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Argentine Judge Freezes Chevron Assets To Pay $19 Billion Ecuador Fine

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on November 12th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Chevron Spoof Ad. Photo: The Yes Men. Used under Creative Commons license

Adrian Elcuj Miranda, a judge in Buenos Aires, has ordered the seizure of Chevron’s assets in Argentina, to force the company to pay a $19 billion penalty for polluting the Amazon in Ecuador. The plaintiffs are seeking similar legal action in Brazil, Canada, Colombia and other countries.

Chevron – a Northern California-based oil and gas company – merged with another company named Texaco in 2001 whose actions are the basis of the lawsuit. Between 1964 and 1992 Texaco admitted to dumping more than 16 billion gallons of toxic “water of formation” into the streams and rivers of the Ecuadorean Amazon that were used by local inhabitants for their drinking water sickening indigenous tribespeople and farmers.

Some 900 open-air toxic waste pits still dot the area, where approximately 9,000 people are expected to contract cancer unless it is cleaned up, according to a study by Dr. Daniel Rourke, former of the Rand Corporation.

An initial lawsuit was filed by Ecuador’s indigenous communities in 1993. At the time the company asked for a trial in Ecuador to avoid a U.S. court battle. A second lawsuit was filed in 2003 by Fajardo and Luis Manza on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadoreans.

In 2011 the Ecuadorean courts ruled against Chevron and ordered the company to pay $18.2 billion in damages, which was increased to $19 billion this past July. Chevron appealed the judgement but the Ecuadorean appellate court ruled against the company on January 3, 2012.

Chevron is now trying a multitude of ways to defeat the ruling such as appealing the Ecuadorean fine in U.S. courts. "The Ecuador judgment is a product of bribery, fraud, and it is illegitimate ... We do not believe that the Ecuador judgment is enforceable in any court that observes the rule of law,” the company said in a statement.

Unfortunately for the company, U.S. courts have not been very sympathetic so far, presumably since the company argued that it wanted the case to be heard in Ecuador in the first place. Last month the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal to block the Ecuadorean judgement.

The company has also attempted to have the judgement thrown out by a secret arbitration panel under a provision in the U.S. Ecuador Bi-Lateral Trade. The Permanent Court of Arbitration under the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law in the Hague will begin hearings on the dispute later this month.

Chevron has also filed a lawsuit in the U.S. against the plaintiffs for fraud, which will be heard in October 2013. The company has even created a special website, named “The Amazon Post” to documents its allegations.

The Argentine ruling is a major setback for Chevron, say the plaintiffs.

"We have fought now for almost two decades to correct the injustice created by Chevron in Ecuador,” commented Pablo Fajardo Mendoza, the lead lawyer in the lawsuit, who grew up in the oilfields polluted by Texaco. "While Chevron might think it can ignore court orders in Ecuador, it will be impossible for Chevron to ignore court orders in countries where it maintains substantial assets.”

If Elcuj’s ruling is enforced, Chevron may forfeit as much as $2 billion in Argentine assets and also lose roughly $600 million a year in revenue from ongoing operations in that country, according to estimates by the plaintiffs. The company has appealed the ruling.

Mongolian Nomadic Herders Worry About Impact of Rio Tinto's Gold Mine

Posted by Puck Lo on September 24th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Father and daughter, resettled by Oyu Tolgoi. Photo by CEE Bankwatch Network. Used under Creative Commons license

Mongolian livestock herders are worried that a series of massive gold and copper mining projects will dry up scarce water reserves and exacerbate desertification in the delicate Gobi Desert when operations begin next year to tap one of the world’s largest copper and gold deposits.

A landlocked country of 2.8 million caught between China and Russia, Mongolia is home to the first "cowboys" - nomadic herdsman. Even today, two out of five people in Mongolia still make their living herding livestock, and the same number live in poverty.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mongolia’s major former trading partner, the government encouraged free market development and expansion of mining in the gold, copper and uranium-rich country, on the advice of the World Bank. Last year the country’s economy grew 17 percent from mining alone - faster than any other in the world and twice as fast as China.

Eurasia Capital, a Hong Kong-based investment bank, estimates that Mongolia sits on $1.3 trillion worth of untapped mineral assets. They predict that the country’s gross domestic product could swell from $5 billion to $30 billion by 2020, based on its mineral resources alone.

The biggest project to date - the $6 billion Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine (“Turquoise Hill” in Mongolian) - is now nearly ready to open. Located just 50 miles north of the Chinese border, it is expected to be one of the world’s three largest mines when it reaches full production in 2018. Two thirds of Oyu Tolgoi is owned by Canadian-owned Turquoise Hill (formerly Ivanhoe Mines), which in turn is majority-owned by Rio Tinto, the world’s largest private mining company, based in London.

“This is the biggest agreement in the history of the country by a magnitude of a thousand,” Jim Dwyer, executive director of the Business Council of Mongolia, told the Global Mail in February.

Indeed, even while under construction Oyu Tolgoi accounted for 30 percent of Mongolia’s current economy, according to the mine’s spokesperson. Already thousands of young people in their 20s and 30s have flocked to the capitol, Ulan Bator, seeking jobs working for Oyu Tolgoi. The noveaux rich spend time at the new Irish pubs near the Louis Vuitton store and watch Hummers drive by alongside Soviet-era buses.

“When international investors make big decisions to employ their scarce capital, cutting-edge technology, management expertise, and marketing prowess, they look for responsible partners,” Oyu Tolgoi’s Australian CEO Cameron McRae, said. “Partners like Rio Tinto prefer to invest in countries when the government takes the long view, as we do.”

But critics say that the large-scale mining operations have dire social and environmental costs.

“We don’t need money from mining,” Battsengel Lkhamdoorov, a 40-year-old former herder, told the New York Times. “What we need is water and land.”

Sukhgerel Dugersuren, head of Oyu Tolgoi Watch, a Mongolian non-governmental organization that keeps tabs on the mine, says the agreement with Rio Tinto is a bad deal for Mongolia. Dugersuren said that the investment agreement the government signed with Rio Tinto is unfair and that World Bank leadership pushed too hard for the Mongolian government to sign on. She told the Bank Information Center in Washington DC that the World Bank extended  "too much credit to Mongolia” in support of mining “without implementing compliance monitoring mechanisms or impact assessments.”

Today, the Mongolian government owns just 34 percent of the mine under the deal that was signed with Rio Tinto in 2009. Mongolian members of parliament are now pressuring the government to push the mining companies to renegotiate for a majority 51 percent share but the company has refused - noting that the agreement only allows for the state to negotiate for a larger share after the project has been in operation for 30 years - and even then no more than 50 percent.

Even worse, the London Mining Network alleges that the Mongolian government signed the agreement “before a technical and economic feasibility study was accepted by the Mongolian government, as prescribed by law." Additionally, the London Mining Network notes that the mining company has failed to show that there is enough water for the 30 to 60-year project.

This is despite the fact that mining industries consume the largest part of the country's annual water consumption, says The RiverMovements, a Mongolian environmental group which points out that Oyu Tolgoi will use approximately 243 gallons of water a second.

Meanwhile nomadic herders, who comprise 40 percent of the country’s population, will be forced to wander further to find water for their flocks, a 2011 United States Agency of International Development report said.

“(Oyu Tolgoi) does not understand the dynamics of herding and the need to follow the livestock to adequate pasture and water sources,” the report stated. “It is economically and psychologically difficult for herder families to move from their traditional land.”

Rio Tinto says it is committed to having a “zero impact on community water sources.”

“The water source for Oyu Tolgoi is the Gunii Hooloi aquifer - a deep, non-drinkable water source that is separate from the shallow water sources used by households and animals,” the company states on its website. “Oyu Tolgoi is only allowed to use approximately 20 per cent of the water from Gunii Hooloi, so the aquifer can never be exhausted. We do not need to take water from any other source.”

But many local herders are skeptical.

"When we come to the well, we can see the level of the well water is 8 inches lower than it used to be," Mijiddorj Ayur, a 76-year-old who herds his camels near Oyu Tolgoi, told National Public Radio.

Oyu Tolgoi Watch believes that the country should invest instead in sustainable economic development that bolsters traditional livelihoods like cashmere production and organic beef ranching.

“If the same amount of credit was made available to developing world standards products and services from these sectors Mongolia could sit on its wealth until there is dire need to disturb the earth,” Dugersuren said. “Unfortunately, this does not coincide with the interest of the World Bank to support Western industries to extract and sell minerals to China.”

The government has made a major effort to ban mining in environmentally sensitive areas but ironically this has the heaviest economic impact on the 100,000 Mongolian self-employed miners rather than on Rio Tinto. By contrast, Oyu Tolgoi will employ about 3,500 workers when it is fully operational, according to the World Bank.


Cameroon Palm Oil Plantation Withdraws Sustainability Application

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on September 6th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
A bulldozer clears natural forest for the Fabe SGSOC oil palm nursery. Photo: Jan-Joseph Stok / Greenpeace.

A subsidiary of Herakles Capital, a New York based investment firm, has decided to cancel its application to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) after environmental groups alleged that its 73,086 hectare project in southwestern Cameroon would threaten the sustainability of the local community.

In 2009, the SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon, Ltd. (SGSOC), which is wholly owned by Herakles Capital, acquired a 99 year lease to land in Ndian and Kupe-Manenguba divisions where it drew up plans for a $350 million palm oil plantation. (Herakles Capital has several other investments in Africa such as the Bujagali dam in Uganda, the Boke Alumina Project in the Republic of Guinea and an East African undersea fiber-optic project.)

“From its very name, American-owned SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon, Ltd. (SGSOC) presents a pro-environment, pro-resources image,” writes Frederic Mousseau, policy director of the Oakland Institute in California in a new report released this week. “(But it) is also part of a strategy to deceive the public into believing that there is logic to cutting down rainforests to make room for palm oil plantations.”

SGSOC has gone to great lengths to convince the public that it is socially responsible. “Our project, should it proceed, will be a big project with big impacts – environmentally and socially,” Herakles CEO Bruce Wrobel wrote to the Oakland Institute in July 2011. “The big question – and the real story – is whether it ends up strongly positive or strongly negative. I couldn’t be more convinced that this will be an amazingly positive story for the people within our impact area.”

In addition to Herakles, Wrobel operates a non-profit dedicated to poverty reduction named “All for Africa” that boasts board members like Nigerian-American actor Gbenga Akinnagbe who shot to fame in The Wire, a U.S. TV series, and the film: The Taking of Pelham 123.

And SGSOC also applied to join the international Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which has signed up 779 members and associates including almost every major industry player in the world, in an effort to burnish its social responsibility credentials.

Indeed RSPO was created in 2004 to address the numerous clashes over palm plantations around the world with the help of non-government organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund which helped set up the organization.
But the palm oil industry – which produces 50 million tons of edible oils and biofuels a year - remains deeply controversial.

As CorpWatch writer Melody Kemp noted in her recent article for us “Green Deserts: The Palm Oil Conflict” the plantation companies make money in two ways: First they clear cut and sell the existing high-value trees, burning the residue. The haze from those forest fires has interrupted regional air traffic and caused severe respiratory illnesses in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia as well as Singapore. Then the companies plant the spiky oil palms trees, creating vast, eerily silent monoculture plantations.

Activists have sparked a raging debate over the industry, faulting palm oil for contributing significantly to carbon dioxide and methane emissions, the loss of biodiversity and precious carbon sequestering forests, land subsidence, poverty, and for exacerbating starvation resulting from land appropriation.

The very same problems have been predicted in an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) conducted by SGSOC itself. The company assessment suggested that the negative impact of the plantation on livelihoods will be “major” and “long-term.”

