QUITO – A long-running legal battle pitting Ecuadorian Indians and peasant farmers against U.S. oil supermajor Chevron Corp. entered a new phase Friday with an announcement that the plaintiffs will be targeting the multinational’s assets in Venezuela and Panama.
Their goal is to convince courts in those countries to recognize a judgment by two Ecuadorian tribunals ordering Chevron to pay more than $18 billion for toxic drilling waste dumped in the Amazon between 1964 and the early 1990s by Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001.
Because Chevron has no assets in Ecuador, the 47 plaintiffs – who represent tens of thousands of Indians and peasants affected by oil pollution – have decided to take legal action in countries where it does, Pablo Fajardo, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said at a press conference on Friday.
He added that the plaintiffs will eventually force the company to pay “every last cent.”
“We think Panama’s a very important place because all the tankers filled with the Chevron company’s oil pass through there and they exclusively (belong to the U.S. multinational). Venezuela’s also an important country. There are a lot of Chevron assets there also. They’re not the only ones. We’ve said we’re going to go to several continents,” Fajardo said.
Leftist-led Venezuela, a close ally of Ecuador’s, has fought court battles against U.S. multinationals Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips over compensation for seized oil assets, although Chevron agreed to accept new terms that required it to enter into minority partnerships with state-owned PDVSA in the crude-rich Orinoco Belt.
Fajardo said the lawsuits will be filed “in just a few weeks,” although the plaintiffs have not yet decided in which countries they will act first. The legal battles could last between five months and five years, depending on how quickly the cases move through the different court systems, the attorney said.
Chevron has stakes in six hydrocarbon projects in Venezuela as a partner of state oil giant PDVSA and in 2010 pumped more than 100,000 barrels of crude per day there, while Panama is a transit country for its oil shipments.
Company spokesman James Craig told Efe that the future lawsuits should have no effect on its operations in either country because any court that “defends the rule of law” will reject them.
Chevron accuses the plaintiffs’ attorneys of falsifying technical reports filed with the two Ecuadorian courts in the northeastern province of Sucumbios and forging some of the plaintiffs’ signatures.
The San Ramon, California-based company has brought legal action in a U.S. federal court in New York against the plaintiffs’ U.S. and Ecuadorian lawyers, including Fajardo, for violations of the federal racketeering statute, accusing them of trying to extort a financial settlement from the company.
Fajardo, who has denied those allegations, said Texaco “caused the deaths of ... hundreds of people, caused devastation to a large chunk of the Ecuadorian Amazon (and) ruined the lives of indigenous peoples.”
On Thursday, the appeals court in Lago Agrio,
Sucumbios, gave plaintiffs the green light to enforce the multi-billion judgment, Luis Yanza, the plaintiffs’ legal coordinator, said Friday.
That tribunal also has refused to recognize a ruling issued in February by an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague, which ordered the Ecuadorian government to prevent “recognition and enforcement” of the pollution judgment.
Chevron has appealed the case to Ecuador’s National Court of Justice, although it declined to ask the appeals court to set a bond as a means of halting enforcement of the ruling.
According to Fajardo, in cases of this type in Ecuador, such a bond would have amounted to about 8.15 percent of the award, or about $1.5 billion.
Chevron says the adverse rulings in Ecuador were not only marred by fraud but also ignored the fact that a previous government in the late 1990s had certified Texaco’s clean-up efforts and released it from liability from any future claims.
During much of the period from 1964-1990, Texaco was the operator of a consortium that drilled in the Amazon jungles of northeastern Ecuador and which also included state oil firm Petroecuador as majority owner.
The pollution case was initially filed in New York in 1993, but Chevron succeeded in having it moved from the United States to Ecuador in 2003, four years before President Rafael Correa came to power amid voter anger at corruption and traditional politicians.
But Chevron has maintained in recent years that the case has become politicized under the leftist Correa and that it cannot receive a fair trial.
Although the oil company maintains that Texaco was cleared of any liability for damages after remediating its share of environmental impacts, plaintiffs say that agreement with the government of the time did not release it from third-party claims and that Chevron is reneging on its pledge to abide by whatever decision was handed down by Ecuadorian courts.
Chevron says on its Web site that Petroecuador should be the target of local communities’ legal action, noting that Texaco ceased operating in Ecuador in 1992 and that the state oil firm has been “the sole and exclusive owner and operator of greatly expanded operations in the area from (that year) to the present.” EFE