Bad Karma in the Gulf of Mexico Oil Disaster
Posted by Phil Mattera on May 10th, 2010
Originally posted on May 7 at Dirt Digger's Digest.
British Petroleum is, rightfully, taking a lot of grief for the
massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but we should save some of our
vituperation for Transocean Ltd., the company that leased the ill-fated
Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to BP. Transocean is no innocent
bystander in this matter. It presumably has some responsibility for the
safety condition of the rig, which its employees helped operate (nine of
them died in the April 20 explosion).
Transocean also brings some bad karma to the situation. The company,
the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, is the result of a
long series of corporate mergers and acquisitions dating back decades.
One of the firms that went into that mix was Sedco, which was founded in
1947 as Southeastern Drilling Company by Bill Clements, who would
decades later become a conservative Republican governor of Texas.
In 1979 a Sedco rig in the Gulf of Mexico leased to a Mexican oil
company experienced a blowout, resulting in what was at the time the
worst oil spill the world had ever seen. As he surveyed the oil-fouled
beaches of the Texas coast, Gov. Clements made the memorable remarks:
“There’s no use in crying over spilled milk. Let’s don’t get excited
about this thing” (Washington Post 9/11/1979).
At the time, Sedco was being run by Clements’s son, and the family
controlled the company’s stock. The federal government sued Sedco over
the spill, claiming that the rig was unseaworthy and its crew was not
properly trained. The feds sought about $12 million in damages, but
Sedco drove a hard bargain and got away with paying the government only
$2 million. It paid about the same amount to settle lawsuits filed by
fishermen, resorts and other Gulf businesses. Sedco was sold in 1984 to
oil services giant Schlumberger, which transferred its offshore drilling
operations to what was then known as Transocean Offshore in 1999.
In 2000 an eight-ton anchor that accidentally fell from a Transocean
rig in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured an underwater pipeline, causing a
spill of nearly 100,000 gallons of oil. In 2003 a fire broke out on a
company rig off the Texas coast, killing one worker and injuring several
others. As has been reported in recent days, a series of fatal accidents
at company operations last year prompted the company to cancel
executive bonuses. It’s also come out that in 2005 a Transocean rig in
the North Sea had been cited by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive for a
problem similar to what apparently caused the Gulf accident.
Safety is not the only blemish on Transocean’s record. It is one of
those companies that engaged in what is euphemistically called corporate
inversion—moving one’s legal headquarters overseas to avoid U.S.
taxes. Transocean first moved its registration to the Cayman Islands in
1999 and then to Switzerland in 2008. It kept its physical headquarters
in Houston, though last year it moved some of its top officers to
Switzerland to be able to claim that its principal executive offices
In addition to skirting U.S. taxes, Transocean has allegedly tried to
avoid paying its fair share in several countries where its subsidiaries
operate. The company’s 10-K annual report admits that it has been assessed additional amounts
by tax authorities in Brazil and that it is the subject of civil and
criminal tax investigations in Norway.
In 2007 there were reports that Transocean was among a group of oil
services firms being investigated for violations of the Foreign Corrupt
Practices Act in connection with alleged payoffs to customs officials in
Nigeria. No charges have been filed.
An army of lawyers will be arguing over the relative responsibility
of the various parties in the Gulf spill for a long time to come. But
one thing is clear: Transocean, like BP, brought a dubious legacy to
this tragic situation.
Oil spill changes everything
Posted by Michael Brune on May 2nd, 2010
Originally posted on CNN.com on May 1.
Editor's note: Michael Brune is
executive director of the Sierra Club and former director of the
Rainforest Action Network.
The oil disaster
plaguing the Gulf of Mexico and our coastal states puts our desperate
need for a new clean energy economy in stark relief. We need to move
away from dirty, dangerous and deadly energy sources.
pleased that the White House is now saying it will suspend any new
offshore drilling while the explosion and spill are investigated, but
there should be no doubt left that drilling will only harm our coasts
and the people who live there.
Taking a temporary break from
offshore drilling is an important step, but it's not enough. We need to
stop new offshore drilling for good, now. And then we need an aggressive
plan to wean America from dirty fossil fuels in the next two decades.
This BP offshore rig that exploded was supposed to be
state-of-the-art. We've also been assured again and again that the
hundreds of offshore drilling rigs along our beaches are
completely safe. Now, we've seen workers tragically killed. We've seen
our ocean lit on fire, and now we're watching hundreds of thousands of
gallons of toxic oil seep toward wetlands and wildlife habitat.
rig's well is leaking 210,000 gallons of crude every day,
wiping out aquatic life and smothering the coastal wetlands of Louisiana
and Mississippi. As the reeking slick spreads over thousands of square
miles of ocean, it rapidly approaches the title of worst environmental
disaster in U.S. history, even worse than 1989's Exxon
Valdez oil spill. The well is under 5,000 feet of water, and it
could take weeks or even months to cap it.
This disaster could
unfortunately happen at any one of the hundreds of drilling platforms
off our coasts, at any moment. It could happen at the drilling sites
that the oil industry has proposed opening along the beaches of the
Indeed, even before this spill, the oil and gas industry had torn
apart the coastal wetlands of the Louisiana Bayou over the years. These
drilling operations have caused Louisiana to lose 25 square miles of
coastal wetlands, which are natural storm barriers, each year.
view: Why it won't be easy to replace fossil fuels
hardly just the environmental costs of oil spills that we have to worry
about with offshore drilling. The threat to the people who work on these
platforms has again become terribly clear. In fact, more than 500 fires
on oil platforms in the Gulf have injured or killed dozens of workers
in just the past four years, according to the federal Minerals
We don't need to pay this price for energy.
We have plenty of clean energy solutions in place that will end our
dependence on dirty fossil fuels, create good, safe jobs and breathe new
life into our economy.
One huge example came Thursday, when the
Obama administration approved our country's first offshore wind farm.
Our country has huge solar power potential as well. We can also save
more oil through simple efficiency measures than could be recovered by
new drilling on our coastlines.
This oil spill changes
everything. We have hit rock-bottom in our fossil fuel addiction. This
tragedy should be a wake-up call. It's time to take offshore drilling
off the table for good.
expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Brune.
Chevron Gets Fixed
Posted by Antonia Juhasz on November 4th, 2009
Originally published on 3 November 2009.
On Sunday, Chevron became the first oil company to come under a Yes Men Audience Attack.
(See Video, Photos, and Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum's Blog of event)
Chevron was chosen because Chevron is different from other oil companies.
It is bigger than all but three (only ExxonMobil, BP and Shell are
larger). It is facing the largest potential corporate liability in
history ($27 billion) for causing the world's largest oil spill in the
Ecuadorian rainforest. It is the only major U.S. Corporation still
operating in Burma and, with its partner Total Oil Corp., is the single
largest financial contributor to the Burmese government. It is the
dominant private oil producer in both Angola and Kazakhstan, with
operations in both countries mired in human rights and environmental
abuses. It is the only major oil company to be tried in a U.S. court on
charges of mass human rights abuse, including summary execution and
torture (for its operations in Nigeria).
It is the only oil company to hire one of the Bush Administration's
"torture memo" lawyers (William J. Haynes). It is the largest and most
powerful corporation in California, where it is currently being sued
for conspiring to fix gasoline prices. It has led the fight to keep
California as the only major oil producing state that does not tax oil
when it is pumped from the ground, thereby denying the state an extra
$1.5 billion annually. It is the largest industrial polluter in the Bay
Area and is among the largest single corporate contributors to climate
change on the planet.
Chevron is also the focus of one of the world's most unique and well-organized corporate resistance campaigns.
That campaign got a jolt of energy when Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum came
to San Francisco on Halloween weekend for a special screening of The Yes Men Fix the World.
Global Exchange and I teamed up with Andy (the movie's co-writer,
director, and producer) and a host of the Bay Areas most creative
activists, to lead an entire movie audience out of the theater, into
the streets, and in protest of Chevron.
