06/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Worst Job in the World: Defending Chevron

Watching Chevron get skewered on 60 Minutes last night had me thinking what an awful job it must be to fight against cleaning up oil spills in the Amazon that are making people sick. And that led me to think of my first encounter with Chevron CEO David O'Reilly.

It was at Chevron's annual shareholder meeting in April 2007. If you've ever attended a corporate shareholder meeting, you know that they can be either so boring your head hurts, or a great opportunity to see how a corporation is led. This was a little of both.

At the time, Chevron was struggling (still is, as indicated by the 60 Minutes piece) to defend itself in a landmark lawsuit brought by 30,000 impoverished residents from the rainforests in Ecuador. For several decades, oil operations by Texaco (since acquired by Chevron) and its partners dumped billions of gallons of oil and toxic waste directly into the Amazon watershed or in leaky pits. The contaminated area covers more than 3,000 square miles, and is one of the largest environmental disasters in history -- larger than the Exxon Valdez spill -- affecting a fragile ecosystem and thousands of indigenous families. Chevron has also been implicated in other environmental and human rights violations in Burma, the Philippines, Nigeria and the United States.

I was there to advance a shareholder resolution that would help the company prevent these catastrophes in the future by adopting a code of ethics for its environmental and human rights performance. Chevron was opposed. I was joined at the meeting by Atossa Soltani, the founder and director of Amazon Watch, who has led the campaign against Chevron, and Humberto Piaguaje and Guillermo Grefa, two indigenous leaders from Ecuador, who had traveled by foot, boat, bus and plane straight from the rainforest to confront Mr. O'Reilly directly.

After being surrounded and frisked by more than a dozen scowling security guards, we were led into the meeting, held in a windowless room at Chevron's headquarters in San Ramon, California. It began with a series of presentations by Chevron's senior executives about the company's growth, future exploration plans, etc. Chevron CEO David O'Reilly joyfully reminded shareholders that the company had recently announced record profits, and that prospects for the company were better than ever.

No mention was made of any controversies in Ecuador, Nigeria, or any other environmental issues. That's why we were there.

Dressed in his traditional native clothing and ceremonial headdress, Mr. Piaguaje, from the Secoya tribe, informed Mr. O'Reilly, "Our struggle is not for money. We want you to give us back our lives. We want you to let us live in peace and harmony with nature. We want you to repair the damage so that our children do not have to continue suffering."

O'Reilly quickly dismissed any notion that his company had responsibility in the matter, which is Chevron's undying legal strategy.

As William Langewiesche accounts in his brilliant article "Jungle Law" in Vanity Fair:

[Chevron] denies that the judge is fair, denies that the plaintiffs have legitimate complaints, denies that their soil and water samples are meaningful, denies that the methods the company used to extract oil in the past were substandard, denies that it contaminated the forest, denies that the forest is contaminated, denies that there is a link between the drinking water and high rates of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, and skin disease, denies that unusual health problems have been demonstrated -- and, for added measure, denies that it bears responsibility for any environmental damage that might after all be found to exist.

That sounds like a lot of denial, if you ask me.

When it came my time to speak, I used my allotted three minutes to make Chevron an offer. Copying the words from Chevron's ad campaign, I asked O'Reilly, "Will you join us? Please, join the campaign to clean up Ecuador." I told him and his board members that it was clear that seeing Chevron neglect sick families in Ecuador couldn't possibly help employee morale, and it wouldn't increase investor confidence to see that these scandals threatened the company's reputation throughout Latin America and around the world. Much better, I suggested, for Chevron to lead the way in the industry by adopting a smart, 21st-century policy on human rights and the environment.

O'Reilly quickly brushed off my appeal and barreled through the rest of the agenda, opposing other resolutions to promote worker safety and fair executive pay. It became apparent that Chevron's senior staff would survive another meeting without being held accountable for their actions. This wouldn't do.

As the last shareholder finished his question about stock dividends, I stepped behind him to have another go at it.

"Hello again, Mr. O'Reilly. Michael Brune, from Rainforest Action Network. I have one more question."

"Go ahead, Mr. Brune."

"Mr. O'Reilly, is this really the best that you can do?"

You could hear a pin drop. I waited. When O'Reilly looked about ready to fill the silence, I spoke again to remind him and his board members that climate change wasn't going away by itself, that environmental awareness was growing and that through the internet, communities resisting Chevron would unite around the world. I told them that Chevron would eventually lose its social license to operate if it did not adapt to a changing world.

O'Reilly smiled, shuffled his notes, and gave another non-answer from his prepared remarks.

Two years later, an unlikely transnational coalition is in fact putting Chevron on the defensive for exploiting the Ecuadorian people. Chevron is under withering criticism from the coalition as well as from last night's 60 Minutes episode, a Washington Post story last week, a Wall St. Journal story in early April, and much more. Joining in are communities in Canada faced with poisoned watersheds in Canada's tar sands, critics of Chevron's new legal executive -- who formerly developed the Bush legal strategy to defend torture, Chevron's neighbors in Northern California -- and others.

Still, the company refuses to accept responsibility. It's becoming clear that this is a company, and an industry, desperately in need of regulation. Congress, are you listening?