Caso Chevron

Chevron’s Longtime Nemesis Hits the End of the Road

The plucky lawyer taking on the big corporation isn’t always in the right.

Bloomberg - Joe Nocera 12/07/2018

Photo: Bloomberg

Photo: Bloomberg

Corporations are easy to hate. They are big, they are impersonal, and they operate by profit-driven rules that can sometimes seem cruel. When corporations are accused of wrongdoing by a community led by a plucky plaintiffs lawyer, there is a natural tendency to believe the latter over the former.

Chevron Corp., which is ranked 13th on the Fortune 500 and had $128 billion in 2017 revenue, has the added burden of being an oil company. There are those, like the influential environmental activist Bill McKibben, who believe that what oil companies do is inherently evil: Extracting fossil fuel from the ground is an activity that can only accelerate climate change. But even those on the left who are not as hard-line as McKibben tend to view oil companies more as entities that cause oil spills and fund right-wing think tanks than as the producers of the fuel that keeps the world economy churning.

Thus when the American lawyer Steven Donziger embarked on what became a 25-year crusade to force Chevron to pay billions to clean up a contaminated swath of the Ecuadorian rain forest, he was lionized by environmentalists and the news media. The contamination, local farmers and indigenous tribesmen said, had been caused by Texaco, which had drilled in the region in the 1990s; Chevron had assumed its legal liabilities when it bought Texaco in 2001.

Never mind that Texaco had paid for a $40 million cleanup years earlier, or that it had a signed agreement with the Ecuadorian government absolving it of further liability. The cleanup had to be insufficient; the agreement had to be corrupt. The indigenous people called themselves “Los Afectados” — the Affected Ones. What more did you need to know?

Vanity Fair weighed in with a glowing article in 2007 about the work Donziger and his allies were doing to force Chevron to “answer for the conditions … said by environmentalists to be one of the world's most contaminated industrial sites.” There were the usual David-vs.-Goliath articles in publications like Mother Jones and the Nation. In 2013, at a time when Donziger was being accused of wrongdoing, the New York Times conducted several sympathetic interviews, and described him as a “hero to many environmentalists.”

What prompts this recollection is the news this week that a New York appeals court suspended Donziger’s law license “until further notice.” It is almost surely the end of the road for Donziger’s quest to wrest money from Chevron. But it also offers proof that you shouldn’t necessarily assume that corporations are the bad guys.  Sometimes the big bad corporation is in the right, and the plucky plaintiffs lawyer is in the wrong.

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