Nor is the Herakles investment the most efficient way to support the local economy, according to a report by on the SGSOC deal by two Cameroonian NGOs, the Centre for Environment and Development (CED) and Réseau de Lutte contre la Faim (RELUFA). The groups calculated that the government of Cameroon could generate 13 times more employment and significantly larger tax revenue if it were to require local bread-makers to use 20 percent locally produced flour (derived from sweet potatoes, corn or cassava), using just 15,000 hectares of land.

Local farmers and politicians are especially skeptical of SGSOC because palm oil plantations are not new to the region. Beginning in 1927, companies like Pamol have operated similar projects for decades. “Plantation jobs have always been modern day slavery,” says Joshua Osih of the Social Democratic Front, Cameroon’s main opposition party, in an interview for the film “The Herakles Debacle” just released by the Oakland Institute. “We’ve seen a lot of industrial plantations develop around this area and nothing, absolutely nothing, has happened positively to the population.”

“Everybody here is self employed,” Okie Bonaventure Ekoko, a cocoa farmer from Mboko village told the film maker Franck Bieleu. “There is no advantages that the people here will have (from Herakles investments). We don’t need them, we are fine.”

“And if they come and say they want to take this land from us, we are not ready for it,” says Esoh Sylvanus Asui, a farmer from Bombe Konye village. “We will fight and we will die for our land.”

In May 2011, some 50 local and international environmental and community groups wrote a letter to Wrobel expressing concern. In March 2012 a number of the same groups lodged a formal complaint against Herakles with the RSPO alleging that Herakles' project violated Cameroonian laws and noted that it "would disrupt the ecological landscape and migration routes of protected species." Meanwhile local farmers have begun to organize against the project. On June 6, 2012, villagers from Fabe and Toko held a protest against the plantation during the visit of the local governor.

On August 24 2012, Herakles withdrew its application to the RSPO.

“The RSPO regrets this withdrawal of membership by Herakles Farms,” the organization said in a brief statement posted to its website. “This action pre-empts recommendations from the RSPO Complaints Panel to further verify the allegations made by the complainants.”

The company did not respond to requests for comment from the media.

Gazprom Arctic Oil Rig Blockaded By Greenpeace

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on August 28th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Greenpeace protest at Prirazlomnaya rig. Image courtesy Greenpeace.

Sailors working for Gazprom, the Russian oil giant, used water cannons to remove Greenpeace activists who were protesting their plans to drill in the Arctic. The environmental group took action to signal the potential for a catastrophic environmental disaster as well as the impact on climate change.

Gazprom is drilling in the Prirazlomnoye oil field located in the Pechora Sea off the northwest coast of Russia. It is the first company to attempt commercial extraction of the 526 million barrels of oil that are estimated to be located in the offshore fields. To date it has been impossible to work in the region because it is blocked by thick ice for eight months of the year. The Prirazlomnaya rig, a Russian all weather oil platform, was specially designed at the Severodvinsk shipyard, to overcome the harsh conditions.

Last Friday climbers from the environmental group scaled the Prirazlomnaya rig and spent 15 hours holding up a banner that read “Save the Arctic.” On Monday the Greenpeace activists used four speed boats to block the Anna Akhmatova ship from bringing workers to the rig. Sailors turned water cannons on the boats to force them out of the way.

“The force of the water was so intense it knocked my boots off!” tweeted one Greenpeace activist who attempted to block the Anna Akhmatova. “So much water, sometimes all you saw is white. Felt like we were in a hurricane,” tweeted another. (Watch a video of the Greenpeace boat being flipped over)

We climbed Gazprom's rusting oil platform backed by over a million people who have joined a new movement to protect the Arctic,” Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace international, said in a press release. (Naidoo was one of the climbers.) “(I)t’s not a question of if an Arctic oil spill will happen, but when. The only way to stop a catastrophic oil spill occurring in this unique region is to permanently ban all drilling now."

Gazprom received a permit to drill for oil in July 2007. The company submitted an official oil spill response plan that expired last month. The original document “shows that the company would be completely unprepared to deal with an accident in the Far North, and would rely on substandard clean-up methods — such as shovels and buckets — that simply do not work in icy conditions,” says Greenpeace.

“We can often observe conditions when the operating company will not be able to contain and recover (potential oil) spill(s),” says Valentin Ivanovich Zhuravel, the project manager at the Informatika Riska, a Russian consultancy, that was asked by Greenpeace and WWF Russia to comment on the response plan."This can lead to significant pollution in the Pechora Sea coast and protected areas.”

The company disagrees. "Last winter demonstrated the platform['s] safety and reliability in the Arctic environment," a Gazprom spokesperson told the Moscow Times in an e-mail. "A professional emergency response crew works night and day. Crews of the offshore ice-resistant stationary platform and support vessels were trained under a dedicated program for emergency response and first aid in case of sea accidents.”

Greenpeace has received support for its protest from the local indigenous community in the Komi Republic. “The peoples of the north will no longer be bought with dimes and cents to stand silently by while the oil companies destroy our native land,” says a support statement issued by the Save the Pechora River committee. “Our culture and history cannot be bought off and replaced with pipelines and drill rigs.”

Meanwhile, ice cover in the Arctic Ocean has thawed to a record low of less than 4.0 million square kilometers. The numbers could drop further given that ice cover typically continues to melt till the end of September.

"This is due to climate change," Nicolai Kliem, head of the ice service at Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) told Reuters.

Gazprom is not the only company to be targeting the Arctic. In the Nenets autonomous district, also in northwestern Russia, Lukoil and Bashneft are currently drilling for oil in the Trebs oil field.

Cairn Energy, a Scottish company, is exploring off the coast of Greenland.  And in Alaska, Shell obtained authorization to drill for oil in the Chukchi sea, with the personal help of Barack Obama, the U.S. president.

Grupo San Jose Linked to Bulldozing of Land of Paraguayan Uncontacted Tribe

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on August 27th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Ayoreo woman. Photo: Survival International

Grupo San Jose, a Spanish construction company, has been accused of bulldozing the forest home of the Ayoreo, one of the last uncontacted tribes outside the Amazon. The indigenous community lives in the Chaco forests, a semi-arid zone in northern Paraguay not too far from the borders with Brazil and Bolivia.

In late July, Paraguayan forestry officials caught workers for Carlos Casado SA “bulldozing forest, constructing buildings and reservoirs, and putting up wire fencing” on land that the Totobiegosode – a sub-group of the Ayoreo - are known to inhabit. The discovery was confirmed by a letter from the Paraguayan ministry of environment sent to Organizacion Payipie Ichadie Totobiegosode (OPIT)

Carlos Casado SA is a ranching subsidiary of Grupo San Jose. The president of both Carlos Casodo and Grupo San Jose is Jacinto Rey González, who is also the controlling shareholder of Grupo San Jose.

“It’s shocking to discover that one of Spain’s biggest companies is involved in such scandalous behavior. Perhaps they thought that as this is happening in a far-off corner of South America, no-one would notice,” Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, a UK-based NGO, said in a press release. “But if they continue, they will be directly responsible for the destruction of the Ayoreo’s heartland – in flagrant violation of Paraguayan and international laws.”

The Ayoreo are nomads who hunt wild pigs and large tortoises. They live in small communities of three to four families and shun the outside world. First contact was established by Mennonite farmers in the 1940s and 1950s, followed by the New Tribes Mission - a Florida-based evangelical group that attempts to spread the Bible by translating it to into other languages – who sponsored manhunts to track down the Ayoreo in 1979 and 1986.

Almost 70 years later, some of the members of the tribe have managed to elude all contact with others and environmentalists argue that this isolation needs to be maintained. One of the major reasons is that these tribes lack immunity to illnesses and diseases that are common elsewhere, and could die from exposure. 

This isolation has been threatened in recent years as three Brazilian companies have started clearing land in the area to set up ranches: BBC SA, River Plate SA and Yaguarete Porá SA. Survival was able to catch two of the companies doing illegal logging, using satellite imagery.

Guyra, an environmental group in Asunción, estimates that some 1.3 million acres of Chaco forest have been cleared in the last two years, for cattle ranches. http://www.guyra.org.py/index.php/reportes-de-cambios-de-uso-de-la-tierra-del-gran-chaco-americano Lucas Bessaire, a U.S. anthropologist told the New York Times that the rate of deforestation was so rapid that even during the day, the sky turns “twilight grey” from the forest fires. “One wakes with the taste of ashes and a thin film of white on the tongue,” he said.

Today the Mennonites farmers and Brazilian ranchers have coverted vast swathes of the Chaco region. Displaced Ayoreo live in poverty outside the new ranching boomtowns, sleeping under plastic bag tents under the trees.

“We are witnessing ethnocide in action,” Gladys Casaccia and Jorge Vera of Gente, Ambiente y Territorio (GAT), a Paraguayan NGO that supports environmental initiatives for the indigenous people of the Chaco. “This crime is a human tragedy, an embarrassment for Paraguay in the eyes of the world – and it will only stop if those responsible are caught and punished.”

Paraguay already has the sad distinction of being a deforestation champion,” José Luis Casaccia, a former environment minister, told the New York Times. “If we continue with this insanity, nearly all of the Chaco’s forests could be destroyed within 30 years.”

Chevron Face Opposition Over Eastern Europe Fracking Plans

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on August 6th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Anti-fracking poster in Bulgaria. Photo: Пенка ГенадиеваБългария

Chevron - the Northern California-based oil and gas company – has been quietly acquiring rights to drill for natural gas in Eastern Europe using “fracking” technology – a controversial technique. However, grassroots opposition in Bulgaria and Romania has thwarted the companies plans so far.

An interview with Ian MacDonald, vice-president of Chevron Europe, Eurasia and Middle East, in the Financial Times suggests that the company is getting ready for what it believes is the next fossil fuel extraction boom in the region.

“For years, it has been snapping up exploration acreage along a geological faultline that stretches from the Baltic to the Black Sea,” writes Guy Chazan. “A crucial piece of its jigsaw fell into place in May when it won the right to negotiate a big shale gas contract in Ukraine. That left it with an almost continuous arc of concessions stretching from Bulgaria in the south-east to Poland in the north. The blocks in Romania alone cover 2,700sq km.”

But the company faces an uphill political battle to the technology that has been blamed for contaminating local water supplies and even causing earthquakes. Bulgaria banned fracking in January after a major protest against Chevron’s plans to drill in Dobrudja, the most fertile farm region in the country in January.

Chevron is also running into fierce opposition in Romania which has a moratorium on the technology. The company has licenses in the north-east and south-east Dobrogea region near the southern border with Bulgaria as well as for the in north-eastern Romania near the border with Moldova.

“We examined the Chevron contract and… encountered suspicious secrecy at all levels,” says Nicolae Rotaru of Civic Platform in Romania. “We want a law to be worked out to regulate the drilling for shale gas in Romania … It is dangerous for human life.”

Others pointed out that the drilling would not even benefit the local people financially. “These royalties are so tiny that they cost almost nothing, the private operators who profit from the exploitation and give peanuts to the state,” wrote Ilie Serbanescu in “Romania Libera”

The Czech republic is also considering a ban.

Western European countries have been fighting fracking too. France banned fracking last July after environmentalists and wine producers raised alarms about water pollution. Fracking was also recently briefly banned in the UK.

Why the opposition to fracking? Greenpeace explains here: “To access these reserves, fluid is pumped down a drilled channel (well) into the gas-bearing rock at very high pressures. This causes the rock to fracture, creating fissures and cracks through which the gas can 'escape'. The fracturing liquid generally consists of mainly water, mixed with sand and chemicals. Numerous different chemical agents are used, many of which are flagged as dangerous to humans and the environment (carcinogens, acute toxins).

