Justice or Just a Step?

07/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Fourteen years ago, the Nigerian junta was preparing to execute Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa for his organizing activities against the environmental devastation being visited on his people by oil development -- the Shell Corporation in particular. I reached out to a senior consultant with Shell, who made it clear that while the company would tolerate corrupt African governments up to a point, it then would quietly support their ouster. He thought Shell was likely to intervene and would have sufficient clout to save Saro-Wiwa.

It didn't turn out that way. Shell claims it tried to intervene but, if there was an effort, it was ineffective. Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed. The junta, much later, fell. And Saro-Wiwa's family sued Shell, alleging that, in fact, Shell had collaborated with the junta in Ken's death. The case was widely viewed as a trail-breaking effort to hold a major multinational corporation responsible for the environmental and social consequences of its investments in repressive or corrupt states.

And although the sum was modest against the scale of its profits, Shell yesterday announced that it would pay the plaintiffs $15.5 million -- the largest such settlement in history. "We spent a lot of time trying to put together something that would be acceptable to both sides, and our people are very pleased with the result," said Anthony DiCaprio, the lead lawyer for the Ogoni side working with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

Shell is not the only oil company on the hook for its role in environmental catastrophes in countries where environmental standards are, as a norm, flouted. Chevron now faces a multi-billion lawsuit in Ecuador for its role in devastating the Amazon with oil and gas operations conducted by Texaco before that company merged with Chevron. And tonight I'll be debating Chevron CEO David O'Reilly on our energy future.

Both of these cases raise a fundamental issue. Powerful, wealthy global oil companies routinely partner with repressive or corrupt regimes, allow environmental and human rights practices that would never be tolerated in the U.S. or Europe, offer grossly inadequate sums to clean up the disasters that result, and then blame the local government or its local partners. We decided long ago in the U.S. (in 1980) that big companies couldn't escape responsibility for their toxic wastes by cavalierly handing it over to Joe's Waste Hauler. The Superfund Act made companies "jointly, severally and strictly liable." We now know that oil production generates huge amounts of hazardous waste. Maybe we need an international version of the Superfund Act to hold companies like Shell and Chevron and their "sisters" in the oil industry responsible for their behavior in countries like Nigeria and Ecuador.