We spread the word early, far, and wide: The Yes Men are coming! The
Yes Men are coming! They will not only fix the world, they will fix
Larry Bogad, a Yes Man co-hort and professor of Guerilla Theater,
helped concoct a masterful street theater scenario. A crack team of
protest and street theater organizers was compiled, including David
Solnit of the Mobilization for Climate Justice and Rae Abileah of Code Pink. Rock The Bike signed on and the word kept spreading.
On Sunday, the Roxie Theater in San Francisco's Mission District was
filled beyond capacity with an audience that came ready to protest.
They laughed, clapped, booed, and cheered along with the film. When the
movie ended, Andy answered questions, I talked about Chevron, and Larry
laid out the protest scenario.
Three Chevron executives, protected from the early ravages of climate change in SurvivaBalls,
were dragged up the street by dozens of Chevron minions with nothing
but haz-mat suits to protect them. Those unable to afford any
protection (i.e. The Dead) followed close behind. Next came resistance:
the Chevron street sweepers, actively cleaning up Chevron's messes who
were followed by the protesters, ready to change the story.
We didn't have a permit, but we took a lane of traffic on 16th
street anyway. The police first tried to intervene, then they "joined
in," blocking traffic on our way to Market and Castro.
As we marched and the music blared, people literally came out of
their houses and off of the streets to join in. Passersby eagerly took
postcards detailing Chevron's corporate crimes.
Once we arrived at the gas station, I welcomed everyone and
explained that we were at an independent Chevron (as opposed to
corporate) station, whose owner (whom I'd been speaking with regularly)
had his own list of grievances with his corporate boss. The particular
station was not our target of protest, but rather, the Chevron
Larry and Andy than led the entire crowd in a series of Tableaux
Morts. The Chevron executives in their SurvivaBalls drained the
lifeblood from the masses. The people began to rebel, forcing the
SurvivaBalls into the "turtle" position to fend off the attacks.
Ultimately, the separate groups saw their common purpose in resisting
Chevron's abuses. The dead rose, the Chevron minions rebelled, and the
sweepers and protesters joined together. They all chased the Chevron
executives off into the distance, and then danced in the streets,
rejoicing in their shared victory!
The Chevron Program
I direct at Global Exchange seeks to unite Chevron affected communities
across the United States and around the world. By uniting these
communities, we build strength from each other, and become a movement.
By expanding, strengthening, and highlighting this movement, we bring
in more allies and create a powerful advocacy base for real policy
change. Those changes will reign in Chevron, and by extension, the
entire oil industry. And, by raising the voices of those hardest hit by
the true cost of oil and exposing how we all ultimately pay the price,
we help move the world more rapidly away from oil as an energy resource
Berkeley, Oakland urge oil money transparency
Posted by Josh Richman on October 20th, 2009
Originally posted, October 14, 2009 on http://www.ibabuzz.com/politics/2009/10/14/berkeley-oakland-urge-oil-money-transparency/
Berkeley City Council last night approved a resolution urging the U.S. Senate to approve S.1700,
the “Energy Security Through Transparency Act” by U.S. Sen. Richard
Lugar, R-Ind., which would urge the Obama Administration to require
that companies disclose payments to foreign governments for oil, gas
and mineral rights. Oakland City Council passed a similar resolution last week.
“Good governance in extractive industries contribute to a better
domestic investment climate for U.S. businesses, increase the
reliability of commodity supplies, promote greater U.S. energy security
and thereby strengthen our national security,” says the summary on Lugar’s Web site.
San Francisco-based Justice in Nigeria Now hails the cities’ actions as a moral victory.
“I was tortured and imprisoned by the Nigerian military for my
peaceful protests against Shell Oil’s destruction of our land,” Suanu
Kingston Bere, a Nigerian activist who spoke at the Berkeley City
Council meeting, said in JINN’s news release. “I believe the City’s
support sends a strong message that communities in the U.S are
concerned about the human rights abuses and environmental damage
associated with oil extraction. I do not want to see my people continue
to go through what I went through.”
Berkeley’s resolution also calls on the State Department to support
third-party peace talks in the Delta to address environmental
destruction and lack of investment in the oil producing region. The
resolution was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin, Darryl Moore and Max Anderson and was introduced to the council through the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, which worked with JINN to draft it.
JINN says 50 years of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta has
produced over $700 billion in oil revenues shared between the Nigerian
government and oil giants like San Ramon-based Chevron as well as Exxon Mobil and Shell.
More than 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil is exported to the U.S. Yet
despite the corporate oil wealth, local residents’ quality of life has
deteriorated – their drinking polluted, their food fisheries poisoned,
their access to education, health care and even electricity limited.
“Oil companies in Nigeria have had long a relationship with the
notoriously corrupt and historically brutal Nigerian government where
rampant corruption, fraudulent elections and violent suppression of
peaceful protests are the norm in the Delta,” Nigerian writer and
activist Omoyele Sowore said in JINN’s news release. “The proposed ESTT
Act in the Senate is an important step toward holding oil companies
accountable for their collusion with the Nigerian government, which
protects their profits while killing and injuring innocent local people
and destroying the Delta’s fragile environment.”
Still Learning Nothing
Posted by Mark Floegel on September 24th, 2009
Originally posted at http://markfloegel.org/
The best time to announce the worst news is late on Friday. The
federal government and public relations firms have known this for
years. So it was that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
scheduled its press conference last Friday for 3 p.m., Pacific Daylight
Time or (even better!) 6 p.m. in the east.
As planned, the news that stocks of Bering Sea pollock – America’s
largest fishery – have declined to a 30-year-low was reported only in
the fishing trade press and the Seattle and Anchorage papers. Mission accomplished.
Every summer, NMFS technicians survey pollock. The amount of fish
allowed to be caught in 2009 was based on the 2008 summer survey. The
2010 quota will be based on the 2009 survey and so on. On one hand,
these surveys are about “environmental protection.” (Alas, we must us
the dreaded quotation marks, because the environment has not
been protected.) On the other hand, the surveys are a
government-subsidized service for the industrial trawler fleet that
pulls the pollock from the sea.
On the other, other hand (we’re playing three hands today), most
people don’t know what a pollock is, but we eat enough of it. (As I
mentioned two paragraphs ago, it’s America’s largest fishery.) All that
imitation crabmeat in the supermarket wet case? Pollock. (And why must
pollock imitate crabmeat? American fisheries management.)
Pollock is the whitefish in all those
disgusting frozen fish sticks. Pollock is, or was, the fish in the
sandwiches at the fast food restaurants. Now that pollock is in severe
decline, McDonald’s is considering switching to hoki. This has nothing
to do with environmental awareness; McDonald’s requires a steady supply
of a consistent product at a predictable price. Hoki, a whitefish
that’s overfished by industrial trawlers in New Zealand waters, will be
a temporary fix, a few years at best. Thanks, Ronald.
Where was I? Oh right, severe decline. Three years ago, NMFS
allowed the trawlers to take 1.5 million metric tons of pollock out of
the Bering Sea. This year, because the decline was already evident in
last year’s survey, the quota was set at 815,000 metric tons. The
industry trade press headlines news like this as: “Pollock prices
likely to rise.”
The At-Sea Processors Association, the trade group that represents
the industrial trawlers, will try to convince the feds to keep the
quota high and if the past is any evidence, they’ll do it. That’s why
the fish population is crashing. What’s worse, they may bully the feds
into continuing the pollock roe season. Roe, of course, is fish talk
for eggs. The trawlers deliberately target the pregnant females, strip
the eggs out of their bellies and sell them for big bucks on the Asian
What the Epicureans of Korea and Japan eat for dinner is what
doesn’t become a fish in the Bering Sea, with tragic consequences for
the sea and the other animals that live there. Pollock have
traditionally been mighty breeders, the rabbits of the northern seas
(one reason we fish them so hard). As such, they’ve provided much of
the food for the rest of the animals in the ocean, like Steller sea
lions and Pribilof fur seals. Because we humans got greedy with the
trawlers and the roe, now those species (and more) are in trouble.