“The fracturing of a single well requires a huge volume of water: around 9,000 - 29,000 m3 (9 -29 million litres). Chemicals make up about 2% of the fracturing liquid, i.e. about 180,000 – 580,000 litres. Only 15 – 80% of the injected fluid is recovered, meaning that the rest remains underground, where it is a source of contamination to water aquifers.”

The contamination has shown up in unusual place. For example communities in the U.S. have seen tap water catch on fire in fracking areas. (Watch this YouTube video and this one from Time magazine)

Fracking can also dramatically increase the likelihood of earthquakes, according to recent research in Youngstown, Ohio, where residents were hit last Christmas Eve and again on New Year's Eve.

A new study from Cliff Frohlich, a seismologist at the University of Texas, Austin, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows a high degree of correlation between local earthquakes and fracking. “Beginning in 2001, the average number of earthquakes occurring per year of magnitude 3 or greater increased significantly, culminating in a six-fold increase in 2011 over 20th century levels,” Frohlich wrote. “This suggests injection-triggered earthquakes are more common than is generally recognized.”

To learn more about the dangers of fracking, check out the film Gasland and the Drilling Down series in the New York Times.

Mystery Threats Dog Russian Activists Fighting Vinci Highway Joint Venture

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on July 25th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Protestors in Khimki forest. Photo by Daniel Beilinson/Coalition "For the Forests of Moscow Region!" Used under Creative Commons license.

A mysterious fire and a missing activist have contributed to the concerns of Russian activists fighting a new highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg.  The highway is being built by a consortium that involves Vinci, a French company, and individuals rumored to be close to prime minister Vladimir Putin.

This past weekend, new automotive dump trucks and a hydraulic excavator were set on fire by unknown individuals, at a disputed site in the Khimki forest that the activists have been fighting to protect. Days later Pavel Shekhtman, who has been campaigning against the impact of the highway on the forest, temporarily disappeared from his flat. “Pavel managed to call a friend and tell him that his apartment was being searched. After that his phone was snatched out of his hand, and he no longer replied to any calls," fellow activist Yevgeniya Chirikova told Interfax news agency.

"The torching of the vehicles in the Khimki forest is a provocation aimed at smearing the Khimki forest campaigners who use only peaceful, legitimate and non-violent methods," Chirikova wrote on Twitter.

The 2,500 acre Khimki forest, just outside Moscow where the Czars of Russia once hunted, boasts 200-year-old oaks that the Washington Post described as “stand(ing) so thick and silent that traffic from the nearby highway sounds like the hum of a lazy mosquito, leaves fall to the ground with a veritable clatter.” It was designated a “forest park” - which protected it from development under Russian law - until November 2009.

A few months prior, in July 2009, "Severo-Zapadnaya Concessionnaya Kompaniya" (North-West Concession Company (NWCC) was awarded an $8 billion contract to build a 700 kilometer (437 mile) highway. NWCC is a joint venture between Vinci - the largest construction company in Europe with over €28.5 billion ($37 billion) in orders last year – which owns half of the venture and a secretive group of investors.

An investigation by CEE Bankwatch, published in April 2011, revealed “a complex web of offshore entities ending in the British Virgin Islands, and confirms the involvement of Arkady Rotenberg “a friend of prime minister Putin. It noted that the entities were “mainly based in the tax privileged jurisdiction of Cyprus and partially end up in tax haven companies based in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, and (possibly) in Nassau, the Bahamas.”

The NGO also noted that Igor Levitin, a former Russian minister of transport who is now a presidential advisor, was formerly deputy CEO of SeverstalTrans, one of the Russian partners. “Levitin is also a Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Sheremetyevo International Airport corporation,” writes CEE Bankwatch. “A considerable part of the first section of the motorway coincides with the route of another project, the MRAR (Moscow Ring Auto Road)- Sheremetyevo-3 toll road, which would bring direct economic advantages for the airport company.”

Violence has dogged the highway project. Mikhail Beketov, a local newspaper editor who supported the cause, was viciously beaten in November 2008 leaving him half paralyzed and unable to talk. Stanislav Markelov, his lawyer and a human rights activist, was shot and killed on a Moscow street in January 2009. In 2010 Khimki opposition activist Konstantin Fetisov had his skull fractured in an assault shortly after leaving a police station where he had been questioned about a protest. And Oleg Kashin, a reporter with the Kommersant newspaper, was savagely beaten with an iron bar and his fingers were smashed, after reporting on the project.

In August 2010 President Dmitry Medvedev called a temporary halt to construction pending an environmental review. An independent expert assessment published in February 2011 found that the planned routing was among the very worst among several alternative solutions.

A few months later, Pur Projet, a a French consultancy, was hired to advise on minimizing the environmental impact of the road.

Last month, Khimki activists traveled to Brussels to lobby the European Parliament to take action against the project. "This case is a powerful example of the need for a law banning European companies from involvement in corruption outside the EU," Satu Hassi, a green Member of the European Parliament and former Finnish environment minister who organized a hearing on the highway project, told The Moscow Times.

On July 20 the construction company made “a sudden attempt” to cut down an oak grove at the site. “In the morning, loggers with heavy machines started to cut down trees there (100-years-old oaks among them)” wrote the activists in a news flash, “Destruction of the forest was protected by few men with criminal appearance, presumably private security guards. Trees were also cut down near the mesotrophic bog – another piece of pristine wilderness heavily damaged by the project.”

“They destroyed many, but it’s far from destroying all. This time we were lucky enough to repel them,” Sergey Ageev, one of the activists, tweeted. That night, a mysterious fire destroyed the construction equipment and soon after Shekhtman disappeared.

“(T)he official pre-text for this action was Pavel’s participations in an anti-Putin rally on May 6 where our movement formed a “Green Column” demonstrate that Russian environmentalists oppose Putin’s course in both economics and politics,” an activist press release announced this morning. “Fortunately, he was ultimately released and returned to the Khimki Forest Camp.”

Rio+20 Ends in Failure, Corporate Capture

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on June 27th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Image by Friends of the Earth International

The United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil concluded this past weekend with no new government pledges. On the other hand, multinationals scored a public relations victory by claiming that they will implement $50 billion of sustainable changes to help save the environment, under an initiative led by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

The conference was supposed to take advantage of the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro to commit to further efforts to save the global environment.

But the final inter-governmental declaration of the 2012 conference was widely panned. “The text was so anodyne there was nothing in it which could be disagreed. So the talks fell, in tumult, to a lifeless ocean,” writes Fiona Harvey at the Guardian.

“We’ve sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success,” said Martin Khor, executive director of the Geneva-based South Centre and a member of the UN Committee on Development Policy.

They came, they talked, but they failed to act. Paralysed by inertia and in hock to vested interests, too many leaders were unable to join up the dots and solve the connected crisis of environment, equality and economy,” wrote Wisdom Mdzungari in of Zimbabwe.

Not so multinationals. Chad Holliday, chairman of the Bank of America and former president of DuPont, who co-chaired the the UN led Sustainable Energy For All initiative, was quoted in New Scientist saying: "Companies are here because they see opportunities."

“Microsoft has committed to going carbon neutral and will be rolling out an internal carbon fee that will apply to Microsoft’s business operations in over 100 countries. Italian energy company Eni has earmarked approximately $5 billion to achieve its gas flaring and carbon intensity reduction goals; and, the Renault-Nissan Alliance has committed approximately $5 billion to commercialize affordable zero-emission vehicles,” boast the United Nations in an official statement.

“Bank of America has set a ten year $50 billion environmental business goal. the World Bank Group has committed to doubling the leverage of its energy portfolio by mobilizing private, donor and public contributions to World Bank-supported projects."

Twenty years ago, at the original 1992 Earth Summit, similar pledges were made by the World Bank and a number of multinationals, yet today emissions of greenhouse gases in a number of countries exceeded worst case estimates.

For example at the Earth Summit in 1992, 170 nations agreed to voluntary reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. At the Kyoto protocol meeting in 1997 countries agreed to cut emissions by an average of 5 percent by 2012.

However, in April 2012, the U.S. announced that its greenhouse gas emissions were 10.5 percent above 1990 levels. Canada was over by 17 percent and Spain by 30 percent. Not all did that badly - Germany cut emissions by 25 percent.

The new Sustainable Energy For All pledges represent just a drop in the bucket, say activists. Daniel Mittler, political director of Greenpeace noted: “The epic failure of Rio+20 was a reminder [that] short-term corporate profit rules over the interests of people…They spend $1 trillion a year on subsidies for fossil fuels and then tell us they don’t have any money to give to sustainable development,” he told the Guardian.

Some activists say that the initiative is just “greenwash” and that the Sustainable Energy For All initiative proves that the UN has sold out to corporate interests. “Governmental positions have been hijacked by corporate interests linked to polluting industries,” said Nnimmo Bassey, chairman of Friends of the Earth International.

Rio+20 Summit Weasels Out On Holding Corporations to Account

Posted by Daniel Nelson on June 20th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Rio+20 protest. Photo: youthpolicy. Used under Creative Commons license

The curtain rises Wednesday on the 20th anniversary of the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Once again environmental groups and global dignitaries will gather in Brazil to talk about saving the planet.

Last time the eyes of the world were upon the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development when George Bush (senior) joined 108 other heads of state, 172 countries, 2,500 official delegates, and about 45,000 environmentalists, indigenous peoples, peasants and industrialists came together.

“Helicopters thundered up and down the chic Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Tanks guarded the bridges and tunnels. The favelas were in lockdown, schools closed and supermarkets stood empty,” remembers John Vidal in the Guardian. “The Dalai Lama meditated with Shirley MacLaine on the beach at dawn, Jane Fonda and Pelé turned up, as did Fidel Castro, train robber Ronnie Biggs, and an obscure US senator called Al Gore.”

The 2012 United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development that runs from 20-22 June event is a relatively tame affair but make no mistake, there have been major changes in the last two decades. One of the biggest differences is the enormous growth in corporate power.

Just before the first Rio Summit, the UN Code of Conduct on Multinational Corporations was abandoned, and just after the meeting, the UN Centre on Multinational Corporations was closed.  Subsequent deepening corporate involvement with UN agencies stems from their accreditation to the summit, alongside civil society groups. A decade later, the international environmental organisation Friends of the Earth commented, “Some people date the rise of corporate globalization” from this period.

Yet as Helena Paul of EcoNexus points out, greater corporate participation has not been accompanied by greater obligations.

“It is strange that there has been so little discussion about controlling corporate power and exploitation in the run-up to Rio+20,” she says.

That power and exploitation ranges from Olympic sponsor Dow Chemical’s continuing failure to address the long-lasting effects of the chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India, to the case against Chevron, formerly Texaco, for toxic waste dumping and oil leaks in the Amazon, and from Asian Pulp and Paper’s forest destruction in Southeast Asia to Sun Biofuels’ landgrab in Tanzania.

One of the few initiatives is Convention on Corporate Social Responsibility and Accountability, promoted by the Stakeholder Forum and Vitae Civilis.

It is countered by a proposal for a Convention on Corporate Sustainability Reporting, pushed by UK-based multinational insurance company Aviva and the Aviva-convened Corporate Sustainability Reporting Coalition.

The proposal would commit states to develop regulations or codes to “encourage the integration of material sustainability issues” in large companies’ annual reports. There is an opt-out clause for companies, but they would have to explain their non-participation to shareholders or other stakeholders. The proposal says nothing about what shareholders could do if they didn’t accept the company’s explanation.

