Tuesday, May 18, 2010

BP, Chevron, and the Gulf spill: Lessons for CEO John Watson

Chevron CEO Watson: Open to new lessons?

Lost in the news about BP's Gulf spill is that Chevron has admitted dumping billions of gallons of oil sludge into Ecuador's Amazon, on purpose. Unlike BP, Chevron's executives, led by CEO John Watson, have not acknowledged they have any responsibility for the disastrous impacts on the environment and the damage caused to human health.

As background, thousands of indigenous persons and farmers from Ecuador's Amazon have been in litigation against Chevron over the damage for almost two decades. The case was filed in U.S. federal court in 1993, but shifted to Ecuador at Chevron's request as part of its stratagem to evade accountability. Now that the trial in Ecuador is almost over and the evidence clearly stacks up against Chevron, the oil giant is looking for what it hopes will be greener courtroom pastures.

Chevron is accused of deliberately discharging more than 18 billion gallons of "produced water" (salty water which contains chemicals, including at times the carcinogen benzene) into the rivers and streams of this once pristine ecosystem covering an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. Texaco, now owned by Chevron, operated a large oil concession there from 1964 to 1990 and was the mastermind of the polluting scheme that Chevron now defends. (When Chevron bought Texaco in 2001, Watson was the young Chevron executive in charge of the integration of the companies.)

In a classic example of corporate colonialism, Chevron's public relations flaks have called the indigenous leaders behind the lawsuit everything from liars to con men. Chevron has even claimed that the higher incidences of cancer, spontaneous miscarriages, birth defects, and other diseases are due to a lack of "sanitation" and the poor personal hygiene of the local residents. It's the theory that body odor causes cancer.

Creepy, to say the least.

Chevron has admitted that it had dumped more than 15 billion gallons of "produced water" into the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. "Produced Water" is ten times saltier than ocean water. In Ecuador, it equates roughly to 2% pure crude oil, meaning that Chevron had admitted dumping more than 30x the amount of oil spilled in the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster.

Yet the Valdez disaster (like the BP situation in the Gulf) was still an accident -- in Ecuador, the disaster was deliberately planned by Chevron as a mechanism to save costs.

Click to take a look at the advertisement placed by Chevron during the trial in a leading Ecuadorian newspaper. In the ad, the company admits that it dumped billions of gallons of produced water in to the Amazon – with the admission highlighted.

The advertisement – which was purchased by Chevron lawyer Rodrigo Perez Pallares – translates to: "3. While in Ecuador, the consortium poured 15.834 billion gallons between 1972 and 1990 during the entire period of Texaco's operation of the consortium, i.e. an annual average of 880 million gallons."

Talk about an admission of guilt. With lawyers like Perez Pallares, it is no wonder Chevron is having a hard time evading its liability in Ecuador.

In the advertisement Perez Pallares plainly admits that Chevron discharged toxic waste – and experts advising the plaintiffs have estimated, based on well records, that Chevron is undercounting the amount of produced water it dumped. The real number is over 18 billion gallons.

Chevron tries to blame Petroecuador for the problem, given that Texaco turned over this substandard operating system to that company in 1992. Yet Texaco was the party that exclusively designed, engineered, constructed and operated this system – sort of like of building the Valdez with a big hole in its hull, thereby guaranteeing it would gush oil as it cruised the world's oceans.

Petroecuador has now converted over to "reinjection wells" and is no longer discharging produced water. That is, this cash-strapped company already has done far more to protect the environment than cash-flush Chevron ever did with its First World technology.

Chevron won't cop to its misconduct. Instead, the oil giant claims that the "produced water" is safe to discharge into the sensitive ecosystem of the rainforest – no matter what alarm bells scientists ring. Perez Pallares and Chevron's other lawyers have made this preposterous claim during the trial while sipping bottled water imported from Quito.

Chevron needs to understand is that it is not legally or morally permissible to dump billions of gallons of cancer-causing industrial run-off into the drinking water of your neighbors just so you can inflate your profits. In this case, the drinking water was that of indigenous groups in Ecuador that had lived prosperously in the rainforest for centuries until Texaco showed up.

In its 26 years in Ecuador, Chevron never conducted a single environmental impact study or health evaluation. It never released any test results to determine the level of toxicity of the sludge it was discharging. That's either outright deception, or willful blindness. It is still practiced today by Chevron's executives, none of whom have visited the disaster zone in Ecuador.

It is high time for Chevron's executives to accept responsibility for the harm and destruction their company continues to cause in Ecuador. They might start by admitting that Texaco and Perez Pallares used the fraudulent TCLP laboratory test to lie to Ecuador's government about a purported clean-up in the mid-1990s, for which the company received a "release" from certain government officials.

Compared to Chevron's executives, BP's managers are starting to look like saints. They at least grunt about accepting responsibility. BP engineers at least seem to be trying to stem the awful leak.

They have a long way to go, but in the Gulf they are a marathon's distance ahead of Chevron's John Watson in Ecuador.

Visit www.chevrontoxico.com for more information.