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Don’t mess with Chevron

February 17, 2021
tags:#Chevron, #oil and gas industry, #pollution, #Niger-Delta, #Israel, #conservation, #human rights
located:Israel, Nigeria, Ecuador, Kazakhstan
by:Ari Libsker
“I’ll never forget the day of the massive explosion,” said Isabella Zizi (26), a Native American woman who grew up in Richmond, California, half a kilometer away from the refinery of the oil giant Chevron.

“It was 6 August, 2012. We sat, the whole family together, in the yard when suddenly the sun disappeared behind a huge, black cloud of smoke. It was terrifying," she went on. "At first we thought a fire broke out at some large warehouse, but my mom immediately knew it was the refinery and told us to get inside right away and shut all the doors and windows. The smoke started to spread everywhere very quickly; it stayed in the air for five straight days, and along with it a terrible stench of a rotten swamp. It was difficult to breathe.

“Several days later, Chevron held a meeting with the city’s residents. Their representative explained that there was no cause for concern; that it was merely a malfunction in one of the pipes and did not pose a health hazard. They repeated this again and again, even as 15,000 residents of the area went to get tested at hospitals. I will never forget the line at the entrance to the hospital: countless people suffered from coughing, intense burns in the nose, chest pain, and shortages of breath.”

Following the investigation into the incident, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that the cause for the accident was Chevron’s recklessness, as it did not replace old equipment (such as 40 year-old pipes) and ignored the recommendations of experts on the matter. Chevron refused to take full responsibility over the incident, and refused to change its manner of conduct. 

According to Paul Paz y Mino of Amazon Watch (an NGO working to protect the Amazon and its indigenous populations), “Instead of assuming responsibility over its actions and increasing oversight over its operations, Chevron spent millions of dollars on local elections in order to help elect representatives that will be sympathetic to it and useful for it. This is the company’s behaviour pattern wherever it operates.”

“Richmond is a sacrifice zone,” says Zizi. “[Chevron’s] factories have caused great health and economic damage in our area, and ever since I can remember its presence has been very dominant in my life - from my mom’s stories before I was born and till today, as someone who works in north-Richmond and sees the factory from my work’s window. Only two days ago there had been another small explosion here and a wave of pollution.”

What would you like Chevron to do?

“To distance its refineries from this area, where so many people live. But Chevron wouldn't do it because it looks down upon the area’s residents - people whose faces are brown or yellow or black and whose income is low. These are people who are weakened, who can’t partake in social mobility, who cannot leave this place and become doctors or engineers.”

Unpaid tax debt pulls a nation into bankruptcy  

Most Israelis have probably not heard of Chevron until two months ago, when the company decided to acquire Noble Energy - the drilling partner in the Tamar and Leviathan liquid natural gas deposits along Israel’s shores - for 4.2 billion Shekels.

But over the brief time period that has passed since the purchase, the company’s name has remained in news headlines: first when it refused to provide the country’s electric company with gas at the reduced price that the other partners at the Tamar gas deposit had agreed upon, and later on when the Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Energy has warned the Knesset (parliament)  of evident tax evasion schemes plotted by the gas companies. 

Negative headlines, local protests and conflict with governments are far from being foreign to Chevron - a company that was founded in the 19th century, operates in 180 countries and is worth $140 billion. A comprehensive and staggering report compiled by the American environmental anthropologist Dr. Nan Greer for the Knesset’s Environmental and Internal Affairs Committee, has revealed “a disgusting and shocking picture of a company refusing to comply with social, environmental, and taxpaying responsibilities - a company that litigates until silence from its victims, refusing legal compliance at all costs. I found this approach repeated in country after country.”

Greer is the Executive Director of Alistar International, an NGO working in indigenous rights around the world, and has been working in this field for over 25 years. On 8 September, she was invited to the committee, headed by PM Miki Haimovich, as a guest of the Zalul Foundation, which called for a session over Chevron’s arrival in Israel. 

Greer’s research examined 31 countries in which Chevron operates, and has found 65 lawsuits filed against it. 71 percent of them dealt with severe violations of oversight and environmental regulations. For instance, Greer mentioned, Chevron had refused to cover the costs of clean up operations from pollution it caused in 15 countries, among them the United States, China, Brazil and Poland. The company has also refused to shut down its sites of operation when safety hazards were discovered in seven countries, including Canada and Australia. “Our main concern has to do with the Leviathan deposit that is located some 100 meters from Dor beach,” explained Zalul’s CEO, Maya Jacobs. “So far 31 malfunctions had been discovered in it, and it is only by luck that no great disaster had taken place.”