Yes, eating the eggs is a great way to deplete a population of fish
(or any other wild creature) and yes, there’s more to it than that.
Global warming plays a role, with warm water moving north into the
Bering Sea, making conditions for pollock love less favorable than
they’ve been in decades past. The pollock don’t cause global warming,
though, nor do sea lions or fur seals. So yeah, we should stop burning
so many fossil fuels, but until we do, we have to back off with the
trawlers and give the pollock time to rebuild their numbers.
An irony here (not the irony, there’s too much irony for
that) is that Bering Sea pollock are often referred to (by the
industrial trawling people) as “the best-managed fishery in the world.”
Sadder still is that the statement is not far from accurate. Look at
Atlantic cod, that population crashed 15 years ago and has yet to come
And we learned nothing from it.
Corporations and the Amazon
Posted by Philip Mattera on August 16th, 2009
Originally posted on August 13, 2009 at http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/746
These days just about every large corporation would have us believe
that it is in the vanguard of the fight to reverse global warming.
Companies mount expensive ad campaigns to brag about raising their
energy efficiency and shrinking their carbon footprint.
Yet a bold article in the latest issue of business-friendly Bloomberg Markets
magazine documents how some large U.S.-based transnationals are
complicit in a process that does more to exacerbate the climate crisis
than anything else: the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rain forest.
While deforestation is usually blamed on local ranchers and loggers, Bloomberg
points the finger at companies such as Alcoa and Cargill, which the
magazine charges have used their power to get authorities in Brazil to
approve large projects that violate the spirit of the country’s
Alcoa is constructing a huge bauxite mine that will chew up more
than 25,000 acres of virgin jungle in an area, the magazine says, “is
supposed to be preserved unharmed forever for local residents.” Bloomberg
cites Brazilian prosecutors who have been waging a four-year legal
battle against an Alcoa subsidiary that is said to have circumvented
the country’s national policies by obtaining a state rather than a
federal permit for the project.
Bloomberg also focuses on the widely criticized grain port
that Cargill built on the Amazon River. Cargill claims to be
discouraging deforestation by the farmers supplying the soybeans that
pass through the port, but the Brazilian prosecutors interviewed by Bloomberg expressed skepticism that the effort was having much effect.
Apart from the big on-site projects, Bloomberg looks at
major corporations that it says purchase beef and leather from
Amazonian ranchers who engage in illegal deforestation. Citing
Brazilian export records, the magazine identifies Wal-Mart, McDonald’s,
Kraft Foods and Carrefour as purchasers of the beef and General Motors,
Ford and Mercedes-Benz as purchasers of leather.
The impact of the Amazon cattle ranchers was also the focus of a Greenpeace report published in June. That report put heat on major shoe companies that are using leather produced by those ranchers.
Nike and Timberland
responded to the study by pledging to end their use of leather hides
from deforested areas in the Amazon basin. Greenpeace is trying to get
other shoe companies to follow suit.
Think of the Amazon the next time a company such as Wal-Mart tells
us what wonderful things it is doing to address the climate crisis.
Posted by Denver Fair Food on July 31st, 2009
Originally posted on July 23 at http://denverfairfood.blogspot.com/2009/07/chipotle-grilled.html.
is getting burned by the very scheme it cooked up as what it thought
was a great public relations opportunity - sponsoring free screenings
of Food, Inc. - is becoming a PR fiasco.
Food, Inc. director
Robert Kenner and co-producer Eric Schlosser speak out and Chipotle has
to answer tough questions in Tom Philpott's must-read article on Grist.org
: Burrito chain’s Food, Inc. sponsorship generates off-screen drama over farm-worker issues."
explains that while many of Chipotle's efforts are great, he
nonetheless "cares more about human rights than any of those things."
He continues: "If Taco Bell, Subway, Burger King, and McDonald’s can
reach agreement with the CIW
, I don’t see why Chipotle can’t."
likewise, the article states, "made clear that he disagreed with the
company’s position on the CIW" even if he agrees with other things
Chipotle is doing. Kenner explains: "I was hopeful that by associating
itself with a film that promotes workers’ rights, [Chipotle] might be
inclined to sign with the Coalition . . . And now I’m not confident
in this unfolding fiasco is also noted: "Chipotle clearly resents such
critical statements at events designed to demonstrate its
sustainability cred. At one of its screenings in Denver, Chipotle
employees barred people
from the Campaign for Fair Food to speak after the
screening—overturning an arrangement that had been made with Food,
Inc’s public-education campaign. " After investigating the incident,
the article decides: "In other words, people wanting to discuss the CIW
issue aren’t to be given stage time at the Chipotle-sponsored Food,
of Chipotle's eagerness to shut up members of Denver Fair Food has
really made a splash on the internet, appearing on the websites of the Organic Cosumers Association
, the Coporate Ethics Network
, US Indymedia
, and others.
course Denver wasn't the only city where Chipotle got heat from Fair
Food activists while trying to bask in Food, Inc.'s glory. All over the
of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers took to the movies to deflate Chipotle's hot air about "food with integrity" with some sharp truths
about farm labor in Chipotle's supply chain. See the great photo report
from the nationwide "Battle of the Burrito" on the CIW website.
References to this PR fiasco are popping up in unforseen places such as thedailygreen
or even more surprising the mainstream investor blog The Motely Fool
. And the bed which Chipotle made for itself in which it now must lie can't be feeling any more comfortable.
The lesson for Chipotle to learn from its bungled Food, Inc. PR experiment? The ecorazzi
blog has these fitting words: "you can’t have your 1000+ calorie burrito and eat it too."
Shell's Settlement Doesn't Hide Unsettling Reality in Nigeria
Posted by Stephen Kretzmann on June 11th, 2009
Originally posted June 10, 2009, on The Huffington Post.
After thirteen years and
countless hours by lawyers, community members, and activists around the
world, Royal Dutch Shell finally settled the Wiwa v Shell case in a New York court for $15.5 million.
Plaintiffs in the case, which included Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., and the
families of other Ogoni men hanged in November 1995, charged the
Royal Dutch/Shell company, its Nigerian subsidiary, and the former
chief of its Nigerian operation, Brian Anderson, with complicity in the
torture, killing, and other abuses of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and
other non-violent Nigerian activists in the mid-1990s in the Ogoni
region of the Niger Delta.
they settled the case as a "humanitarian gesture" to the Ogoni. Does
anyone really believe that after fighting for more than a decade to
keep this out of court, Shell suddenly woke up and felt great
compassion for the Ogoni? Please.
Shell settled because they were scared, and they knew the evidence
against them was overwhelming. They publicly say they had nothing to do
with the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni, and yet there
were documents and video that they fought hard to keep out of the public eye.
Evidence that was to be introduced in the case included an internal Shell memo
where the head of Shell Nigeria offered to intervene on Saro-Wiwa's
behalf, if only Saro-Wiwa and others would stop claiming that Shell had
made payments to the military.
Then there was this memo, requesting payment to the Nigerian military for an incident in which at least one Ogoni man died.
Witness were set to testify that they saw Shell vehicles
transporting Nigerian soldiers, that they saw Shell employees
conferring with the military, that they saw money being exchanged
between Shell employees and military officers, and that they heard
military officers, including the brutal Major Okuntimo of the Rivers
State Internal Security Task Force, make admissions regarding the work
they were doing on behalf of Shell.
We have known some of Shell's involvement in this tragedy for a long
time. In early May of 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa Sr. faxed me a memo authored
by Major Okuntimo which read "Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence" and further called for "pressure on oil companies for prompt regular inputs."
I received that fax and immediately called Ken. He said "this is it.
