There are many ways to describe the experience of participating in a Chevron Annual Shareholder Meeting. One is often left wondering if those inside are as completely divorced from reality as their words suggest, or if they are just putting on a show for a room full of cardboard cut outs of corporate yes-men. This past Wednesday was no exception. While hundreds protested outside the 2013 Chevron Annual Shareholder Meeting holding the largest "pink slip" you've even seen reading, "Watson: You're Fired!" Chevron CEO John Watson once again demonstrated that he is largely divorced from reality when it comes to the company's $19 billion liability in Ecuador and its other environmental problems, both local and global. Watson would hate to admit it, but once again the meeting was dominated by his critics and the largest-ever shareholder support for Ecuador-related resolutions.
The Chevron Way: We Know Better
Time and again when faced with shareholder resolutions critical of Chevron or the compassionate voices of community members living with the harsh reality of exposure to the company's toxic operations, Watson claimed it was his critics who were "unfamiliar with the facts." Servio Curipoma, who has lived his entire life in the Ecuadorian Amazon surrounded by Chevron waste pits, who lost his parents to cancer caused by Chevron contamination, does not need Watson to tell him what it's "really like" in Ecuador. Yet Watson dismissed his testimony and offered Servio nothing but his "pity" for being "used by U.S. trial lawyers."
Likewise, Dr. Henry Clark of Richmond, Calif., whose 15,000 neighbors were sent to the hospital last August after Chevron's refinery blew up into a fire, or Laura Livoti, representing JINN and the Nigerians who suffer from never-ending flaring and a rig fire that burned for six weeks in 2012, do not need Watson to tell them their reality. They are living it. Watson told Ms. Livoti that she should consult with some of his executives, who have a greater understanding of what goes on in Nigeria. The grim reality is that due in great part to environmental conditions caused by Chevron's operations, the Nigerians in the area only have a 41-year life expectancy. With that dire statistic, it's conceivable that Chevron execs could be there on the ground for longer.
To the community of Richmond, long suffering from Chevron's toxic refinery and its poor safety record (now under criminal investigation), Watson's message was that his refinery actually has a better safety record than others in California. Funny, not a single other refinery in California blew up last year!
Amazon Watch founder and Executive Director Atossa Soltani stood to remind Watson, the board and the other shareholders that she was there before Chevron bought Texaco with over 800 pages of evidence that Texaco was an enormous liability for what it had done in Ecuador. Watson's "bubble" appeared to weaken as he became visibly disturbed when Ms. Soltani reminded everyone that he himself was head of mergers and acquisitions at the time. What was then estimated to be a minor nuisance by lawyers and investment bankers anxious to close the merger deal for their exorbitant fees has since ballooned into a $19 billion judgment that rises every year with interest. Chevron is already spending an estimated $400 million per year just in legal fees, dwarfing the $40 million it claims it spent on its sham clean-up in Ecuador. Unwilling to even reply to Ms. Soltani, Watson turned on a completely unrelated video clip and then had her removed from the room by four security guards when she attempted to respond. The Watson World bubble remained intact, but only to Watson and the true believers (read: personally conflicted managers) he appears surrounded by on his executive team.
Facts versus Fiction: On WatsonWorld, up is down
Real World: Texaco (now Chevron) builds and operates a system designed to pollute and then dumps 16 billion gallons of toxic foundation waters into the rainforest over decades causing a wave of cancers and other deadly illnesses.
In WatsonWorld: The local water shows zero signs of toxicity and is totally safe to drink, even though Chevron's own lawyers luxuriated with bottled water imported from Quito during the eight-year trial in the jungle. Furthermore, anyone who complains about it and pushes for a clean-up is a "global conspirator" out to extort billions from good global citizen Chevron.
Real World: Socially responsible investment firms collaborate with human rights and environmental organizations to challenge a company's false assertions and work with shareholders with billions of dollars of assets in Chevron to create reform from within.
In WatsonWorld: Every single person involved should be forced to turn over every private communication they've ever made about Chevron because if they are critical they must therefore be part of a massive global conspiracy to defraud the company.
Real World: An offshore rig burns for six weeks off the coast of Nigeria, killing workers, destroying fishing, and sickening communities.
In WatsonWorld: That's called, "no damage to the community."
Real World: Chevron spills over 100,000 gallons of crude oil off the coast of Brazil, resulting in hundreds of millions in fines and billions of dollars of potential liability.
In WatsonWorld: There's no need for greater oversight of Chevron's offshore work because Chevron is "committed to safe operations."
Back to Earth
Outside, hundreds of protesters representing dozens of environmental and human rights organizations, and communities who live in the harsh real world of Chevron's operations, reminded Watson and Chevron that no amount of misdirection and factual distortion is going to make them go away. They continue to call for his firing and for true accountability and they pledge to stand up to Chevron until justice is achieved.
Perhaps sweetest of all is the fact that Watson will be forced to testify soon under oath about the Ecuador disaster in a case brought by Chevron itself that is rapidly threatening to bite the company on its own backside. Without his protective WatsonWorld bubble, he's likely to find that in the real world there are penalties for lying about Chevron's actions and misdeeds.
I work as the Director of Outreach and Online Strategy at Amazon Watch. The views expressed in this column are mine alone. Amazon Watch is proud to accompany the Ecuadorian communities affected by Chevron's deliberate contamination in the Amazon for over a decade. During the course of our lengthy campaign, Amazon Watch has also allied with the legal team responsible for one of the most important environmental victories in history by achieving a $9.5 billion judgement against Chevron affirmed by the Supreme Court of Ecuador in a 222-page decision that meticulously documents the company's environmental crimes, fraud, bribery, and subterfuge during the long eight-year trial.
Crossposted from the Eye on the Amazon