The report further indicates that Chevron has managed to evade its tax obligations in a number of countries, including Australia, Netherlands, Sudan and Angola. The most severe incident took place in Chad - a country that had reached the brink of bankruptcy in 2000 due to Chevron’s refusal to pay tax debts totalling $1.45 billion. 

Greer’s research, however, exposes far beyond environmental and economic damages. Her report has found, for instance, that in 65 percent of lawsuits against it Chevron had been accused of blunt human rights violations, including claims involving slave labour use, torture, and complicity in genocide. 

What repeats in all the examined cases is the exhaustion method: 83 of all lawsuits have yet to be settled due to Chevron’s aggressive and belligerent conduct. In each and every one of the lawsuits, Chevron has refused to take responsibility over the pollution it caused. 

A massacre in Nigeria, disease in Kazakhstan

One of the most sordid examples cited in Greer’s report took place in Nigeria. Chevron and Shell, the companies operating in the Delta region of the Niger river in Southern Nigeria for many years now, produce 2 million barrels of crude oil there annually. To do so, they had dug drainage canals that heavily polluted the river, swamps and sea. “The Tsekelewu Ijaw community, the Ogoni and Oljaw, and indigenous women of the Aja-Omaeta and Escravos groups (over 500,000 people) [lost] life, livelihoods, homes, land, and food,” claims Greer. 

Since 1999, indigenous peoples in the area have filed several lawsuits against Chevron, but the company has out-litigated them all in court. Greer further claims that “Chevron continues poisoning their lands with well and drill fires, five documented in the last year alone.” Moreover, a 1999 Human Rights Watch report claims that the company was involved in the massacre of protesters, and that the Nigerian army has used Chevron’s boats and choppers to hit them. In one incident, four protesters were killed, and in another seven were killed and an entire village was burned to the ground. Chevron claimed that its hands are tied under such circumstances as it cannot prevent the military from using equipment that was provided as part of a  joint initiative between the company and the Nigerian government. 

Professor Richard Steiner, an international expert on oil and gas spills, had studied the damage caused to the Niger Delta by Chevron. “I worked quite a bit in the Niger Delta as part of a damage assessment compiled for the government and civil organisations, and as an expert witness for a law firm. I can confidently state that Chevron has committed environmental and humanitarian atrocities for decades. Shell has also done so, and the majority of reporting in the media focus on it, but Chevron isn’t any better. Chevron was the government’s accomplice in the drilling and exploited the fact that [the government] was weak. The regulatory supervision there is extremely inefficient, and even though the company is required to abide by the highest international standards, it simply does not.”  

Greer has made note of Kazakhstan as well, where 4,000 people were hurt as a result of an oil and gas leak in the early 90s. “ For over 20 years Chevron continued these criminal abuses of the region,” stated Greer, “as it did in both Nigeria and Ecuador, while producing over 21% of the Chevron’s world reserves.” Consequently, residents of the area have been suffering from recurring ailments: in 2003 it was discovered that 50 percent of residents in the village of Berezovka, Karachaganak had suffered from chronic illnesses; in 2014, it was revealed that 1,400 kids were poisoned by pollution while they were at school; and in 2018, hundreds of children in Berezovka “were diagnosed with Toxic Encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by chemical poisoning from hydrocarbons and fumes,” stated Greer. As per Greer, the children and their families received no compensation and the lawsuits filed against Chevron were dismissed for procedural errors. 

Thus will be the fate of any lawyer challenging Chevron

Steven Donziger (59) is a human rights lawyer who has litigated countless cases over the decades since his graduation from Harvard (where he had played basketball with Barack Obama). But when Dozinger had dared to take up a case against Chevron - and win - he wound up in a house arrest that has lasted a year and a half already and has no end in the offing. How did this happen?

The story began in 1967, when the oil and gas company Texico, which was later on bought up by Chevron, had collaborated with the government-owned company Petrol Ecuador in building the Lago Agrio oil field in northern Ecuador, at the heart of the Amazon forest. The oil field was active through 1992, and had produced 1.7 billion barrels of oil, which produced profits estimated at $25 billion. Simultaneously, the field had generated enormous amounts of waste that was siphoned to the Amazon River and created the largest oil pollution in history, which decimated extensive swaths of the forest, destroyed lands of local and indigenous populations, and caused high rates of death and disease in the area. The consequences of the pollution are felt till this very day in the area. 