Use of the weasel word “encourage” is in line with the language of the Rio+20 documents. Lasse Gustavsson, the head of the WWF team at the conference, said on Sunday that “’encourage’ is used approximately 50 times in the negotiating text, while the word ‘must’ is used three times.”

The net result, in Paul’s view, is that “At present, serious debate on international regulation of corporations appears to have been effectively marginalized.”
A good beginning, Dr Alison Doig, Christian Aid’s senior adviser on sustainable development, said at an event on Sunday in the Rio Centro hosting the negotiations, would be for multinationals to pay the $160 billion a year which the charity estimates is lost every year to tax dodging by multinationals.

Fracking Billionaire Faces Shareholder Anger

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on June 8th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Photo: Gasland still. From the film by Josh Fox.

Aubrey McClendon, the founder and CEO of Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy, who championed natural gas to the extent of paying environmental groups to oppose coal, is facing angry shareholders for his profligate ways. Chesapeake is one of the leading users of fracking - an environmentally questionable method of extracting natural gas by injecting fluids underground at high pressure.

Chesapeake Energy, a 23-year old oil and gas company with 2011 sales of $11.64 billion, has bought up rights to drill on millions of acres of land in the U.S. This past March Rolling Stone magazine described the company thus: “It’s not only toxic – it’s driven by a right-wing billionaire who profits more from flipping land than drilling for gas,” wrote Jeff Goodell. “McClendon's primary goal is not to solve America's energy problems, but to build a pipeline directly from your wallet into his.”

McClendon aggressively promoted natural gas as part of the solution to climate change. He gave over $25 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and in return former executive director Carl Pope even accompanied him to speak out in favor of natural gas. (The Sierra Club’s new director, Michael Brune, has returned the remaining money)

But in the last four years, the company’s share price has dropped from almost $67 in June 2008 to about $18 now because of the crash in natural gas prices as well as the company heavy debt load. Shareholders have forced McClendon to resign as chair and this Friday, they voted out a number of individuals that he appointed to the board of directors.

Well blow-outs and water contamination from fracking haven’t helped the company’s image or share prices either. Alarming incidents like tap water catching on fire started to bring national attention to the environmental impact of fracking in recent years. By 2011, even the New York Times started to investigate the matter. (CorpWatch raised these questions in 2005 in a partnership with the Oil and Gas Accountability Project)

Fracking uses a mix of water, sand and a variety of chemicals, many of which are dangerous to humans and the environment. A study by the U.S. Congress estimated that out of 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products "(m)ore than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants.”

Then there is the problem of waste waters. "Since there were no laws covering the disposal of this stuff at first, they (fracking companies) just dumped it into rivers or hauled it off to sewage plants to be 'treated,' which they knew didn't work," Deborah Goldberg, a lawyer at Earthjustice, told Rolling Stone. "They just wanted to get rid of the stuff as quickly and as cheaply as possible."

McClendon also brought attention to his company by funding right-wing causes like the Swift Boat attacks against John Kerry in 2004 and contributing more than $500,000 to stop gay marriage.

The latest scandal to entwine McClendon are his spendthrift ways. He shot to fame when he paid himself $112 million in 2008. Now Reuters has uncovered documents on how McClendon fused his personal expenses with that of the company.

“In 2010, Chesapeake employees spent more than 15,000 hours working on McClendon's personal projects at a cost of about $3 million,” write John Shiffman, Anna Driver and Brian Grow. The journalists report that McClendon arranged for over $1.5 billion in personal loans using his interest in company-owned wells as collateral. He bought a house on Bermuda's so-called billionaire's row, which includes houses purchased by Michael Bloomberg, Ross Perot and Silvio Berlusconi.

He was generous with shareholder’s money too. “On one flight, nine friends of McClendon's wife took a Chesapeake-leased jet to Bermuda without any McClendons aboard,” Reuters reports.

Small wonder that Forbes magaine once called him “America’s Most Reckless Billionaire.” Today, it's a bit hard to shed a tear for his plunging fortunes.

Beef from Brazil: JBS Faces Allegations of Amazon Deforestation

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on June 6th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Broken Promises video footage from Todd Southgate, Greenpeace.

The Xavante tribe in western Brazil and the Parakana tribe in the north-east are separated by a thousand miles of the Amazon basin but they face a common threat: the sprawling global beef export empire controlled by the Batista family from the state of Goiás.

JBS S.A. was founded in 1953 by Jose Batista Sobrinho as a small slaughterhouse in the town of Anapolis. In the last decade, JBS expanded to Argentina, acquired Smithfield and Swift Foods in the U.S. and Tasman in Australia, to make it a $33 billion multinational. Today JBS slaughters 90,000 head of cattle a day, employs 125,000 workers and exports to 150 countries, according to company statistics.

The company has benefited from loans from the World Bank and generous support from the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who helped turn the country into the world’s largest beef exporter. Much of this has come at the expense of the environment: One out of three of the 200 million cattle in Brazil graze on land cleared from the Amazon rainforest.

In an admiring article describing how the company now supplies beef from “farm to fork” to “feed ... the middle class” a Washington Post reporter described the efficiency of company operations in Lins, Brazil, in April 2011: “(T)he animal is rendered unconscious by a captive bolt pistol. It is hoisted up by its hind legs. A worker then slices the carotid artery and jugular vein, and the steer bleeds to death in seconds.”

“A processing line of workers, all in hard hats and white aprons, then skin, debone, slice, can and package the meat … The final product: rump roasts or tenderloins, corned beef or beef jerky, to be exported as far away as London.”

But behind this tale is another story tracked by environmental researchers from Greenpeace who uncovered “numerous new cases of JBS purchasing cattle directly and indirectly from farms involved in illegal deforestation, invasion of protected areas and indigenous lands, and also of farms using slave labour.”

Over a couple of months in 2011, Greenpeace researchers traced 834 cattle raised on illegal farms with names like Panorama and Fortoleza (fortress) inside the Maraiwatsede reserve that were sent for slaughter to the Água Boa plant in Mato Grosso (financed by the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank). The reserve is the home of the Xavante people.

“The Xavantes can no longer fish because the rivers have run dry or are contaminated due to the destruction of forests, landfills invading river systems in an effort to expand pastoral areas, plus extensive use of agrochemicals. Now 85 percent of the forest has been cut down and the Xavante people’s reports to the authorities describe substantial conflict with farmers accused of attempted murder and destruction of property,” write the authors of JBS Scorecard, the new Greenpeace report.

The situation is similar for the Parakana tribe in the Apyterewa Indigenous Reserve. In 2009, a Reuters reporter told the story of Tamakware, a tribal elder daubed in black pigment who brandished an arrow, and “made a plaintive appeal to foreign visitors to tell President Lula to move the farmers out.”

Two years later, Greenpeace found that a JBS unit in Tucuma, Para was still buying animals from a farm located within the Apyterewa indigenous land.

The beef from these operations were exported by JBS to the UK where activists were able to identify them by serial numbers on “100 tins of beef chunks, mince and corned beef” at outlets run by Tesco, Britain’s biggest grocery chain.

The new Greenpeace report has had an immediate effect on JBS sales. Tesco announced today that it would stop buying JBS beef. “We started to cut back our supplies from JBS a year ago and have now ceased sourcing any canned beef products from JBS. Ethics and sustainability remain an important part of our dialogue with suppliers,” a spokesman told the Telegraph newspaper.

For its part, JBS wrote to Greenpeace claiming that it was "fully committed to sourcing livestock from farms that are not involved in any illegal activities, including illegal deforestation, the invasion of indigenous lands or the use of any form of slavery.” It did not confirm or deny the NGO’s research.

Coral Before Coal: Great Barrier Reef Projects Halted

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on June 5th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Great Barrier Reef. Photo: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE. Used under Creative Commons license.

A $6.3 billion coal mine project in the Galilee Basin in Queensland that could impact the Great Barrier Reef, has been halted by Tony Burke, Australian environment minister. The Alpha project is the first of several major coal projects in the northern Australian state that are being pushed by Campbell Newman, the state premier, who gave it the go-ahead in late May.

‘‘I don’t have the level of trust in the Queensland government which I wish I had,’’ Burke told reporters. ‘‘I cannot trust them with Queensland jobs. I cannot trust them with the Great Barrier Reef and that’s why I’ll be taking the action I’ve described.’’

The Alpha project is being developed by Hancock Prospecting, which is owned by Gina Rinehart, an Australian billionaire and sponsor of anti-climate change scientists. Rinehart has previously come under fire for her plan to import 1,700 workers to develop the Roy Hill iron mine in Western Australia under an Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA).

Rinehart has teamed up with GVK Power & Infrastructure, an Indian multinational from Secunderabad in Andhra Pradesh, which owns 79 percent of the Alpha coal project. Other Indian companies eyeing coal projects in Queensland include Adani Enterprises from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, which is planning a A$10.9 billion (U.S. $10.55 billion) coal and rail project at Abbot Point. Also hoping to cash in on the Queensland coal boom is Clive Palmer, another Australian billionaire, whose company Waratah Holdings has a contract to sell 30 million tons of coal to China over the next 20 years.

Environmentalists say that the project will have a major detrimental impact on the Great Barrier Reef which is a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) designated World Heritage Site. The Reef, which is the world’s largest coral ecosystem, provides nesting grounds to dugongs, green turtles and seabirds which live off the prawns, crayfish, and crabs that inhabit the seagrass meadows. One species that is likely to be impacted is the rare snub nose dolphin.

“Boom Goes the Reef”
– a new report issued by Greenpeace Australia in March 2012 – notes that current plans for coal mining and export expansion call for 10,150 ship journeys out of Queensland ports by 2020, up from 1,722 in 2011. The environmental group noted that a number of accidents have already threatened the delicate corals such as the grounding of the Shen Neng 1 coal cargo ship in April 2010.

Just two weeks ago another ship – the ID Integrity from Hong Kong – broke down off Cairns, provoking a warning from activist group GetUp! which is also campaigning against the coal mining. "The incident should be of concern to all Australians. It's more likely to occur in the future as we see more and more ships use the Great Barrier Reef to export coal," GetUp! national director Simon Sheikh told ABC Radio.

The Australian Green party is also opposed to the coal developments in Queensland. “(We) are calling on the Australian Government to end this shambolic state of affairs, compel a real and comprehensive strategic assessment of the coal export developments for the Reef, and stop trying to give away their environmental responsibilities,” said Senator Larissa Waters, the party’s environment spokesperson. “Campbell Newman’s response … “We’re in the coal business”, could leave no shred of doubt that Queensland will not hesitate to allow the destruction of the environment, even our World Heritage icons, to boost the profits of mining billionaires.”

The coal projects are just the latest of major industrial expansion project proposed for the region. In 2008, CorpWatch wrote about plans for a $3 billion bauxite refinery to be developed by the Aluminum Corporation of China Limited (Chalco) in the Keela wetlands. That project was shelved in late 2009.

Footnote:

“Banjo Rinehart” fancies herself as a poet and a champion of the downtrodden. Here’s a ditty that she had inscribed on a rock from the Roy Hill mine and installed just outside Perth to prove it!

“The globe is sadly groaning with debt, poverty and strife
And billions now are pleading to enjoy are better life
Their hope lies with resources buried deep within the earth …

Develop North Australia, embrace multiculturalism
and welcome short term foreign workers to our shores
To benefit from the export of our minerals and ores
The world’s poor need our resources: do not leave them to their fate”


Ikea Furniture Made From Ancient Russian Trees

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on May 31st, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Swedwood pine lumber from Karelia. Age range approx. 200-600 years old. Photo: Protect the Forest Sweden.