They're going to kill us all. All for Shell." It was the last time I
talked with him. Several weeks later he was arrested on the trumped up
charges for which he was ultimately hanged.
In the last day, lots of people have asked me if $15.5 million is
enough to compensate for the hanging of nine men, the death of
thousands more, and for the destruction of an ecosystem. No of course
not. But was it on par with what a jury would have awarded in this
case? Yes, lawyers tell me, for sure.
More importantly, does the settlement bring relief to Ken Wiwa Jr.
and the families of the other men who were executed? If you read Ken's thoughtful and moving piece in the Guardian , the answer is clearly yes. That alone should be cause for celebration.
Ken Sr.'s famous last words from the gallows were "lord take my soul
but the struggle continues." In this moment, perhaps more than ever
before, we need to heed that call to action. The settlement in this
case brings satisfaction to the plaintiffs for an event that happened
14 years ago. It in no way, shape or form excuses or absolves Shell of
their ongoing destruction of the Niger Delta environment.
One of the central complaints of Niger Delta communities for forty
years has been gas flaring, which sends plumes of toxic pollutants into
the air and water of the Niger Delta. Gas flaring endangers human
health, harms local ecosystems, emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases,
wastes vast quantities of natural gas, and is against Nigerian law.
Shell does it nowhere else in the world in volumes that are even
remotely comparable to what they flare in the Delta.
But Shell is still flaring gas in Nigeria.
While there is no doubt that the settlement represented a
significant victory for the plaintiffs' in this one human rights case
against Shell, true justice will not be served as long as the people of
Nigeria continue to suffer the terrible impact of Shell's operations.
Shell estimates it would cost about $3 billion -- only 10% of just
their last year's profits -- to end Shell's gas flaring in Nigeria once
and for all.
But instead of putting their great "humanitarian concern" into
action, Shell points the finger at the Nigerian government and demands
that they pay to end this practice.
Send a message to Shell's CEO
Jeroen van der Veer, and let him know that if he really wants to prove
his great concern for the Ogoni people, he'll end gas flaring once and
The struggle continues.
The IDB—50 Years, Zero Reflection
Posted by Laura Carlsen on April 3rd, 2009
Americas Policy Program, Center for International Policy
At the end of
March, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) celebrated its 50th
anniversary in Medellin. The occasion presents an opportunity to revise
concepts and move toward a fairer development model. It is logical to
think that among the festivities, a process of evaluation and
self-critique would begin regarding the bank's actions and work in the
The circumstances demand it. The continent has been plunged into a
grave economic crisis, in part because of the string of structural
reforms, deregulation, foreign market dependence, and privatization
that the IDB has supported in the region. Limits on the use of
non-renewable fuels have become more and more obvious while climate
change threatens to affect the production of basic foods and increase
the frequency of natural disasters. Forced migration characterizes
modern life and growing inequality has become the most important
challenge faced by all the countries in the region.
| Medellin: site of the 50th anniversary of the IDB. Photo: www.skyscraperlife.com.
In spite of this gray outlook, it seemed that until now everything
suggested that the IDB would prescribe more of the same medicine. They
predicted an increase in loans to the region for the record figure of
US$18 billion for 2009 as a response to the crisis. This will generate
a new wave of debt in the recipient countries, while at the same time
the development model behind the loans faces a crisis of credibility
due to its dubious results. For the IDB, development is seen as a
process of ensuring the transnational mobility of capital, enabling
foreign investment, the transfer of goods, and access to natural
resources. In recent years, this model has been imposed on regions that
were previously closed off due to their geographical location or
because of little interest from big business. Now that the value of
natural resources is increasing and national economies have opted for
exports, mega-projects including transportation infrastructure and
hydroelectric power plants, among others, have become attractive again.
They generally target regions with a low population density, and, in
many cases, significant indigenous populations. While these communities
are often forgotten by their national governments and suffer high
levels of marginalization, at the same time their territories are rich
in both culture and biodiversity.
The IDB has been a major promoter of infrastructure mega-projects
designed to drive this vision. Two mega-project master plans have been
of particular interest to the IDB: The Plan Puebla-Panama (also known
as the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project) and the
Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South
America (IIRSA). These plans include the construction of
super-highways, dams, electricity networks, and more. The projects
signal a drastic change in the use of land and resources. Local,
regional, and national markets—which generate more jobs and constitute
the majority of food distribution—are seen as a hindrance, and natural
resources—conserved by indigenous communities—are considered the spoils
of transnational business.
Among its objectives, the IDB aims to generate development in these
regions. However, a recent study revealed that the mega-projects
financed by the IDB in many cases end up displacing thousands of people
who are supposed to be the beneficiaries. The construction of dams is
the clearest example because it entails the involuntary displacement
through the flooding of vast areas which often include pre-existing
communities. One example is the La Parota hydroelectric dam in
Guerrero, Mexico which would displace around 25,000 people and has
currently been halted due to popular resistance. A group of 43
grassroots organizations met prior to the IDB meeting in Medellin. They
presented studies and testimonies on the impacts of these projects in
an effort to change the IDB's policies. Through the campaign known as
"The IDB: 50 years financing inequality," these groups argue that,
rather than alleviate the issue of poverty, mega-projects channel the
profits gained from natural resources into the hands of the private
sector and destroy the social fabric and community networks necessary
for indigenous survival.
The solution to poverty that the IDB fundamentally proposes would
seem to be: reduce poverty by expelling the poor. The two meetings—that
of the IDB authorities and that of the organizations which question its
practices—present an opportunity to revise the concept of development
and move toward a fairer development model.
Originally posted on April 1, http://americas.irc-online.org/am/6008.
Not Quite Beyond Petroleum
Posted by Philip Mattera on February 20th, 2009
For the past eight years, the oil giant formerly known as British
Petroleum has tried to convince the world that its initials stand for
“Beyond Petroleum.” An announcement just issued by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency may suggest that the real meaning of BP
is Brazen Polluter.
The EPA revealed
that BP Products North America will pay nearly $180 million to settle
charges that it has failed to comply with a 2001 consent decree under
which it was supposed to implement strict controls on benzene and
benzene-tainted waste generated by the company’s vast oil refining
complex in Texas City, Texas, located south of Houston. Since the
1920s, benzene has been known to cause cancer.
Among BP’s self-proclaimed corporate values
is to be “environmentally responsible with the aspiration of ‘no damage
to the environment’” and to ensure that “no one is subject to
unnecessary risk while working for the group.” Somehow, that message
did not seem to make its way to BP’s operation in Texas City, which has
a dismal performance record.
The benzene problem in Texas City was supposed to be addressed as part of the $650 million agreement
BP reached in January 2001 with the EPA and the Justice Department
covering eight refineries around the country. Yet environmental
officials in Texas later found that benzene emissions at the plant
remained high. BP refused to accept that finding and tried to stonewall
the state, which later imposed a fine of $225,000.
In March 2005 a huge explosion (photo) at the refinery killed 15
workers and injured more than 170. The blast blew a hole in a benzene
storage tank, contaminating the air so seriously that safety
investigators could not enter the site for a week after the incident.
BP was later cited for egregious safety violations and paid a record fine of $21.4 million. Subsequently, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former secretary of state James Baker III found
that BP had failed to spend enough money on safety and failed to take
other steps that could have prevented the disaster in Texas City. Still
later, the company paid a $50 million fine as part of a plea agreement on related criminal charges.
In an apparent effort to repair its image, BP has tried to associate
itself with positive environmental initiatives. The company was, for
instance, one of the primary sponsors
of the big Good Jobs/Green Jobs conference held in Washington earlier
this month. Yet as long as BP operates dirty facilities such as the
Texas City refinery, the company’s sunburst logo, its purported
earth-friendly values and its claim of going beyond petroleum will be
nothing more than blatant greenwashing.
Originally posted at:
Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.
