After 19 years of litigation, the monumental class action lawsuit against oil giant Chevron for environmental devastation in the Ecuadorian Amazon is nearing an end. On Jan. 3, 2012, an Ecuadorian appeals court confirmed an $18 billion judgment against Chevron. This judgment is exceeded in size only by BP's expected outlay for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The judgment is internationally binding, and it sends the message that corporations cannot evade justice for their crimes around the world. It sets major precedents, not only for Ecuador's indigenous people and farmer communities, but also for international human rights, environmental law and corporate accountability.
The marathon legal process is not yet over, however, as Chevron is fighting last-ditch legal battles in U.S. courts and an international arbitration tribunal, trying to throw sand into the wheels of justice. The endgame is likely to be an accelerating race against the clock, as lawyers for the plaintiffs attempt to enforce the judgment by seizing Chevron's key assets in Latin America, while Chevron desperately seeks legal stratagems to protect its tankers, oilfields and refineries from confiscation.
The result will determine the meaning of the largest and most controversial environmental disaster in history. Mountains of evidence—including thousands of contamination samples taken by Chevron—prove the company (through Texaco, which it purchased in 2001) is responsible for oil contamination in the rainforest of northeastern Ecuador. Over nearly three decades of oil production, it is estimated that Texaco spilled or deliberately dumped the equivalent of 345 million gallons of crude in the region.
Since then, Chevron has poured immense resources into a legal and public-relations offensive designed to portray the case and the courts as corrupt and lay a basis for evading enforcement of the judgment. Instead of dealing with the indisputable evidence of its responsibility, the company has instead launched a strategy of intimidation, distraction and delay.
Chevron's nearly unlimited legal resources—including its battalion-size legal team of as many as 500 attorneys—allow the company to file a nonstop assault of legal briefs, motions and attacks, attempting to overwhelm, outspend and bankrupt the plaintiffs' scrappy, underdog team of about 15 lawyers.
This briefing paper provides a summary of this historic legal battle, followed by an outline of some of Chevron's strategies to evade accountability for one of the world's worst environmental disasters.
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By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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