The U.S. Department of Justice is holding BP, the UK-based oil company, accountable for the 11 deaths and environmental damage resulting from its 2010 accidental oil spill. But what about the U.S.-based oil company Chevron, which is refusing to pay a $19 billion judgment in Ecuador for intentional oil contamination in the rainforest, where at least 1,400 people have died of cancer?
BP had pled guilty to 11 felony counts of misconduct and neglect and one count of lying to Congress and has agreed to pay $4.5 billion in damages, under a settlement agreement with DOJ. The settlement does not include civil claims under the Clean Water Act and other legislation, pending private civil claims and state claims for economic loss, which means the total cost to BP could be $40 to $60 billion.
This news is in stark contrast to the legal battle against Chevron for massive oil contamination in Ecuador. Chevron has refused to pay a $19 billion judgment awarded last year by an Ecuador court, forcing the Ecuadorians to file lawsuits to seize company assets as payment in other countries, including Canada, Argentina and Brazil.
1) The damage to the Ecuadorian rainforest and its residents was intentional, not accidental as in the BP oil spill. From 1964 to 1992, Chevron solely designed, built and operated its drilling system with the intent to pollute in order to maximize its profits there. See this video that explains the damages.
2) Chemical toxins and pure crude have been leeching into the soil and waterways of the rainforest for five decades, while Chevron has fought the Ecuadorians' lawsuit for 20 years. U.S. courts forced the Ecuadorians to try their case in Ecuador, delaying a judgment by at least a decade. BP cleaned its contamination -- or said it did -- in eight months.
3) At least 1,400 people have died from cancer and thousands more have oil-related illnesses resulting from Chevron's contamination. See here. The BP spill resulted in 11 deaths and damage to wildlife and other environmental impacts.
4) Chevron dumped 16 billion gallons of oil and toxic water into the soil and waterways and built 900 huge unlined pits to store pure crude and toxic water. The BP spill released 206 million gallons of oil off shore the U.S. Gulf Coast and is not believed to be a threat (at least for now) to humans and wildlife.
5) Chevron, U.S. oil analysts and the U.S. media laughed in disbelief at early damage estimates made by Ecuadorian experts, ranging from $16 to $27 billion in Ecuador. BP will likely pay up to $60 billion in damages. I don't hear anyone laughing now.
The BP victims were lucky. They had a government that came down hard on the UK company, threatening to "keep a boot to the throat" of BP until it took responsibility.
In 1992, when Chevron left Ecuador, the Ecuadorian indigenous groups and farmer communities most impacted by the callous actions of the US oil company had no such luck. Their government was controlled by the military and, to a great degree, by Chevron itself.
Instead, the Ecuadorians filed their lawsuit in the country where they thought they could get justice and Chevron is based -- the United States. For almost a decade, a U.S. federal court allowed Chevron to drag the lawsuit out before ruling at the oil giant's request that it be moved to Ecuador.
Eight years later, an Ecuador court awarded them $19 billion in damages. But guess what, Chevron is refusing to pay and is back in the same U.S. court it once argued had no jurisdiction, trying -- unsuccessfully -- to block enforcement.
While I understand the U.S. government can't and shouldn't try to right every wrong on the globe, it should care how U.S.-based multinational companies are conducting themselves worldwide.
The Ecuador case is not just a stain on Chevron's reputation; it's a stain on this country's as well, contributing to growing anti-American sentiments in Latin America.
BP is being held accountable for its mistake in the U.S., but Chevron remains a fugitive from justice for its crimes in Ecuador. It's hard not to conclude that a U.S. life is just worth more than an Ecuadorian life.
Disclosure: I work pro-bono for a group of indigenous Ecuadorians and their U.S. legal adviser, Steven Donziger, to help hold Chevron accountable for one of the world's largest environmental disasters in the Amazon rainforest. From May 2008 to March 2013, I was paid by Donziger to represent the Ecuadorians as their U.S. media spokesperson.