Norway finds Canada's largest publicly-traded company, Barrick Gold, unethical
Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 2nd, 2009
Norway's Ministry of Finance announced Friday that it would exclude mining giant Barrick Gold and U.S. weapons producer Textron Inc from the country's pension fund for ethical reasons. This is an especially significant judgment for Canada, as Barrick Gold is currently Canada's largest publicly traded company.
While the Norwegian Council of Ethics full recommendation mentions conflicts involving Barrick in Chile, Tanzania, and the Philippines, the panel acknowledged that, "due to limited resources," it restricted its investigation of Barrick to the Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea. The Porgera mine has been a prime target for criticism for its use of riverine tailings disposal, a practice banned in almost every country in the world.
"It's unbelievably embarrassing," admitted Green Party deputy leader Adriane Carr. "It's got to be bad news for Canada when a foreign government says it's going to sell its shares in a Canadian company they figure is unethical."
This isn't the first time that Norway's Fund has divested from a gold mining company. In fact, looking at a list, the fund – with the notable exception of Walmart – divests exclusively from mining (primarily gold mining) corporations and corporations that produce nuclear weapons or cluster munitions... an interesting juxtaposition highlighting the comparable nature of mining to the production of weapons of mass destruction, especially in terms of long-term environmental consequences.
Compare that to Canada's treatment of gold mining companies. Just this last December, Peter Munk, the chairman and founder of Barrick Gold, received the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honor. Additionally, within Toronto he is honored as a philanthropist, with the Peter Munk Cardiac Center and the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto both adorning his name. Similarly, Ian Telfer, the chairman of Goldcorp, the world's second largest gold miner behind Barrick, has the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa bearing his name.
These symbolic gestures, along with the fact that several Canadian Pension funds and even Vancouver-based "Ethical Funds" are still heavily invested in Barrick Gold, show that Canada has a long way to go in demanding that its companies honor human rights and halt its colonial-style, exploitative economic regime. In fact, by its own admittance, Canada's Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade stated that "Canada does not yet have laws to ensure that the activities of
Canadian mining companies in developing countries conform to human
rights standards, including the rights of workers and of indigenous
peoples." Since the date of that landmark confession, Canada has yet to adopt any intervening structures (like an ombudsperson) or develop any mandatory regulations for Canadian companies operating abroad.
Gold mining produces an average of 79 tons of waste for every ounce of gold extracted, 50 percent of it is carried out on native lands, and about 80 percent of it is used for jewelry, according to the "No Dirty Gold" campaign, a project of Oxfam and Earthworks. It is no wonder that in a portfolio with plenty of human rights abuses, the Norwegian Pension Fund decided to concentrate on gold miners, cluster munition manufacturers and nuclear weapon producers first. It is time that the rest of the world catch up.
Popular Uprising Against Barrick Gold in Tanzania sparked by killing of local
Posted by Sakura Saunders on December 14th, 2008
Why would "criminals" set fire to millions worth in mine equipment?
How was it that these "intruders" had an estimated 3,000 - 4,000 people backing them up?
In what appears to be a spontaneous civilian movement against Barrick Gold, the world's largest gold miner, thousands of people invaded Barrick`s
North Mara Gold Mine this week in Tarime District and destroyed equipment worth
$15 million. Locals say that the uprising was sparked by the killing of a local, identified as Mang'weina Mwita Mang'weina. According to a Barrick Public Relations officer (as reported by the Tanzanian Guardian newspaper), "the intruders stoned the security personnel relentlessly until they
overpowered them. The guards abandoned their posts and retreated to
Barrick implies that "high levels of crime" are the cause of this
recent outbreak, recent reports suggest a different picture.
Allan Cedillo Lissner, a photojournalist who recently documented mine life near the North Mara mine, explains:
Ongoing conflict between the mine
and local communities has created a climate of fear for those who live
nearby. Since the mine opened in 2002, the Mwita family say that they
live in a state of constant anxiety because they have been repeatedly
harassed and intimidated by the mine's private security forces and by
government police. There have been several deadly confrontations in
the area and every time there are problems at the mine, the Mwita
family say their compound is the first place the police come looking.
During police operations the family scatters in fear to hide in the
bush, "like fugitives," for weeks at a time waiting for the situation
to calm down. They used to farm and raise livestock, "but now there are
no pastures because the mine has almost taken the whole land ... we
have no sources of income and we are living only through God's wishes.
... We had never experienced poverty before the mine came here." They
say they would like to be relocated, but the application process has
been complicated, and they feel the amount of compensation they have
been offered is "candy."
Evans Rubara, an investigative journalist from
Tanzania, blames this action on angry locals from the North Mara area
who are opposed to Barrick's presence there. "This comes one week after
Barrick threatened to leave the country based on claims that they
weren't making profit," comments Evans after explaining that Barrick
does not report profit to avoid taxes in the country. "This is a sign
to both the government of Tanzania and the International community
(especially Canada) that poor and marginalized people also get tired of
oppression, and that they would like Barrick to leave."
Only one week prior, Barrick's African Region Vice President, Gareth Taylor threatened
to leave Tanzania due to high operating costs, claiming that the company did not make profits there. Barrick's Toronto office
quickly denied this report, stating that "the company will work with
the government to ensure
the country's legislation remains 'competitive with other
jurisdictions so that Tanzanians can continue to benefit from
Interestingly, Taylors threat came shortly after he attended a workshop to launch the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in Dar es Salaam.
One thing is clear, though; these reports of hundreds, backed by thousands, of villagers attacking mine infrastructure reflects a resentment that goes beyond mere criminal
action. And this surge in violence should be examined in the context of
the on-going exploitation and repressive environment surrounding the
James Bond Takes on the Corporate Water Privateers
Posted by Jeff Conant on December 10th, 2008
Back in the good old days of the Cold War, everybody’s favorite secret agent, James Bond, fought villains like Dr. No, an evil scientist out to sabotage U.S. missile tests, and Mr. Big, a Soviet agent using pirate treasure to finance espionage in America. But as Bond’s friend Mathis tells him in Quantum of Solace, released this month, “When one is young, it’s easy to tell the difference between right and wrong. As one gets older, the villains and heroes get all mixed up.”
The reference is to a shady new Bond villain, agent of the Quantum organization – one Dominic Greene. In public, Greene is a leading environmentalist whose organization, Greene Planet, buys up large tracts of land for ecological preserves. But behind the scenes, Greene has another agenda. As he says to his co-conspirators, “This is the most valuable resource in the world and we need to control as much of it as we can.”
The film makes a number of plays on the assumption that the resource in question is oil – but oil is so…twentieth century.
By the time Bond has pursued Greene from Italy to Haiti, from Haiti to Austria, and crash-landed his plane in a sinkhole in the high, barren desert of Bolivia, we make the discovery that this vital resource is – surprise! – water.
Colluding with Greene is a cast of evil characters taken straight from the history books. We have General Medrano, the ex-dictator of Bolivia, to whom Greene says, “You want your country back? My organization can give it to you.” We have the U.S. Ambassador, myopically sticking to the familiar program: “Okay, we do nothing to stop a coup, and you give us a lease to any oil you find.” And we have the British foreign office, continually wrangling with M15, Bond’s spy agency. When Bond’s boss, M, tells him that Greene is not an environmentalist but a villain, the Foreign Minister says, “If we refused to do business with villains, we’d have almost no one to trade with.” Ain’t it the truth.
The fact that Quantum of Solace makes water the villain’s object of greed, replacing oil, gold, diamonds, and mutually assured destruction, is telling of the point we’ve reached. More telling still is the fact that our villain’s cover has him acting as an environmentalist, the ultimate corporate greenwasher. The fact that the action winds up in Bolivia – the country where, in real life, both Bechtel and Suez have tried and failed to take control of community water resources during and shortly after the reign of former-dictator-turned-neoliberal President Hugo Banzer – brings the plot frighteningly close to reality. The privatization of water in Bolivia back in 2000, and the massive popular response that turned out rural water stewards and urban ratepayers to riot for months until the multinational transgressor was ousted, was the spark that set social movements worldwide on red alert. Since then, numerous private water companies have been refused contracts on the grounds that popular movements, and, increasingly, governments, recognize the need to treat water as a human right and a public good – not a commodity.