In 1993, Dozinger had visited the disaster area in Ecuador and decided to represent the indigenous residents in a lawsuit against Texico. That was the beginning of a long process of attrition. Eight years later, Chevron had purchased Texico, and the lawsuits were diverted to the former. Chevron had shirked responsibility and refused to accept the allegations launched against it. The trial was dragged on for 12 more years until in 2013, after a 20-year-long battle, the Supreme Court of Ecuador ruled that Chevron will pay the area’s resident’s the astronomical sum of $9.5 billion. Chevron, however, had managed to evade accountability and the penalty imposed on it. 

Paz y Mino explains that “one of the ways in which the company acted to bypass local laws was to defer to its bilateral trade agreement with the government, which made it possible to refer the case to an arbitration panel.” “Chevron does this in every country it operates in. When the local laws work against it, it first ignores them and then removes its assets from the country.” And once the country possesses no assets in a country, the latter’s laws do not apply to it. 

The saga went on as Chevron decided to sue Donziger personally in New York State, alleging that he had bribed one of the Ecuadorian judges who tried the case with a sum of half a million dollars. An Ecuadorian judge appeared as a witness at the American court; he claimed to have seen Donziger passing money to another judge in an envelope. Donziger retaliated by stating that the witness brought was on Chevron’s payroll. 

Chevron admitted that it provided financial assistance (legally, it claimed) to the witness judge, and the court ruled that Donziger must pay Chevron $2 million. Donziger refused, and the judge demanded he surrender his cellphone and personal computer to the court to see whether there were any other bank accounts under his name. Donziger once again refused, claiming that sensitive information about his clients could end up in Chevron’s hands. Donziger was subsequently held in contempt in 2018 and his law license had been revoked.  

Donziger appealed the court’s decision and in 2019 his situation further deteriorated after the court sentenced him to house arrest until the next hearing on his appeal, which has since been repeatedly postponed. 

“What they’re doing to me is in fact the most brutal silencing targeting lawsuit towards a civil activist,” Donziger told Calcalist on a video call from his apartment in Manhattan. “I was set up, and it had been proved that the witness who testified against me lied. And yet, since August 2019 I have an electronic bracelet around my leg and am not allowed to leave the house, except to go buy basic groceries. I don’t intend to give up, and even if I end up in jail, I will never pay a dime to Chevron,” he said, waving a document signed by several intellectuals and Nobel Prize laureates who demand his immediate release. 

The court in New York believes them. Is it possible you were sued simply because you committed misconduct? 

“This is most certainly not the reason. They worry that my lawsuit will be multiplied in other countries where they created pollution, and this will generate a cascading effect. This is why they are fighting me in any way possible. They don’t only want to kill my case but also the idea it represents. They use this attack against me in order to injure the credibility of environmental justice warriors.

“They want every lawyer to look at my case and never dare to pick up a fight with them. What happened in Ecuador happened in plenty of countries. This isn’t a malfunction, this was done deliberately. This is why it’s essential that the citizens of Israel will become familiarised with the details of my as well as other cases - the conduct of Chevron is identical in every country, and you are not an exception.”

Paz y Mino seconds Donziger: “Our studies indicate that Chevron is the worst corporation in the world as far as the environment and human rights are concerned.  Its strategy is ignoring local laws, attacking the people it knowingly hurt and persecuting whoever protects them. 

“In Ecuador, it polluted the Amazon river for decades, knowingly poisoned the local communities there, refused to clean up and then departed, claiming it bears no responsibility. It then filed a lawsuit against them and found courts in the United States that refused to allow the submission of evidence attesting to the pollution it created. It had turned the tables and attacked the people it poisoned. This isn’t only happening in Ecuador. this is the reason that doing business with Chevron is dangerous.”

Regression under the Trump administration 

Every year on 21 May there is a day of protest against Chevron, which is joined by 280 organisations, networks, corporations and movements from around the world. One of the figureheads of this event, which has been held over the past 22 years, is the American oil and energy analyst, author, journalist and activist Antonia Juhasz, who had published three books in which Chevron plays a lead role: The Bush Agenda (2006), The Tyranny of Oil (2008) and Black Tide (2010). 