Kalevala, a 19th century epic poem from Finland, is often considered the heart of the Finnish national identity. It was inspired by traditional verses from the ancient forests on the border of central Finland and Russia. Today some of the 600 year old trees around the Kalevala national park are being chopped up to make cheap furniture for Ikea, the Swedish home furnishing chain, according to activists.

Ikea, which is based in Delft, Netherlands, sells €23.5 billion ($30 billion) worth of goods every year from shelves to entire kitchens through its 300 shops around the world. Wood is used in roughly 60 percent of the products that it stocks – according to IPS news agency - and one of the company’s slogans is: "We Love Wood"

Critics are now questioning what this love for wood really represents.

In 2010 and 2011 activists from Protect the Forest Sweden took photos of lumber being hauled out of high conservation value forests just outside Kalevala national park in Russia by a company named Swedwood Karelia.

Protect the Forest immediately sent a letter of complaint to Nikolay Tochilov, the director of NEPCon, a Danish NGO that helps monitor sustainable forestry projects for Ikea. “Swedwood Karelia and their owner Ikea … state that they do not log primeval forests and that they do not cut hundred of years old trees,” wrote Viktor Säfve and Daniel Rutschman of Protect the Forest in a September 21, 2011 letter. “They … are clearly misleading their customers through marketing and through media, stating that their forestry is ecologically, socially and economically sustainable.”

Just 10 percent of the ancient old-growth forests remain in Karelia, according to the forest department of SPOK, the Karelia Regional Nature Conservancy, a Russian NGO. Swedish public service television recently estimated that Swedwood is further depleting that stock by cutting down about 1,400 acres of forest a year.

Protect the Forest say that the Kalevala forests hosts a number of red-list species, notably a number of lichen and fungi such as Antrodia crassa and Antrodia infirma (fungi), Bryoria Fremontii (black tree lichen), Hydnellum gracilipes (tooth fungus) and , Lobaria Pulmonaria (lungwort).

Earlier this week the forest activists launched a campaign against the company. "During our field visits to Russian Karelia, we have documented the reality of IKEA's forestry, and it's a far cry from the fine words in their advertising," Säfve wrote in the press release. "You must immediately stop logging old-growth forests, and you must stop lying! Those are two of the demands we make of IKEA."

“We believe the future of forestry in Russia lies in sustainably managing the vast areas of secondary forests – not in destroying the last intact areas of primeval forests,” Säfve and Rutschman wrote. “There are excellent conditions in Karelia to implement selective cutting methods in unmanaged, naturally regenerated secondary forests.”

Ikea disputes the charges. "Swedwood has played an important role in the advancement of forestry in Karelia. Our goal is to develop and improve forest management," Anders Hildeman, forest manager at Ikea told IPS. “We will continue to work according to the principles that we agreed on together with Russian environmental organisations like SPOK.

How Obama Helped Authorize Shell’s Drilling the Arctic

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on May 23rd, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Protestor dressed as Grim Reaper outside Shell annual meeting in London. Photo: rikki (indymedia). Used under Creative Commons license.

President Barack Obama personally helped Shell obtain authorization to drill for oil in Alaska, according to a 4,678 word front page article in the New York Times. This is a startling break from decades long U.S. policy which regarded the environment in the Arctic region too fragile to tamper with.

“(T)he president concluded that the reward was worth the risk, and created an unusual interagency group, overseen by a midlevel White House aide, to clear Shell’s path through the often fractious federal regulatory bureaucracy,” write John Broder and Clifford Krauss.

In November 2010, almost two years after he was elected, Obama told William K. Reilly and Carol M. Browner, two former heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, what he wanted them to do. “Where are you coming out on the offshore Arctic?” he asked. “What that told me,” Reilly told the New York Times, “was that the president had already gotten deeply into this issue and was prepared to go forward.”

The article describes the clash between two powerful men, Edward Itta, the former mayor of Inupiat North Slope Borough, and Pete Slaiby, Shell Alaska vice president. The story is already the basis of a new book, “The Eskimo and the Oil Man: The Battle at the Top of the World for America’s Future,” by Bob Reiss.

Shell spent over $35 million lobbying for the permission during the Obama adminstration. Marvin Odum, president of Shell North America, and Sara B. Glenn, a lobbyist, visited the White House 19 times to meet with Obama’s staff.

Some environmental groups are astonished at Obama’s role. “We never would have expected a Democratic president — let alone one seeking to be ‘transformative’ — to open up the Arctic Ocean for drilling,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club told the New York Times.

Protests against Shell’s plan have been ongoing for years. On Wednesday, activists launched two reports at the company’s annual meeting in the Hague. “Risking Ruin : Shell’s dangerous developments in the Tar Sands, Arctic, and Nigeria report” by the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and “Out in the Cold – Investor Risk in Shell’s Arctic Exploration” from Platform, Greenpeace and FairPensions.

“Our village has been there 4000 years. Our biggest concern is spilled oil getting into the ocean and affecting the marine mammals that we depend upon. Your clean-up ability is not adequate,” Robert Thompson, a village of Kaktovik on the edge of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, told shareholders.

Others indigenous activists spoke out also about Shell’s impact in other countries. “Shell has failed to address our concerns in Canada’s tar sands, by not meeting environmental standards and past agreements, and refusing to address their impacts on our constitutionally-protected treaty rights, leaving us with no option but to sue them,” said Eriel Deranger from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN). “Our Chief has said ‘Enough is enough!’ We fully intend to challenge all Shell’s future projects until they can demonstrate a true willingness to implement our rights.”

According to a report from the UK Tar Sand Network, five protestors wearing masks that combined Shell’s logo with a skull stood silently throughout the meeting reminding the shareholders of the grave human rights and environmental injustices Shell has brought to communities in Nigeria, Rossport (Ireland), the Arctic and Canada.

Enbridge, Bank of America CEOs Targeted for Extreme Energy Impacts

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on May 10th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Yinka-Dene Alliance newspaper ad.

War has been declared on Enbridge, a Canadian oil company, by a chief from the Nadleh Whut'en in British Columbia. Chief Martin Louie was attending the company annual general meeting in Toronto where he spoke out Wednesday against the environmental impact of the company’s tar sands operations.

"How far are they willing to go to kill off the human beings of this country? Enbridge and the government are going to go on fighting us," said Louie. “The war is on."

Some 700 miles directly south of the Enbridge meeting, on the very same day, Bob Kincaid of Coal River Mountain Watch leveled similar charges against Brian Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America at their annual general meeting in Charlotte North Carolina, for the impact of mountaintop removal mining.

"You are part of the poisoning of Appalachia and so is every one of your directors and so is every one of your shareholders," Kincaid said. "You are part of the destruction of an entire region of the country."

These two new and unconventional fossil fuel sources –tar sands and mountain top coal together with shale rock –  have been dubbed “extreme energy” sources by Professor Michael Klare of Hampshire College, to signify the extraordinary and expensive technology needed to extract energy from them. The rush to exploit these source - from rural North Dakota (see “North Dakota Shale Boom Displaces Tribal Residents”) to the deserts of South Africa (see “Fracking South Africa”) that has sparked angry protests because of the devastating environmental consequences.

This week the battle against extreme energy was taken to the company annual meetings by environmental and social justice groups. The Nadleh Whut'en were part of the Yinka-Dene Alliance which is protesting Enbridge’s $5.5-billion project that would pipe crude from tarsands in Alberta over 1,100 kilometres to the West coast where the fuel is to be loaded on supertankers to take to Asia.

The protestors brought with them a declaration that read in part:

“We are the Indigenous nations of the Fraser River Watershed. We are many nations, bound together by these waters. Enbridge wants to build pipelines to pump massive amounts of tar sands crude oil through the Fraser’s headwaters. An oil spill in our lands and rivers would destroy our fish, poison our water, and devastate our peoples, our livelihoods, and our futures. Enbridge has many pipeline oil spills every year, including this year’s large spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo river. We refuse to be next.”

The company claims it is doing a good job. "We wouldn't be proposing this project if we didn't have utmost confidence that we could both construct and operate the project with utmost safety and environmental protection," Enbridge spokesman Todd Nogier told CBC TV.

Brian Moynihan responded the same way to the activists in North Carolina who told him that Bank of America was poisoning Appalachia. "Sir, our environmental team will take a look at it. We look at it all the time,” he told the shareholders who booed him.

Coal River Mountain Watch activists disagreed. “A human health crisis is exploding in Appalachia and Bank of America lights the fuse every day," said Bob Kincaid, noting that as much as five million pounds of explosives are used every day in Appalachia to extract coal. Kincaid estimated that the practice caused 4,000 deaths a year in West Virginia: "That's a newborn who never knows a clear breath, a 4-year-old who never gets to be a 5-year-old, a mother who never gets to be a grandmother.”

At the same annual general meeting on Wednesday, Bank of America also saw a number of protestors speak out against the company’s mortgage practices. For example Sister Barbara Busch, a Catholic social justice worker who runs a Cincinnati-based homeowner advocacy group called Working In Neighborhoods, told Moynihan that his bank was the hardest to deal with (41 percent of her customers have their loans managed by Bank of America)  “(W)we have no one to talk to. They do not call us back,’ she said of the loan officers. “I understand, Mr. Moynihan, that you really believe that you've done something, but ... you've got to do something about your mortgage servicing."

The North Carolina protests were coordinated by the Unity Alliance which brought together groups like Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Jobs with Justice, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Pushback Network, and the Right to the City Alliance.

Although the Bank of America protests are now over, the activists plans to be back – for the Democratic National Convention slated to take place in the city this coming September.

North Dakota Shale Boom Displaces Tribal Residents

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on April 25th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Bakken gas flare. Anonymous photo submitted to BakkenWatch

Heather Youngbird and Crystal Deegan used to live in a trailer at the Prairie Winds Mobile Home Park in the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Last week Leroy Olsen, their landlord, removed their front door and cut off the electricity and the propane supply. The reason? New homes to be constructed for out of town oil workers coming to take part in the shale exploration boom.

“This oil boom has divided the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people and pitted them against each other in a negative way,” says Kandi Mossett, a tribal member and organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network.

In 2010, WPX Energy of Oklahoma paid $925 million for the right to explore for oil on the 86,000 acres of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The company plans to squeeze oil out of shale, the most abundant form of sedimentary rock. Until recently such exploration was prohibitively expensive, but with the evolution of technology and the rise in the price of oil, many rural communities from England to the Ukraine, from Argentina to North Dakota, have become targets for the shale oil boom.

Another company profiting from the Bakken boom, which has been described as the biggest oil find in North America in four decades with an estimated 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil, is Continental Resources, also from Oklahoma.

Fort Berthold – the center of the oil boom - has long suffered from crumbling roads and the lack of good housing and proper sewage facilities on the reservation. The companies plan to invest in housing and infrastructure for their workers and plants, but not for local residents.

“Right now, anything that’s available that has water and sewer on it is very attractive to anybody that’s trying to continue to grow their business,” says John Reese, the CEO of the United Prairie Cooperative company, which has taken over the trailer park.

“We were not even given a formal 30 day eviction notice and now that we have been kicked out of our home we are currently homeless,” said Heather Youngbird. The remaining residents of Prairie Winds Mobile Home Park have been told that they had to leave their trailers by May 1, but the eviction date has now been postponed until August 31.

More trouble is expected for the tribal community: Environmental groups note that residents may also soon see problems with their drinking water. “Information posted hydraulic fracturing fluid chemicals on the FracFocus web site indicates that Bakken Shale oil wells may contain toxic chemicals such as hydrotreated light distillate, methanol, ethylene glycol, 2-butoxyethanol (2-BE), phosphonium, tetrakis(hydroxymethyl)-sulfate (aka phosphonic acid),  acetic acid, ethanol, and napthlene,” writes EarthWorks, a Washington DC based group.