If only the water movement had a few organizers with the physique, the gadgets, and the, er, style of Bond.
While we have many great documentaries telling the story of the global water wars, including this year’s Flow and Blue Gold, one is forced to wonder if 007 does a greater service to the water movement than even our most highly talented documentarians. After all, who better than Hollywood to characterize the greenwashing corporate water profiteers as straight up evil, sans the need to justify the hyperbole?
Matieu Amalric, the actor who played Dominic Greene, wanted to wear make-up for the role, but director Marc Forster “wanted Greene not to look grotesque, but to symbolize the hidden evils in society.” Similarly, the original screenplay had Greene having some “hidden power.” But in the final cut, the director seems to have decided that corporate power was power enough.
One wonders if Dominic Greene – had he not died drinking motor oil to quench his thirst in the Bolivian desert – might give the keynote speech at the upcoming World Water Forum in Istanbul (WWF). After all, the World Water Council (WWC) that puts on the forum is presided over by Loïc Fauchon, a former executive at one of the French subsidiaries of Suez, the world’s largest private water corporation.
As we learn from the WWF website, “One of the benefits of joining the WWC is the Council's ability to influence decisions related to world water management that affect organizations, business, and communities.” Perhaps their secret meetings will also be attended by executives of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, whose recent partnership with Coca-Cola aims to help the global soft-drink giant become “the most efficient company in the world in terms of water use,” with “every drop of water it uses…returned to the earth or compensated for through conservation and recycling programs.” And, with this blending of fact and fiction, it would hardly be surprising to find Greene’s signature on the CEO Water Mandate, which has companies with such devastating environmental track records as Dow Chemical, Shell Oil, Unilever, and Nestlé pledging to “help address the water challenge faced by the world today.”
When M, Bond’s overweening boss at M15, finds out about Quantum, she demands, “What the hell is this organization, Bond? How can they be everywhere and we know nothing about them?”
Well, my darling M, the answer is simple: like transnational corporations, and like the large NGO’s that work with the private sector to reform its practices and green its reputation, and like the International Finance Institutions whose interests are increasingly endangering the United Nations’ mandate to defend and protect human rights, they can be everywhere because their particular form of villainy works best when hidden in plain sight.
Thankfully, the world’s water is safe, because, behind the scenes, secret agent 007 is on the job.
Well, not true. But countless people and organizations worldwide, from the Red Vida to the African Water Network, from the People’s Health Movement to the Reclaiming Public Water Network, are vigilant in the defense of the human right to water. With the recent placement of water warrior Father Miguel D’Escoto, a Nicaraguan liberation theologian, in the presidential seat at the UN General Assembly, and his selection of Maude Barlow as a senior advisor on water, we are witnessing a tidal change in the highest levels of international cooperation.
They may not have the brutal take-no-prisoners attitude or the classy cocktail swagger of Mister Bond, but they represent a lot of people, and they’re on the right side.
So, corporate evil-doers, and your greenwashing NGO henchmen, beware. The forces of good are on the loose.
Originally posted at Food & Water Watch:
Giant Mining Firm’s Social Responsibility Claims: Rhetoric or Reality?
Posted by Philip Mattera on August 1st, 2008
The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to slash the damage
award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case and the indictment of Sen. Ted
Stevens on corruption charges are not the only controversies roiling
Alaska these days. The Last Frontier is also witnessing a dispute over
a proposal to open a giant copper and gold mine by Bristol Bay, the
headwaters of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. Given
the popularity of salmon among the health-conscious, even non-Alaskans
may want to pay attention to the issue.
The Pebble mine project
has been developed by Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Ltd., but the
real work would be carried out by its joint venture partner Anglo
American PLC, one of the world’s largest mining companies. Concerned
about the project and unfamiliar with Anglo American, two Alaska
organizations—the Renewable Resources Coalition
and Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of the Land)—commissioned a
background report on the company, which has just been released and is
available for download on a website called Eye on Pebble Mine (or at this direct PDF link). I wrote the report as a freelance project.
Anglo American—which is best known as the company that long
dominated gold mining in apartheid South Africa as well as diamond
mining/marketing through its affiliate DeBeers—has assured Alaskans it
will take care to protect the environment and otherwise act responsibly
in the course of constructing and operating the Pebble mine. The
purpose of the report is to put that promise in the context of the
company’s track record in mining operations elsewhere in the world.
The report concludes that Alaskans have reason to be concerned about
Anglo American. Reviewing the company’s own worldwide operations and
those of its spinoff AngloGold in the sectors most relevant to the
Pebble project—gold, base metals and platinum—the report finds a
troubling series of problems in three areas: adverse environmental
impacts, allegations of human rights abuses and a high level of
workplace accidents and fatalities.
The environmental problems include numerous spills and accidental
discharges at Anglo American’s platinum operations in South Africa and
AngloGold’s mines in Ghana. Waterway degradation occurred at Anglo
American’s Lisheen lead and zinc mine in Ireland, while children living
near the company’s Black Mountain zinc/lead/copper mine in South Africa
were found to be struggling in school because of elevated levels of
lead in their blood.
The main human rights controversies have taken place in Ghana, where
subsistence farmers have been displaced by AngloGold’s operations and
have not been given new land, and in the Limpopo area of South Africa,
where villagers were similarly displaced by Anglo American’s platinum
High levels of fatalities in the mines of Anglo American and
AngloGold—more than 200 in the last five years—have become a major
scandal in South Africa, where miners staged a national strike over the
issue late last year.
Overall, the report finds that Anglo American’s claims of social
responsibility appear to be more rhetoric than reality. Salmon eaters
Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.
Disclosure Issues Bedevil Climate-Change Debate
Posted by Philip Mattera on July 8th, 2008
Big business is talking more these days about the need to reduce
greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Even long-time global warming denier
Exxon Mobil feels the need to publicize
what it is doing in this regard. Claims of reductions in GHG are not,
however, meaningful unless those emissions are being estimated
consistently to begin with.
A study issued yesterday by the Ethical Corporation Institute raises
questions about how much we really know about the volume of GHG being
generated by large corporations. According to a press release about the report
(which is available only to those willing to fork over more than 1,000
euros), there are “staggering inconsistencies in how companies
calculate and verify their greenhouse gas emissions.” The report found,
for instance, that companies responding to the fifth annual Carbon Disclosure Project
questionnaire used more than 30 different protocols or guidelines in
preparing their emissions estimates. The report, it appears, surveys
this potpourri of measurement techniques but does not attempt to
resolve the differences.
The absence of consistency has not prevented the Carbon Disclosure
Project from trying to use current reporting to understand the larger
framework of GHG trends. In May, the Project issued the first results of its Supply Chain Leadership Collaboration,
an initiative in which large companies such as Nestlé, Procter &
Gamble and Unilever urge their suppliers to report on their own carbon
footprint. It is unclear how much effort is made to ensure these
results are reported in a uniform manner.
Along with the need for improved GHG reporting, there are growing calls for companies to disclose the liability risks
(and opportunities, if any) associated with those emissions. Recently,
a broad coalition of institutional investors and major environmental
groups once again urged
the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to clarify the obligations
of publicly traded companies to assess and fully disclose the legal and
financial consequences of climate change. The statement was aimed at
reinforcing a petition filed with the SEC last year on climate-change
Climate-change liability risks no longer exist just in the realm of the theoretical. Lawsuits
have been filed against the major oil companies for conspiring to
deceive the public about climate change—including one brought in the
name of Eskimo villagers in Alaska who are being forced to relocate
their homes because of flooding said to be caused by global warming.
Famed climate scientist James Hansen recently declared
at a Capitol Hill event that oil and coal company executives could be
guilty of “crimes against humanity.” If that isn’t a risk worth
reporting, what is?
Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.
Posted by Mark Floegel on March 19th, 2008
You might have heard the story about General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. At a recent closed-door meeting with reporters, the 76-year-old, who’s in charge of product development said he thinks global warming theory is “a total crock of sh*t” and that hybrid cars “make no economic sense.”
As you might expect, the people who cover both the auto industry and the environment went nuts. Mr. Lutz eventually responded to the uproar with a post on GM’s blog site (or at least a 26-year-old administrative assistant posted a response for him).
In the blog, Mr. Lutz called his remarks “an offhand comment.” “But I think that the people making a big deal out of it are missing the real point,” he wrote. “My beliefs are mine and I have a right to them, just as you have a right to yours.”
I don’t think anyone’s questioning Mr. Lutz’s right to have an opinion. I think, instead, when Mr. Lutz was kind enough to treat the world to his unvarnished thoughts, we all had an “Aha!” moment explaining why Toyota is overtaking GM as the world’s largest automaker.
Hybrid vehicles “make no economic sense” to Mr. Lutz, who undoubtedly basks in a bloated bath of cash thanks to his salary ($8 million per year), bonus and perks, but the for rest of us poor schmucks, trying to pony up what will soon be four dollars per gallon at the pump, hybrid cars make a world of economic sense and again, explains why Toyota is eating Mr. Lutz’s lunch.
“Instead of simply assailing me for expressing what I think, they should be looking at the big picture,” Mr. Lutz wrote. “What they should be doing, in earnest, is forming opinions not about me but about GM, and what this company is doing that is — and will continue to be — hugely beneficial to the very causes they so enthusiastically claim to support.”
Really? As fate would have it, I’ve driven three rental cars in the past week. One was a Hyundai Sonata, one a Dodge Avenger and one a Chevrolet Cobalt, from Mr. Lutz’s beloved GM.
The Cobalt was – to paraphrase Bob Lutz – a total piece of sh*t. It was cramped, handled poorly; the interior was made of such cheap plastic that I was afraid I’d a) die from off-gas fumes or b) snap off the handle when I went to open the door. The icing on this cake of deficiency was the fact that the little monster sucked down gas like a fleet of overloaded semis. Yet another wonderful product from GM, polluting the atmosphere and making people poor and miserable while it careens toward an early grave in the junkyard. Thanks, Bob.
My favorite – by far – was the Hyundai. It was comfortable, roomy, responsive and got decent gas mileage. The Dodge fell somewhere in between.
Mr. Lutz wrote, “My opinions on the subject [of global warming] — like anyone’s — are immaterial. Really.”
Really? GM pays you eight million dollars a year and doesn’t give a sh*t (I hate to keep using this word, but you brought it up, Bob) what you think?
And, really? Everyone’s opinion on global warming is immaterial? Perhaps that’s true. No one’s opinion counts except that of the decider, George W. Bush and he’s decided we need to keep pumping oil and mining coal.
Bob Lutz is a walking embodiment of what’s wrong with America’s industrial policy. He’s got his head so far up his own ass that everything looks like a crock of sh*t to him. Someone find this bozo a gold watch and let’s get on with trying to save ourselves from the internal combustion engine.
Cowboy Capitalism: Chinese Companies in Africa
Posted by Amelia Hight on October 10th, 2007
Transit riders switching trains at the Montgomery BART subway station in downtown San Francisco will find it difficult to miss the new ads covering the walls, the floor and even the stairs with pictures of Sudanese refugees. The advertisements' message is attention catching: "Are you invested in genocide?" As part of the Save Darfur Coalition's Divest for Darfur campaign, the ads urge transit users to visit their website, where they are asked to demand that investment firms - specifically JP Morgan, Franklin Templeton, Fidelity Investments, Capital Group (American Funds), and Vanguard - withdraw investments from companies like the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which are, according to the website, "filling the coffers of the Sudanese government and helping fund the government's actions in Darfur." (As a side note, the use of the term "genocide" by groups like Save Darfur to describe the conflict in Sudan is highly controversial. For more information, read the transcript of Professor Mahmood Mandani's June 4th interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, titled "The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency."
The CNPC has been heavily censured for continuing to do business in Sudan, despite the ongoing conflict there. Attempting to place pressure on firms invested in the state-owned CNPC, rather than on the CNPC itself, is a way for activists to circumvent the "no strings attached" stance of the Chinese government toward investment in Africa and other parts of the world. China prides itself on having a different approach to investment than western lending organizations like the World Bank or IMF, which have numerous development and human rights stipulations attached to investments. In Sudan, this means that the government doesn't have to bend to international pressure to, say, allow UN troops into Darfur. Many African governments welcome Chinese investment specifically because of this hands-off approach. In a recent article in the New York Times, Lydia Polgreen comments on the increasing presence of Chinese companies in Africa, especially in the rich natural resources and mining sector. Manganese mines in South Africa, uranium pits in Nigeria and cobalt mines in the Congo are all areas of investment for state-owned Chinese companies, like the Nonferrous Metals Corporation.
African citizens view Chinese investment with ambivalence. Some see economic relationships with China as a source of much needed income and a step up from paternalistic relationships with the West. "Let the Chinese come," said Mahamat Hassan Abakar, a lawyer in Chad. "What Africa needs is investment. It needs partners. All of these years we have been tied to France. Look what it has brought us." Others are more critical, seeing China as just another country robbing Africa of its resources and in the process enriching local elites, bolstering repressive governments and perpetuating Africa's secondary economic status. Cheap Chinese goods flooding Africa inhibit local manufacturing and the jobs that accompany it. Unsafe working conditions lead to industrial accidents like the 2005 blast at a Chinese-owned explosives factory in Chambishi, Zambia, which killed 51 people.
The investment of Chinese state-owned companies in Africa is hardly a win-win situation, but it is easy to recognize the attraction for African governments doing business with Chinese companies. In judging if China is a partner or colonizer in Africa, the answer is probably, a little of both.
2008 Public Eye Awards
Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on September 27th, 2007
Which are the world's worst multinationals? Which are the best? These are questions CorpWatch gets asked practically everyday. Just to clarify, we do not rank good corporations or endorse any of them, for several reasons: today's idols sometimes turn out to have feet of clay. And we see our job as investigators of malfeasance. For those who want to do the opposite, there are plenty of groups out there who promote "socially responsible" businesses, and we encourage you to look them up. (We don't have a list of these groups for the aforementioned reasons, but we do have a guide to the principles that we believe good businesses should follow -- and we leave it to you, our gentle readers, to apply this criteria to evaluate corporations.)
(We strongly believe that it is very important not to take corporate claims at face value, because sometimes these companies are not telling the whole truth. This is known as "greenwash" and to see a history of this phenomenon, we urge you to check out our short history of the subject, in this handy guide written by Josh Karliner, the founder of CorpWatch.)
Today, there is an opportunity for you to get your favorite (or maybe, least favorite) multinational nominated for an award for corporate malfeasance -- the Berne Declaration and Friends of the Earth Switzerland are holding its fourth annual award ceremony in January 2008, to coincide with the annual gathering of Fortune 500 chieftains in Davos. You can take part in this contest by clicking here.
(Previous winners from 2005, 2006 and 2007 are available online.)
If you have questions, contact Oliver Classen who is coordinating the awards ceremony.
In case you are wondering, how do you find out whether companies are telling the truth? Well, here's a tip -- there's a group in the Netherlands that collects these reports: the Global Reporting Intitiative. You can even search their database to look up your favorite/least favorite company. GRI is about to launch a tool on October 1st, 2007 that will allow you to rank these reports -- if you are so inclined.
Read the reports, search our website and that of Multinational Monitor, and then contact groups on the ground to see if these companies are telling the truth or not.
Remember the deadline to nominate a company for the Public Eye on Davos award is September 30th, 2007!
