at the
end of the year anyway, so it does need a renewal. I think what
the Chevron people want is an amendment attached to the trade
benefits bill this year, which they can get in Congress, if the
Bush administration does not act, that would have the effect of
doing what they want, that would either remove Ecuador or require
Ecuador to be removed if it doesn't take the sort of action on
the legal case that Chevron is seeking.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Isikoff, I
want to thank you for being with us from the streets of Washington,
D.C. I want to thank Atossa Soltani for joining us in Los Angeles.
And I want to turn now to the second part
of Chevron's case. It is a story I mentioned in the lede about
last month's decision, the Senate dropping an effort to penalize
Chevron for maintaining extensive ties to the military junta in
Burma, the Senate approving new trade sanctions against Burma
but excluding a provision that would have eliminated a large Chevron
tax break. Burmese activists have supported the provision to pressure
Chevron to end its ties to the junta. The measure had been named
after the late Tom Lantos, the California congressman who was
a Burma advocate, survived the Holocaust, the only member of the
Congress to have survived the Holocaust.
We're joined now by Marco Simons, legal
director of Earth Rights International. The significance of this
defeat for pro-democracy activists in Burma and the major role
that the California Senator Dianne Feinstein played in the defeat?
MARCO SIMONS: Well, it's hard to say exactly
what role Senator Feinstein played, although we do know that she
has been close to Chevron in the past. But I don't want to overstate
the importance of this provision in the context of the overall
Burma sanctions measure, and I don't want to overstate Chevron's
power on Capitol Hill.
ATOSSA SOLTANI: It's really low.
MARCO SIMONS: Sorry, can you hear me now?
AMY GOODMAN: We hear you just fine.
MARCO SIMONS: OK. I don't want to overstate
Chevron's power on Capitol Hill, because, frankly, this provision
was a fairly minor provision in the overall context of the sanctions.
This provision would have targeted about $30 million in tax write-offs
that Chevron gets to avoid double taxation between the Burmese
military junta and the US government. But the much bigger picture
of Chevron's project in Burma, which is a massive natural gas
project, is that this project provides about a billion dollars
annually in hard currency to the Burmese junta, which is a massive
proportion of that regime's income. So, in the grand scheme of
things, this is a relatively small part of the sanctions. And
what may be much more significant to the regime itself is not
Chevron's tax preferences, but financial sanctions that may-that
are part of this bill that may help to cut off the flow of cash
to the regime.
If this provision had really been targeting
something that would have gone directly to the junta's bottom
line, that would have really effected the cash flowing into the
regime, I don't know that Chevron would have had the power to
stop it, because in recent years, while Chevron certainly does
have power on Capitol Hill, they have not actually had the power
to get Congress, for example, to dismiss other human rights lawsuits
against Chevron. Chevron lobbied very forcefully to cause amendments
to the Alien Tort Statute, a human rights law under which Chevron
is being sued for human rights abuses in Nigeria, for example,
and that lobbying effort failed. And they failed to get the US
State Department to intervene in the case, to say that this case
would interfere with foreign policy with Nigeria. So-
AMY GOODMAN: People may be surprised to
know that Chevron is the only US multinational corporation, oil
company, grandfathered in, that is allowed to operate in Burma
right now. Can you explain that and how significant Chevron's
support for the Yadana pipeline is for the Burmese regime's continuation?
MARCO SIMONS: Sure. The Yadana pipeline
itself is immensely important for the Burmese regime. It probably
provides somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of the hard currency
income to the regime, which is vital for it to purchase arms and
other materiel that it needs to get on international markets.
And the Yadana pipeline came online about ten years ago, and before
that point, the regime was facing a tremendous shortage of hard
currency, was almost in a financial meltdown, and then, suddenly,
hundreds of millions of dollars annually, up to a billion dollars
now, were injected into the regime's coffers, and it's been keeping
it afloat for the last ten years.
Chevron's participation in that is somewhat
less significant, because the project goes on with or without
Chevron. So, regardless of whether Chevron stays in or pulls out,
this billion dollars annually is still flowing to the military
regime. That money doesn't come from Chevron. The money comes
from Thailand, because Thailand is buying the gas. So, until you
stop Thailand from paying for the gas, or until you cause banks
to stop processing those payments, the money is still going to
be flowing to the regime's coffers. Chevron's participation is
offensive, in that it's definitely profiting off of human rights
abuses against the Burmese people, but whether Chevron stays or
goes doesn't necessarily make a huge difference to the junta itself.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I'll leave it there.
Marco Simons, thanks so much for being with us, legal director
of Earth Rights International, speaking to us from Washington,