Then there is the air pollution: the oil companies are not even bothering to capture the natural gas that is generated by the drilling, partly because there are no state regulations to force them to and partly because it is expensive. Instead the gas is being “flared” or burnt off, the same way Shell does in the Niger delta with similar environmental consequences.

“Across western North Dakota, hundreds of fires rise above fields of wheat and sunflowers and bales of hay. At night, they illuminate the prairie skies like giant fireflies,” wrote Clifford Krauss in the New York Times last September. “Every day, more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared this way — enough energy to heat half a million homes for a day.”

Perhaps the greatest irony is that North Dakota has the greatest wind resource of almost any state in the country, says Mossett. She says that North Dakota could supply 1.2 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of annual electricity.

Lukoil Threatens Arctic Reindeer

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on April 23rd, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Photo: Denis Sinyakov, Greenpeace

An oil spill in northern Russia from a joint venture between Lukoil and Bashneft has damaged fragile reindeer pastures in yet another blow to the indigenous Nenets people. Environmental activists have warned about such disasters for decades but few precautions have been taken by the oil companies.

Lukoil, which is now Russia’s largest oil company, and Bashneft are currently drilling for oil in the Trebs oil field in the Nenets Autonomous District which is estimated to hold 153 million tons of oil.

Vladimir Bezumov, chief of the local office of the Russian Environmental Agency, estimates that some 2,000 tons of oil gushed out of an exploratory well in the oil field this past weekend damaging as much as 14,000 square meters of land.

Oil exploration started in the region in the 1960s and expanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Activists warned that environmental problems were bound to get worse. "Western Siberia is already an ecological disaster area because of its many oil mishaps. Any oil accident would have serious consequences, that could reach upriver to the North Polar Sea," Ellen Schmidt wrote in a 1996 report for the World Wide Fund for Nature and a German environmental group called the Association for World Economy, Ecology and Development (AWEED) at the time.

Gail Osherenko, a Vermont-based anthropologist who works with the Nenets peoples, told IPS at the time that the idea oil drilling in the region would have only minimal impact was "wishful thinking."

And Russian and indigenous groups sent out an appeal in 1996 to ask the public to lobby the World Bank not to finance projects in the region. "We ask everyone to help us prevent an environmental nightmare. We ask you not to allow the use of your tax dollars, marks or kronor to facilitate further destruction of the environment," wrote Alexei Grigoriev of the Socio-Ecological Union in Russia in Taiga News.

The warnings were mostly ignored.

An Associated Press investigation by Nataliya Vasilyeva in late 2011 described some of the damage caused by the estimated half a million tons of oil spilled every year that make their way into the Arctic ocean, roughly two-thirds of the quantity of oil spilled in the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. “On the bright yellow tundra outside this oil town near the Arctic Circle, a pitch-black pool of crude stretches toward the horizon. The source: a decommissioned well whose rusty screws ooze with oil, viscous like jam,” she wrote.

The indigenous communities say their traditional way of life has been devastated by the oil industry. “There is no future for us. People are dying. If oil companies behaved correctly, they would ask us, where drilling is possible and where not, which river is spawning, where fish comes for winter cabin. Fish comes to this bog in the autumn. And now all the rivers are blocked here, and fish has nowhere to go,” Valdimir Vello, a reindeer herder told Greenpeace recently for a report titled “Is there a life after oil?” “I think that there is no future. If the oil companies leave us, we can manage to save something here, to recover this place.”

Politicians are starting to pay attention. Last week, Yuri Trutnev, Russia’s minister for natural resources and ecology threatened to sue Lukoil rival, Anglo-Russian oil producer TNK-BP (owned jointly by British Petroleum and a consortium of the Alfa, Access and Renova groups) for numerous oil spills in Siberia. Trutnev said the company has 784 accidents last year.

"The land is practically flooded with oil," he said after a recent trip to the Khanty-Mansiisk region, according to a report by Gazeta.ru. "We didn't have to look for polluted places, we had to look for places that hadn't been touched by pollution."

The drilling ventures are hugely profitable so they are unlikely to be stopped but there is more than enough money to minimize some of the worst impacts. Since 2003, British Petroleum has paid out an estimated $19 billion in dividends, more than ten times more than it would cost to repair the aging infrastructure, according to an estimate by Gazprombank.

Peru’s Illegal Hardwood Timber Trade

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on April 11th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
GPS record of felled tree within the Amazon basin. Photo: Hans Berninzon, Environmental Investigation Agency

Francesco Mantuano, an Italian living in Peru with a timber concession in Loreto region, was puzzled when he got a request in July 2010 from a merchant named Mauro Paredes Sandoval to certify hundreds of trees harvested after just eight days of logging. The wood was to be exported by Madrera Bozovich, a Peruvian company, to its sister company in Alabama.

"After putting two and two together, Mantuano concluded that Paredes was only interested in obtaining (his forest transport permits) in order to launder timber which had already been illegally extracted from other areas, ," write the authors of a new report“The Laundering Machine” just published by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a Washington DC NGO. "The average harvest operation lasts months - but the low water levels and lack of rain at that time of year in Loreto make it difficult to transport timber on the rivers.

The biggest culprit that EIA uncovered is Grupo Bozovich, a family business set up in the late 1940s by Batrich Bozovich when he arrived from former Yugoslavia and set up business in Oxapampa, in central Peru. The group – which now includes Maderera Bozovich in Peru, Bozovich Timber Products in Alabama and a third company in Mexico – is the biggest exporter of hardwoods from Peru and the biggest importer of such hardwoods into the U.S.

The report alleges that at least 45 percent of shipments made Grupo Bozovich “included wood of illegal origin” such as big leaf mahogany and cedar, which are protected under the under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES)

Surveys of forestry concessions used by Grupo Bozovich by the Supervisory Body for Forest and Wildlife Resources (OSINFOR) found some astonishing discrepancies: In the Productores Forestales Atacuaric concession, just one tree was actually cut down but its “extraction” yielded 311 cubic meters of wood. (The harvested tree in question measured just over 12 cubic meters and was found abandoned in the forest)  In the Oroza Wood S.A.C. concession, government investigators found 14 cedar stumps that turned out to be “disks of roundwood cut from logs and planted in the ground for the benefit of the supervisors.”

“Sometimes intentionally, sometimes through sheer negligence, each of the actors and agencies involved in this system are working as gears in a well-oiled machine that is ransacking Peru's forests and undermining the livelihoods and rights of the people that depend on them," write the EIA investigators. The cost to Peru is estimated to be $250 million a year.

The company denies the allegation. "Bozovich's exports to USA comply with the terms and condition of Lacey Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora," a U.S. spokesman told Inter Press Service.  (The 2008 Lacey Act requires buyers to practice "due care" to make sure that their products are legal. This is typically done by examining the export certificates)

Experts say that the problem is global. "Justice for Timber" - a March 2012 World Bank report explains the extent of the problem: “Every two seconds, across the world, an area of forest the size of a football field is clear-cut by illegal loggers. In some countries, up to 90% of all the logging taking place is illegal. Estimates suggest that this criminal activity generates approximately US $10-15 billion annually worldwide-funds that are unregulated, untaxed, and often remain in the hands of organized criminal gangs.”

Fracking South Africa

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on March 29th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Karoo, South Africa. Photo: flowcomm. Used under Creative Commons license

The Karoo is not as well known as Kruger National Park with its elephants, leopards and lions. Located in the Western Cape region of South Africa, it is a desert area that is home to tortoises and eagles, and has been the subject of recent experiments to resettle the black rhino and resurrect the quagga, an unusual zebra like creature that went extinct in 1998. But today the people, flora and fauna of the Karoo are threatened by companies like Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil company, which wants to drill for natural gas.

Like many ancient lands, the Karoo has fossil fuels trapped underground. Royal Dutch Shell, Falcon Oil & Gas and Bundu Oil & Gas want to explore 90,000 square kilometres for the natural gas using a controversial new technology called “fracking”

Bonang Mohale, the chairman of Shell South Africa, recently described the business potential as “bigger than the discovery of gold in Gauteng

However, a coalition of concerned citizens - Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) – has sprung up to oppose the plan. Their mission to their fellow citizens is simple: “South Africa cannot afford to gamble with your water supply, food security, the health of your family, and the heritage of your children in pursuit of a short-term gain for foreign oil companies and our government.”

TKAG is supported by Greenpeace, who attempt to explain what this technology does: “To access these reserves, fluid is pumped down a drilled channel (well) into the gas-bearing rock at very high pressures. This causes the rock to fracture, creating fissures and cracks through which the gas can 'escape'. The fracturing liquid generally consists of mainly water, mixed with sand and chemicals. Numerous different chemical agents are used, many of which are flagged as dangerous to humans and the environment (carcinogens, acute toxins).

“The fracturing of a single well requires a huge volume of water: around 9,000 - 29,000 m3 (9 -29 million litres). Chemicals make up about 2% of the fracturing liquid, i.e. about 180,000 – 580,000 litres. Only 15 – 80% of the injected fluid is recovered, meaning that the rest remains underground, where it is a source of contamination to water aquifers.”

Chris Hartnady, a well known geologist, says that fracking could have a huge impact on the Karoo desert especially because it will deplete the dwindling water supply. “Shale gas production would become a serious competitor for water, requiring as much as four times the current annual usage of the groundwater in all three of the Shell exploration areas,” he said at the Shale Gas Southern Africa conference in Cape Town earlier this week.

Hartnady noted that surface water might also become contaminated with fracking fluids and waste water. Indeed, communities in the U.S. have seen tap water catch on fire in fracking areas. (Watch this YouTube video and this one from Time magazine) Fracking can also dramatically increase the likelihood of earthquakes, according to recent research in Youngstown, Ohio, where residents were hit last Christmas Eve and again on New Year's Eve.

To learn more about the dangers of fracking, check out the film Gasland and the Drilling Down series in the New York Times.

Chevron & Transocean Back in the Dock Over Oil Spills

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on March 22nd, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Chevron Spoof Ad. Photo: The Yes Men. Used under Creative Commons license

Brazil has demanded that 17 Chevron and Transocean executives surrender their passports while they await the outcome of criminal charges brought against them for a spill that took place off the coast of Rio de Janeiro last November. The company has also been sued for $11 billion in damages by a Brazilian federal prosecutor.

Chevron has issued a statement claiming the charges are "outrageous and without merit.”  “We have sought to perform our operations in full compliance with Brazilian laws and industry practices and to comply with all applicable licenses and authorizations,” says a company press release issued Wednesday.

The jury is still out on the facts of the case. But it is hard to sympathize with a company that has played fast and loose with national justice systems in order to avoid paying compensation for toxic spills of immense proportions in the Ecuador by Texaco, a company that Chevron merged with in 2001.

Between 1964 to 1992 Texaco admitted to dumping more than 16 billion gallons of toxic “water of formation” into the streams and rivers used by local inhabitants for their drinking water, decimating indigenous groups and causing dramatically increased rates of cancer, according to a summary from Rainforest Action Network.

In 2002, Chevron asked for a trial in Ecuador to avoid a U.S. court battle. Eight years and 220,000 pages of evidence later, the courts ordered the company to pay $18.2 billion in damages. Chevron appealed but the Ecuadorean appellate court ruled against them on January 3, 2012. Now the company is attempting to have the judgement thrown out by a secret arbitration panel under a provision in the U.S. Ecuador Bi-Lateral Trade Agreement.