Digging for Dirt in the DRC?
Posted by Amelia Hight on July 25th, 2007
Billy Rautenbach, a South African mining kingpin, was deported from Lubumbashi airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on July 18th. “He was accused of fraud, theft, corruption and violating commercial law [the expulsion document] said. He was persona non grata. He would have to leave,” writes Ben Laurence in the Sunday Times (UK).
Best known in South Africa and Botswana for his activities in assembling Hyundai cars, Rautenbach faces hundreds of charges of fraud, corruption and other crimes in his home country of South Africa (the reasons cited in the documents prepared for his deportation last week). South Africa is currently considering asking Zimbabwe to extradite him to stand trial.
But Rautenbach was also once a powerful man in the DRC. He ran Gecamines, the DRC’s state-owned copper mining company, from 1998 to 2000. At the time he was accused of under-reporting exports of sales of huge quantities of DRC cobalt when he was in charge – and diverting the profits to a company he controlled in the British Virgin Islands.
Although Rautenbach lost his job, he continues to play an important role in the mining sector, as he also happens to be a major shareholder of Central African Mining & Exploration Company (CAMEC), which won major contracts in the DRC a couple of years later.
CAMEC’s contracts were the result of an investor-friendly mining code introduced by the World Bank in July 2002. (An informative analysis of this code was done by the Bank Information Center.) While the code calls for a much-needed regulatory framework and environmental protection, it hands the responsibility for mining development to private companies.
However, it is doubtful that the Congolese public institutions charged with regulating the mining sector have the resources to carry through with it, and the World Bank certainly has not been successful in providing oversight. A memo leaked to the Financial Times in November 2006 details the World Bank’s failure to provide sufficient oversight in three major contracts made between Gecamines and international mining groups like CAMEC. Worth billions of dollars, these contracts reportedly gave these groups control over 75% of Gecamines mineral reserves. (In May 2007, the Financial Times also revealed that the World Bank withheld the findings of an inquiry into alleged mismanagement of funds in the Democratic Republic of Congo.)
More details on the business dealings of Rautenbach and CAMEC may emerge from a DRC commission that recently began a three-month review of mining contracts signed in the last decade. The commission is the first attempt of a new “democratically elected” government to investigate ongoing corruption in the DRC’s valuable mining sector. The new commission follows a string of attempts by previous governments and international financial institutions to investigate the exploitation of natural resources in the DRC.
If the commission hopes to be successful it must take a look at whose interests are being promoted/protected in the Congo and how. This would include an investigation into local elites, regional influences, international financial institutions and the powers they represent, and international corporations along with the relationships between these different actors.
History has shown that the more resources a nation or region possess, the more conflict and poverty the people of that nation are forced to endure. The DRC is the third largest country in Africa and is rich in natural resources, particularly cobalt, copper, diamonds and gold. It is home to one third of the world’s cassiterite, the most important source of the metallic element tin and holds 64-80% of the world’s coltan reserves, an ore that is the source of the metal tantalum, which is used in cell phones and other devices.
In an article for Alternet, Stan Cox quotes a miner responsible for digging the valuable cassiterite: "As you crawl through the tiny hole, using your arms and fingers to scratch, there's not enough space to dig properly and you get badly grazed all over. And then, when you do finally come back out with the cassiterite, the soldiers are waiting to grab it at gunpoint. Which means you have nothing to buy food with. So we're always hungry."
This cassiterite will inevitably end up in cheap cell phones and laptops laying abandoned in American landfills.
Despite (or indeed because of) its abundance of resources, the DRC has been plagued by conflict, famine and political instability since its independence in the 1960s. Following the end of the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko (who was brought to power by the U.S. in the 1960s), the greed of neighboring countries for natural resources forced the DRC into the center of what organizations like Human Rights Watch have deemed, “Africa’s first world war.” The war resulted in the death of three to five million people, many from famine, exposure and disease.
A cease-fire ended the war in 1999, but the DRC has continued to suffer the extraction of resources and wealth through corrupt deals between local elites and international companies. A 2006 report from the London-based watchdog organization, Global Witness, describes how copper and cobalt are mined informally and illicitly exported, robbing the Congolese people of any opportunity to reduce poverty.
The new commission’s plan to revisit mining contracts between the state and private companies is a response to years of domestic and international pressure. Hopefully, once the review is completed (assuming that it is a transparent and non-corrupt process), the international companies involved will be willing to re-negotiate contracts in a way that is more beneficial to the Congolese state and its citizens. An interesting precedent was established last year in Liberia when Mittal Steel, the world’s largest steel company, agreed to step down from an unbalanced concessionary agreement made with a corrupt transitional government once a democratically elected government was in place.
Alcan pulls out of Utkal project in India
Posted by François Meloche on April 16th, 2007
Groupe Investissement Responsable Inc. (Montreal)
Alcan, a Canadian company, has decided to sell its 45 percent stake in Utkal Alumina International Limited, a company aiming to produce alumina in the state of Orissa in India. Alcan had been under pressure for years to withdraw or at least ensure the project had obtained the free prior and informed consent of local communities.
Community members, mostly "scheduled tribes" Adivasis, have opposed the Utkal project, to protect their right to control local resources and avoid environmental damage. The project, which is in its "engineering phase" has already started to displace the 200 or so families living on the site of the future alumina plant. Herders and others would also be affected by the mining operation. It is unclear how many people would be affected but some critics have estimated that over 10,000 people would suffer. At least 23 villages would be affected by the project.
In December, 2000, police in Kashipur opened fire on protesters opposed to the Utkal mine and smelter, killing three people. One of the partner at that time, Norsk Hydro of Norway, immediately pulled out and sold its share to Alcan.
Activists from Alcan't in India, a solidarity group based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, are pressuring Alcan to compensate people whose "lives have been ruined through jailings, beatings, displacement, and even death due to Alcan’s involvement."
Last year, Alcan promised it would provide an answer to shareholder activists by March 2007 on its involvement in the project. Shareholders had filed a proposal (see 'Tis the Season for Shareholder Activism) asking for an independent study on the consent of the community, a proposal that received a surprisingly high 37 percent. (Similar resolutions typically get between zero and ten percent. Any resolution that scores in the higher end of that range is taken seriously by management)
The Indian partner in the Utkal project, Hindalco, the industrial division of the Indian conglomerate Aditya Birla group, which owns 55% of the project, has not given any indication that it will change its plans.
Alcan, on the other hand, invests a lot of money in public relations to promote its sustainability strategy, has portrayed itself as a minority partner that does not participate in the real decision making around this project.
“We have carefully weighed the opportunity and risk presented by the Utkal Project, and, given constraints within the governance structure that limit Alcan's ability to participate in key decisions, believe that we have acted in the best interests of all our stakeholders,” Jacynthe Côté, president and chief executive officer of Alcan Bauxite and Alumina, said in a statement.
Alcan says it will keep a commercial interest in the project by continuing to "benefit from an Alcan technology supply agreement", according to the Alcan press release, but it does not give further details.
Editor's note: The decision of Alcan to pull out of the Utkal smelter reflects similar dissatisfaction over aluminum smelters around the world. Sujatha Fernandes reported for us from Trinidad on a similar project in the Chatham/Cap-de-Ville area (see “Smelter Struggle: Trinidad Fishing Community Fights Aluminum Project") that was canceled in January 2007 although the Alcoa is now hoping to get permission to relocate the project to Otaheite Bay, which also serves as a nesting ground for the scarlet ibis, one of Trinidad and Tobago's national birds, as well as 36 other avian species.
And communities in Iceland have also been battling a proposed Alcoa smelter, for which the gigantic $3 billion Karahnjukar dam, north of Vatnajokull, Europe's biggest glacier, is being built. The Guardian did a great story ("Power Driven") on this in 2003, and the New York Times recently did a feature on what it called the angriest and most divisive battle in recent Icelandic history. Updates can be found at the Saving Iceland website.