Sunday, March 14, 2010
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Another ruling, another few years to tack onto a case that has already lasted 17 years.
And those at the bottom of the legal chain - indigenous peoples in the Ecuadoran Amazon - remain no better off than when the contest began.
We speak, of course, about the $27.3 billion claim against San Ramon's Chevron Corp., which New York attorney Stephen Donziger, representing the inhabitants, says is responsible for the environmental mess resulting from oil drilling begun in the 1960s by Texaco, before it was taken over by Chevron in 2001.
The latest round went to Chevron when a U.S. court ruled Thursday it could take the dispute to international arbitration, claiming the government of Ecuador and the state-owned Petroecuador oil company is responsible for cleaning up the mess, not Chevron.
But, as The Chronicle's David Baker noted, the "final outcome remains very much in doubt." Which means the 30,000 residents represented in the class-action suit will continue to experience illness, birth defects and other maladies, with both sides arguing over who and what is to blame, while doing little to alleviate the situation.
"We need more than a lawsuit to deal with this environmental and humanitarian crisis," said Joe Berlinger, who produced "Crude," a documentary about the dispute, which was released last year and recently came out on DVD. "This could take 30 years to resolve. The legal structure just can't handle it."
More than good guys versus bad guys: Berlinger's full-length feature, four years in the making, did not impress Chevron, for which Berlinger holds little love. But neither did it go over well with Donziger, who encouraged Berlinger to make the film in the first place. "I think the plaintiff's lawyers were stunned by the balance," Berlinger said in an interview.
Perhaps that was because the film does not take a position on the lawsuit, instead allowing the cinema-verite style footage, shot from both sides of the argument, to speak for itself. "I thought it would be simply good guys vs. bad guys. But as I got more into it, it became more nuanced," said Berlinger.
That didn't always work to the advantage of the plaintiff's case, from my point of view, although critics have said Berlinger should have focused more on the Ecuadoran government and Petroecuador, which took over oil drilling in the area in 1993. A recent study added to Chevron's claim that fecal matter may be contributing more to water-borne illnesses in the region than oil contamination.
Concrete contributions: One element in the film that unites Berlinger and Chevron is the role of Trudie Styler, whose Rainforest Foundation, founded by Styler and her husband, Sting, got involved in the dispute. Derided by many - and she does occasionally resemble a latter-day Katharine Hepburn in "The African Queen" - Styler, at least, is seen doing something concrete: bringing in water tanks and a filtration system that gave inhabitants their first access to clean, drinkable water in years.
"They are the only people who have done tangible good there in 17 years," said Berlinger, referring to Styler and Sting. "Trudie has done more for the people there than the government of Ecuador," said Kent Robertson, a Chevron spokesman.
Donziger would argue that Chevron could do a whole lot more for the inhabitants if only it would settle the case. In the film he repeatedly states his belief that "negative publicity" will force Chevron to the table. Assuming that's not likely in the foreseeable future, is there any other way that keeps the lawyers out?
In a Commonwealth Club debate last June between Sierra Club President Carl Pope and former Chevron CEO David O'Reilly, Pope raised the idea of an oil industry-financed "global trust" that would help clean up drilling-related environmental messes no matter who was mostly responsible for them. Reilly, he noted, "didn't flat out reject the idea but simply pointed out that the costs would probably be passed on to oil consumers." "True, and fair," Pope added.
Were such an idea ever to gain traction, Berlinger may yet see a resolution of the issue his film sought to highlight: "the plight - and shameful treatment - of indigenous people" in the Ecuadoran Amazon.