“Chevron won’t pay to clean up the toxic oil waste it deliberately dumped in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which has resulted in a human health crisis for the people living in the region. But it will pay thousands to lobby state leaders and ambassadors to extend its extreme investor rights, and continue to evade justice elsewhere,” said Ginger Cassady, campaign director at Rainforest Action Network.

Transocean, which is one of the largest offshore drilling contractors, has also been in trouble over oil spills. The U.S. company, which is headquartered in Switzerland was implicated in the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 men on April 10, 2010. Approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico which caused major damage to the local marine environment and the fishing and tourism industries.

A Wall Street Journal review found that the company was involved in “three of every four incidents that triggered federal investigations into safety and other problems on deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico since 2008.” The newspaper noted that Transocean has accounted for 24 of the 33 incidents investigated by the U.S. Minerals Management Service despite during that time owning fewer than half the Gulf of Mexico rigs operating in more than 3,000 feet of water.

Oil companies rank among the most profitable in the world. Chevron pulled in $26.9 billion in profits last year and Transocean made close to a billion dollars. Surely they could spare some of that money to pay for the clean-up of the mess they leave behind?

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.

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/deepwaterhorizon1.jpg

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 were there.

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.

tzleft.michael.brune.eanes.jpg

Michael Brune

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.

We are 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.

This 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 Atlantic Coast.

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.

Another view: Why it won't be easy to replace fossil fuels

And it's 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 Management Service.

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.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Brune.




Chevron Gets Fixed

Posted by Antonia Juhasz on November 4th, 2009
Huffington Post

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 Chevron too!

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 Corporation itself.

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 altogether.




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 market.

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 back.

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 environmental regulations.

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.

Wal-Mart’s (Un)sustainability Index

Posted by Philip Mattera on July 24th, 2009

Originally posted on July 24 at http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/703.

Wal-Mart has taken the latest in a long series of steps to make itself look good by imposing burdens on its suppliers. The mammoth retailer, which is thriving amid the recession, recently announced plans to require its more than 100,000 suppliers to provide information about their operations that would form the basis of a product sustainability index.

Rating products is a good idea. It’s already being done by various non-profit organizations that bring independence and legitimacy to the process. Wal-Mart, by contrast, brings a lot of negative baggage. In recent years, Wal-Mart has used a purported commitment to environmental responsibility to draw attention away from its abysmal record with regard to labor relations, wage and hour regulations, and employment discrimination laws. It also wants us to forget its scandalous tax avoidance policies and its disastrous impact on small competitors. The idea that a company with a business model based on automobile-dependent customers and exploitative supplier factories on the other side of the globe can be considered sustainable should be dismissed out of hand. Yet Wal-Mart is skilled at greenwashing and is, alas, being taken seriously by many observers who should know better.

On close examination, Wal-Mart’s latest plan is, like many of its previous social responsibility initiatives, rather thin. All the company is doing at first is to ask suppliers to answer 15 questions. Ten of these involve environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, water use, waste generation and raw materials sourcing. The final five questions are listed under the heading of “People and Community: Ensuring Responsible and Ethical Production.”

Two of them involve “social compliance.” It is an amazing act of chutzpah for Wal-Mart, which probably keeps more sweatshops in business than any other company, to claim moral authority to ask suppliers about the treatment of workers in their supply chain.

The questions in this category seem to assume that suppliers don’t do their own manufacturing. This is a tacit acknowledgement of how Wal-Mart has forced U.S. manufacturers to shift production offshore, and often to outside contractors. Now Wal-Mart has to ask those companies to be sure they know the location of all the plants making their products and the quality of their output.

The point about quality was one that CEO Mike Duke (photo) emphasized when announcing the rating system. This is also highly disingenuous. For years, Wal-Mart was notorious for pressing suppliers to reduce the quality of their goods to keep down prices. Now the behemoth of Bentonville is suddenly a proponent of proponent of products that “are more efficient, that last longer and perform better.” Will Wal-Mart pay its suppliers higher prices to cover the costs of improving quality?

goodguideI can’t bring myself to jump on Wal-Mart’s bandwagon. If I want product ratings I will turn not to Mike Duke but rather to someone like Dara O’Rourke, who founded a website called Good Guide that rates consumer products and their producers using independently collected data from social investing firms such as KLD Research and non-profits such as the Environmental Working Group. It uses criteria such as labor rights, cancer risks and reproductive health hazards that are unlikely to ever find their way into the Wal-Mart index.

Good Guide also rates companies, including Wal-Mart, which receives a mediocre score of 5.3 (out of 10), and it reaches that level thanks to its marks on p.r.-related measures such as charitable contributions and some but not all environmental measures. In the category of Consumers it gets a 4.1, Corporate Ethics 3.9, and for Labor and Human Rights 4.1 (which is generous).

Maybe Wal-Mart should focus on improving its own scores before presuming to rate everyone else.

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

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.

Shell says 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 for all.

The struggle continues.

What's not in Chevron's annual report

Posted by Cameron Scott on May 26th, 2009

Originally posted at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/green/detail?entry_id=40674

When people with strong ideological perspectives are often outraged by media coverage of their pet issues. When both sides are mad, you know you're doing something right. But how often do you hear corporations furious about they way they are covered in the business section? The section seems to lend itself to favor-currying and soft-shoeing.

In the lead-up to Chevron's annual shareholders meeting tomorrow in San Ramon, the company landed a puff piece on KGO focusing on its efforts to decrease its water usage. No mention of the Amazon controversy, and no mention of outside pressure on Chevron, EBMUD's largest water user.

I'm disappointed to say that a Chronicle interview with the company's top lawyer also softballs the issues, while giving Chevron the opportunity to present its side of the story with no opportunity for response from the company's many critics. [Update: Chron editors tell me there will be more coverage of Chevron later in the week.]

Well, Chevron's opponents, including San Francisco's Amazon Watch, have taken matters into their own hands, releasing an alternate annual report that presents the externalities not listed in the company's balance sheet, which shows a record profit of $24 billion, making the company the second most profitable in the United States.

Did you know that Chevron's Richmond refinery was built in 1902 and emitted 100,000 pounds of toxic waste in 2007, consisting of no less than 38 toxic substances? The EPA ranks it as one of the worst refineries in the nation. With 17,000 people living within 3 miles from the plant, you'd think the San Ramon-based company would take local heat from more than just a couple dozen activists.

Chevron has sought to brand itself an "energy" company, one eagerly pursuing alternatives to petroleum. Its aggressive "Will You Join Us?" ad campaign asked regular folks to reduce their energy consumption, suggesting that Chevron was doing the same. In actuality, the company spent less than 3 percent of its whopping capital and exploratory expenditures on alternative energy. And it has refused to offer better reporting on its greenhouse gas emissions, despite strong shareholder support for it. (The aggressive, and misleading, ad campaign seems to have ired the report's researchers as well: The report is decorated by numerous parodies, and some have been wheat-pasted around town.)

It's a very well researched report, written by the scholar Antonia Juhasz, clearly divided into regional issues, and it's a much needed counterbalance to the friendly coverage Chevron is otherwise getting. (Juhasz was interviewed on Democracy Now this morning.)

For information on protesting the shareholder meeting early tomorrow morning, click here.

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:

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/327

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
protestbarrick.net

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
ProtestBarrick.net

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 safety."

While 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 mining.'"

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 mine.

James Bond Takes on the Corporate Water Privateers

Posted by Jeff Conant on December 10th, 2008

Spoiler Alert!

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:

http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/blog/archive/2008/11/20/james-bond-takes-on-the-corporate-water-privateers/view

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 operations.

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 beware. 

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/148

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 disclosure.

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?

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/99

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Bye, American

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.

http://markfloegel.org/2008/03/06/bye-american/ 

Is Big Business Buying Out The Environmental Movement?

Posted by Philip Mattera on June 5th, 2007
Good Jobs First


In the business world these days, it appears that just about everything is for sale. Multi-billion-dollar deals are commonplace, and even venerable institutions such as the Wall Street Journal find themselves put into play. Yet companies are not the only things being acquired. This may turn out to be the year that big business bought a substantial part of the environmental movement.

That’s one way of interpreting the remarkable level of cooperation that is emerging between some prominent environmental groups and some of the world’s largest corporations. What was once an arena of fierce antagonism has become a veritable love fest as companies profess to be going green and get lavishly honored for doing so. Earlier this year, for instance, the World Resources Institute gave one of its “Courage to Lead” awards to the chief executive of General Electric.

Every day seems to bring another announcement from a large corporation that it is taking steps to protect the planet. IBM, informally known as Big Blue, launched its Project Big Green to help customers slash their data center energy usage. Newmont Mining Co., the world’s largest gold digger, endorsed a shareholder resolution calling for a review of its environmental impact. Home Depot introduced an Eco Options label for thousands of green products. General Motors and oil major ConocoPhillips joined the list of corporate giants that have come out in support of a mandatory ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions. Bank of America said it would invest $20 billion in sustainable projects over the next decade.

Many of the new initiatives are being pursued in direct collaboration with environmental groups. Wal-Mart is working closely with Conservation International on its efforts to cut energy usage and switch to renewable sources of power. McDonald’s has teamed up with Greenpeace to discourage deforestation caused by the growth of soybean farming in Brazil. When buyout firms Texas Pacific Group and KKR were negotiating the takeover of utility company TXU earlier this year, they asked Environmental Defense to join the talks so that the deal, which ended up including a rollback of plans for 11 new coal-fired plants, could be assured a green seal of approval.

Observing this trend, Business Week detects “a remarkable evolution in the dynamic between corporate executives and activists. Once fractious and antagonistic, it has moved toward accommodation and even mutual dependence.” The question is: who is accommodating whom? Are these developments a sign that environmental campaigns have prevailed and are setting the corporate agenda? Or have enviros been duped into endorsing what my be little more than a new wave of corporate greenwash?

An Epiphany About The Environment?

The first thing to keep in mind is that Corporate America’s purported embrace of environmental principles is nothing new. Something very similar happened, for example, in early 1990 around the time of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. Fortune announced then that “trend spotters and forward thinkers agree that the Nineties will be the Earth Decade and that environmentalism will be a movement of massive worldwide force.” Business Week published a story titled “The Greening of Corporate America.”

The magazines cited a slew of large companies that were said to be embarking on significant green initiatives, among them DuPont, General Electric, McDonald’s, 3M, Union Carbide and Procter & Gamble. Corporations such as these put on their own Earth Tech environmental technology fair on the National Mall and endorsed Earth Day events and promotions.

A difference between then and now is that there was a lot more skepticism about Corporate America’s claim of having had an epiphany about the environment. It was obvious to many that business was trying to undo the damage caused by environmental disasters such as Union Carbide’s deadly Bhopal chemical leak, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the deterioration of the ozone layer. Activist groups charged that corporations were engaging in a bogus public relations effort which they branded “greenwash.” Greenpeace staged a protest at DuPont’s Earth Tech exhibit, leading to a number of arrests.

Misgivings about corporate environmentalism grew as it was discovered that many of the claims about green products were misleading, false or irrelevant. Mobil Chemical, for instance, was challenged for calling its new Hefty trash bags biodegradable, since that required extended exposure to light rather than their usual fate of being buried in landfills. Procter & Gamble was taken to task for labeling its Pampers and Luvs disposable diapers “compostable” when only a handful of facilities in the entire country were equipped to do such processing. Various companies bragged that their products in aerosol cans were now safe for the environment when all they had done was comply with a ban on the use of chlorofluorocarbons. Some of the self-proclaimed green producers found themselves being investigated by state attorneys general for false advertising and other offenses against the consumer.

