This week, the Nation published an exposé revealing shocking new details about ExxonMobil's deadly natural gas pipeline project in Papua New Guinea. Reporter Ian Shearn reveals new allegations that the ExxonMobil subsidiary operating the project was aware that poor management practices at a local quarry could cause a landslide. Then, on January 24, 2012, a massive landslide originated at the quarry and killed 27 local villagers. Shearn reports a supply road was quickly reconstructed over the landslide -- directly over the buried bodies -- under the protection of Exxon-funded mobile security forces sent to defend the project from angry villagers. Huffington Post has released an accompanying documentary video with stunning footage from the scene of devastation and surrounding community.
In 2009, an obscure U.S. Government trade promotion agency, the Export-Import Bank, provided a $3 billion loan (yes, that's billion) for the Papua New Guinea LNG project. Most Americans have never heard of the federal Export-Import Bank. Even fewer know that it doles out billions of dollars in corporate welfare to dangerous fossil fuel projects each year, harming local communities while worsening the global climate crisis with rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Esso Highlands Limited, an ExxonMobil subsidiary, operated the poorly-managed quarry from which the deadly landslide originated. Exxon denies that EHL is responsible, claiming that heavy rainfall caused the landslide. However, Reuters reported in 2012 that prior to the accident an independent consultant to the Export-Import Bank reported that "[t]he overall impression...is that incidents and situations have developed because the project has circumvented correct procedures in the interest of schedule..." Now, Shearn reports that an engineer working on the quarry warned EHL managers that the "quarry was risky and should be shut down immediately...I thought the quarry could collapse."
Equally shocking, a local project watchdog, LNG Watch Papua New Guinea, reported that local villagers struggled to retrieve victims following the landslide, sometimes digging by hand. At the same time, under the protection of notorious mobile police squads, a supply road that is essential to project construction was rebuilt over the landslide directly above the buried bodies. As a result, none of the 27 missing villagers were ever recovered.
The exposé reports many incidents of violence and abuse that mobile police squads inflicted upon people in the community who protested the LNG project. According to a police superintendent and other well-placed sourced cited in the article, ExxonMobil tried to ensure project security by paying for weapons and covering other expenses of these mobile police squads, which local and international advocacy groups have linked to numerous human rights abuses elsewhere in the country.
Three environment and development groups, Pacific Environment, Jubilee Australia and International Accountability Project, warned Export-Import Bank officials about the Papua New Guinea LNG project's severe environmental, social, and human rights impacts before and after the U.S. Government approved the $3 billion loan. The bank ignored our concerns. What's more, in 2013, Wikileaks revealed that in response to this criticism, the Texas-based private security firm Stratfor compiled a secret dossier on Pacific Environment, BankTrack and other project critics. It appears that Stratfor's client may have been Exxon, since the dossier describes the critics' charges as similar to "complaints about [ExxonMobil's] Chad-Cameroon Pipeline, and many other development projects, with some additional similarities to longstanding concerns about ExxonMobil operations in Aceh."
The Export-Import Bank claims that if the U.S. does not support such dirty and deadly projects, then other governments will do so without applying the robust environmental, social and human rights safeguards that the U.S. government supposedly insists upon. In addition to Export-Import Bank's own environmental and social policies, the agency is required to receive a human rights clearance from the State Department for large projects like the Papua New Guinea LNG project. This tragedy demonstrates how miserably these safeguards have failed. And unfortunately this is not an isolated incident among Export-Import Bank's funded projects.
An independent U.S. Government investigation -- if properly conducted -- would show that Papua New Guinea LNG has violated Export-Import Bank policies; and it could potentially prove that the company withheld material information from the agency. These facts, and the deadly project impacts, more than warrant that the Export-Import Bank declare the project in default and to demand immediate repayment of the $3 billion loan.
Export-Import Bank's Chairman, Fred Hochberg, considers himself a champion of human rights. Given this project's cruel disregard for human life, it's time for Hochberg to step up to the plate and to withdraw his agency's loan from ExxonMobil's deadly Papua New Guinea LNG project.