“I’ve been following Chevron for 22 years,” said Juhasz. “In recent years there has been a significant transformation in the energy sector. The large companies are buying up the small ones in order to survive, and the purchase of Noble Energy has made Chevro the world’s largest energy company.” 

“Chevron always had power and influence over politicians,” Juhasz added, “but now due to the global decline in oil prices it is vulnerable and desperate, and therefore fights on every front to secure the best possible deal, including in Israel.”

So do Israelis have a legitimate cause for concern?

“Chevron views Israel as a friend of the US, and mostly as an underdeveloped place. And so it will use its connection in the US government to obtain the prices it wants,” said Juhasz. 

“Just look at what it is reporting to its shareholders following the Noble Energy purchase,” she continued, “it states that it will act more efficiently, meaning it will hire less workers, incur fewer expenses. When drilling companies do so, it means more mistakes, because they want to do everything cheaply. Chevron is already firing thousands of workers presently, and if it will indeed cut expenses as it is promising… I would be extremely concerned for whoever lives near the sea in the areas where it drills.”

But at this point there is regulation. Hadn’t BP’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, for instance, resulted in tighter supervision?

“All the lessons learned during the Obama era were forgotten, and under Trump many regulations were lifted. Chevron is fighting every regulation that attempts to make drilling under water safer. We, Americans, have been drilling in the sea for one hundred years, and still the greatest catastrophe in that sector took place within our territory. Do Israelis have a more meticulous regulation system in this sphere than the Americans do? 

“If I were you, I’d ask Chevron: ‘What are you doing in Israel to ensure that such a disaster won’t happen? After all you, the company's representatives, announced during the Senate hearing that you didn’t know either how to handle a disaster like the one that took place in the Gulf of Mexico, and that you weren’t equipped to deal with it. So how will you act differently in Israel?”

In some cases, even strict oversight isn’t sufficient. In Australia, for instance, a country that has tight environmental regulations, Chevron owns two massive gas fields in close proximity to Barrow Island - a unique nature reserve that is home to rare plant and animal species. 

Fearing extinction of these species, the authorities prohibited people from entering the island, with the exception of scientists and researchers. But when the gas reserves were discovered, Chevron had managed to convince the government of Western Australia to establish refineries on the island itself, and currently hundreds of Chevron’s employees are permitted onto the island, under the condition of having them undergo an invasive checkup to prevent the transmission of invasive species. 

Chevron had also promised to the government that at the time of the refinery’s launch in 2016 it will bury the nitrogen that was emitted during the liquefying process in the ground. Yet, it took two and a half years for Chevron to keep its promise. Thus, West Australia’s environmental reports today indicate that Chevron is responsible for the majority of nitrogen spills in the country. 

“Chevron had found excuses for several of the malfunctions it couldn’t figure out how to resolve,” said journalist Peter Millen, who in the past used to work as an oil and gas engineer at Chevron. “However, I am certain that if this malfunction were delaying production or reducing profitability it would’ve taken care of it immediately.” 

Furthermore, Millen revealed that in the liquefying facilities, which have only been operating since 2016, cracks were discovered. “They built this project improperly,” he said. “Had they not discovered the cracks in time, it would’ve ended in a disaster. After you’ve invested so much money in such a project, there should not be such severe technical problems with it that could bring great harm to the facility’s workers. It seems that Chevron simply cannot deliver on its promises.” 

Image by: Scott Cox

Article written by:
Ari Libsker
Israel Nigeria Ecuador Kazakhstan
Embed from Getty Images
In this handout image provided by Albatross, the Tamar drilling natural gas production platform is seen some 25 kilometers west of the Ashkelon shore.
© Handout / Handout
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Puerto Rico's Calle 13 band member Rene Perez, aka Residente shows his hand soiled with oil during a visit to the Aguarico 4 field in the Ecuadorean Amazonia, affected by pollution created by US oil company Chevron, in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, on 2 May, 2014.
© JUAN CEVALLOS / Stringer
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The lawyer of Ecuadorean people affected by Texaco-Chevron --who have long sought compensation for pollution between the 1970s and early 1990s-- Steven Donziger, gestures during a press conference on March 19, 2014 in Quito.
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Pablo Fajardo (L), lawyer of the victims of environmental damage caused during oil operations in the Ecuadoran Amazon from 1964 to 1990 blamed on Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001, speaks during a press conference, flanked by his clients in Quito on July 11, 2018.
© RODRIGO BUENDIA / Contributor
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