The insistence that companies actually substantiate their claims put a damper on the entire green product movement. Yet some companies continued to see advantages in being associated with environmental principles. In one of the more brazen moves, DuPont ran TV ads in the late 1990s depicting sea lions applauding a passing oil tanker (accompanied by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”) to take credit for the fact that its Conoco subsidiary had begun using double hulls in its ships, conveniently failing to mention that it was one of the last oil companies to take that step. 

At the same time, some companies began to infiltrate the environmental movement itself by contributing to the more moderate groups and getting spots on their boards. They also joined organizations such as CERES, which encourages green groups and corporations to endorse a common set of principles. By the early 2000s, some companies sought to depict themselves as being not merely in step with the environmental movement but at the forefront of a green transformation. British Petroleum started publicizing its investments in renewable energy and saying that its initials really stood for Beyond Petroleum—all despite the fact that its operations continued to be dominated by fossil fuels.

This paved the way for General Electric’s “ecomagination” public relations blitz, which it pursued even while dragging its feet in the cleanup of PCB contamination in New York’s Hudson River. GE was followed by Wal-Mart, which in October 2005 sought to transform its image as a leading cause of pollution-generating sprawl by announcing a program to move toward zero waste and maximum use of renewable energy. In recent months the floodgates have opened, with more and more large companies calling for federal caps on greenhouse gas emissions. In January ten major corporations—including Alcoa, Caterpillar, DuPont and General Electric—joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council and other enviro groups in forming the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. A few months later, General Motors, arguably one of the companies that has done the most to exacerbate global warming, signed on as well.

A Cause for Celebration or Dismay?

Today the term “greenwash” is rarely uttered, and differences in positions between corporate giants and mainstream environmental groups are increasingly difficult to discern. Everywhere one looks, enviros and executives have locked arms and are marching together to save the planet. Is this a cause for celebration or dismay?

Answering this question begins with the recognition that companies do not all enter the environmental fold in the same way. Here are some of their different paths:

Defeat. Some companies did not embrace green principles on their own—they were forced to do so after being successfully targeted by aggressive environmental campaigns. Home Depot abandoned the sale of lumber harvested in old-growth forests several years ago after being pummeled by groups such as Rainforest Action Network. Responding to similar campaign pressure, Boise Cascade also agreed to stop sourcing from endangered forests and J.P. Morgan Chase agreed to take environmental impacts into account in its international lending activities. Dell started taking computer recycling seriously only after it was pressed to do so by groups such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Diversion. It is apparent that Wal-Mart is using its newfound green consciousness as a means of diverting public attention away from its dismal record in other areas, especially the treatment of workers. In doing so, it hopes to peel environmentalists away from the broad anti-Wal-Mart movement. BP’s emphasis on the environment was no doubt made more urgent by the need to repair an image damaged by allegations that a 2005 refinery fire in Texas that killed 15 people was the fault of management. To varying degrees, many other companies that have jumped on the green bandwagon have sins they want to public to forget. 

Opportunism. There is so much hype these days about protecting the environment that many companies are going green simply to earn more green. There are some market moves, such as Toyota’s push on hybrids, that also appear to have some environmental legitimacy. Yet there are also instances of sheer opportunism, such as the effort by Nuclear Energy Institute to depict nukes as an environmentally desirable alternative to fossil fuels. Not to mention surreal cases such as the decision by Britain’s BAE Systems to develop environmentally friendly munitions, including low-toxin rockets and lead-free bullets.

In other words, the suggestion that the new business environmentalism flows simply from a heightened concern for the planet is far from the truth. Corporations always act in their own self-interest and one way or another are always seeking to maximize profits. It used to be that they had to hide that fact. Today they flaunt it, because there is a widespread notion that eco-friendly policies are totally consistent with cutting costs and fattening the bottom line.

When GE’s “ecomagination” campaign was launched, CEO Jeffrey Immelt insisted “it’s no longer a zero-sum game—things that are good for the environment are also good for business.” This was echoed by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, who said in a speech announcing his company’s green initiative that “being a good steward of the environment and in our communities, and being an efficient and profitable business, are not mutually exclusive. In fact they are one in the same.” That’s probably because Scott sees environmentalism as merely an extension of the company’s legendary penny-pinching, as glorified efficiency measures.  

Chevron Wants to Lead

Many environmental activists seem to welcome the notion of a convergence of business interests and green interests, but it all seems too good to be true. If eco-friendly policies are entirely “win-win,” then why did corporations resist them for so long? It is hard to believe that the conflict between profit maximization and environmental protection, which characterized the entire history of the ecological movement, has suddenly evaporated.

Either corporations are fooling themselves, in which case they will eventually realize there is no environmental free lunch and renege on their green promises. Or they are fooling us and are perpetrating a massive public relations hoax. A third interpretation is that companies are taking voluntary steps that are genuine but inadequate to solve the problems at hand and are mainly meant to prevent stricter, enforceable regulation.

In any event, it would behoove enviros to be more skeptical of corporate green claims and less eager to jump into bed with business. It certainly makes sense to seek specific concessions from corporations and to offer moderate praise when they comply, but activists should maintain an arm’s-length relationship to business and not see themselves as partners. After all, the real purpose of the environmental movement is not simply to make technical adjustments to the way business operates (that’s the job of consultants) but rather to push for fundamental and systemic changes.

Moreover, there is a risk that the heightened level of collaboration will undermine the justification for an independent environmental movement. Why pay dues to a green group if its agenda is virtually identical to that of GE and DuPont? Already there are hints that business views itself, not activist groups, as the real green vanguard. Chevron, for instance, has been running a series of environmental ads with the tagline “Will you join us?”

Join them? Wasn’t it Chevron and the other oil giants that played a major role in creating global warming? Wasn’t it Chevron that used the repressive regime in Nigeria to protect its environmentally destructive operations in the Niger Delta? Wasn’t it Chevron’s Texaco unit that dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste in Ecuador? And wasn’t it Chevron that was accused of systematically underpaying royalties to the federal government for natural gas extracted from the Gulf of Mexico? That is not the kind of track record that confers the mantle of environmental leadership.

In fact, we shouldn’t be joining any company’s environmental initiative. Human activists should be leading the effort to clean up the planet, and corporations should be made to follow our lead.

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
.

The Curse of Gold

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 28th, 2007


This week's CorpWatch feature
highlights the plight of indigenous people in Papua New Guinea, where landowners feel that they are cheated out of their resources, livelihoods, and just compensation by the world's largest gold producer, Barrick Gold.

Papua New Guinea represents a case study in how resource extraction just might be the worst possible way to develop a country, especially where 85 percent of the population depends on the environment for their subsistence livelihood. Here, the pollution caused by open-pit mining and cyanide leaching creates an especially vulnerable situation for the indigenous people. In our recent feature, we attached testimonies from the landowners, mine workers, women, and human right activists who are affected by the mine. A principal landowner, Nelson Akiko, describes his disillusionment with the mine:

We depend on our land. You depend on money. Money is not need, it is only a want, but it is need in western society. I live on land, which is my stomach. I grow food from this land and then I survive. But now, where can I get food?

Also, the fact that mineral deposits, including oil, copper, and gold, account for two-thirds of PNG's export earnings leaves them susceptible to the Dutch Disease, or the phenomenon wherein resource exports raise the exchange rate for a country's currency, thereby making their labor less desirable. While this only accounts for a tiny part of the negative consequences of mining, it does illustrate that even within an economic paradigm, mining carries negative consequences for 'development', especially open pit mines because they require less human labor. Large mineral exports also make countries more susceptible to corruption because of the negotiating power held with government gatekeepers.

This is similar to Mali, where gold makes up 65 percent of its exports, dwarfing its former economic bedrock cotton. Some 64 mining companies have active mining and exploration projects in this landlocked African country, but despite a surge in gold prices, Mali's development indicators have stagnated. A recent Oxfam report 'Hidden treasure: in search of Mali's gold mining revenues', concluded that:

"There is not sufficient disclosure in an understandable form for citizens or civic groups to determine whether they are indeed benefiting as they should according to current law in Mali."


The fact that gold is a largely useless metal (that is already hoarded and unused in large quantities) makes the destruction caused by it's extraction all the more tragic. According the No Dirty Gold Campaign, 80% of the gold is used by the jewelry industry. On average, the production of one gold wedding ring produces 20 tons of waste.

Unfortunately, Papua New Guinea is not an isolated example of how gold mines can destroy communities. Mining Watch Canada summed their view of the mining industry in Canada, where 60% of the world's mining companies reside:

Metal prices are booming, and Canadian mining companies are taking advantage of the same prejudicial conditions to expand into all corners of the globe, manipulating, slandering, abusing, and even killing those who dare to oppose them, displacing Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike, supporting repressive governments and taking advantage of weak ones, and contaminating and destroying sensitive ecosystems. 
CorpWatch has been tracking Barrick elsewhere in the world, most recently at its Pascua Lama project in Argentina.
Barrick's plans to "relocate" three glaciers - 816,000 cubic meters of ice - by means of bulldozers and controlled blasting, is seen by mine-opponents as symbolic of the company's utter insensitivity to the environment. As headwaters for a water basin in an arid region receiving very little rainfall, many opponents are gravely concerned for the ice. They say the mechanical action involved in moving the glaciers will irreversibly melt much of it, jeopardizing a delicate ecological balance further downstream.

While Barrick originally planned to "relocate" three glaciers to another area, since being denied their original plan, the project now aims to build an open-pit mine next to the glaciers. However, most alarmingly, since construction has started on the mine, the glaciers have been depleted an estimated 50-70 percent, according to Chilean General Office of Waters (DGA). Barrick attempted to blame global warming for the melting, but those claims have been disproven.


Mining in the U.S.

In the U.S., Western Shoshone lands now account for the majority of gold produced within the United States and almost 10 percent of world production. The scale of development is unprecedented and will leave a legacy of environmental impacts for centuries into the future.

An excellent article on the boom in gold mining from the Las Vegas Mercury News explains the predicament that Shoshone face. 

Remembering Oil Spills, Old and New

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 13th, 2007

The week opened with the start of a four month trial against France's oil giant, Total, by groups like Friends of the Earth France.

The Paris tribunal will examine the 1999 Erika tanker disaster that poured 20,000 tonnes of oil into the sea, polluted 250 miles of coastline and caused $1.3 billion in damage. At least 150,000 seabirds were found dead on the coast and up to 10 times as many were probably lost in the oil-blackened seas. Observers say this may also turn into a trial of the "globalized" international shipping system as the Erika was crewed by Indians, sailing under a Maltese flag, chartered by a shipping company registered in the Bahamas for a French oil company.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit between the state of New York against Exxon and four other companies has recently been announced. This suit addresses an oil spill from the 1950's that was several times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil leak in Alaska, but lay undiscovered until 1978. According to New York state attorney Andrew Cuomo, Exxon has been slow to clean up, with an estimated eight million gallons of oil and petroleum byproducts still underground and toxic vapors from the ground threatening neighborhood health.

A Bloomberg article quotes local residents:

"There are people who live above this that still don't know about it,'' said Basil Seggos, chief investigator for Riverkeeper, an environmental group that sued in 2004 to try to force Exxon Mobil to clean up the creek. Others in Greenpoint have become spill experts, according to Seggos, and they say the fumes that rise from basements and sewers are especially bad when the barometer drops before a storm. "The locals tell you they know when it's going to rain because they can smell the oil.''


In other oil spill news, Lagos' Vanguard newspaper reported today that ten Ijaw communities had been displaced and 500 made homeless by a Chevron Nigeria oil spill.

The report quotes Gbabor Okrika, the councilor representing the affected communities:

"Chevron is not bothered about the health of the people they are only concerned about their operations and they have now started a process that can only divide the people and create further division among them."

Also, last month's massive leak in the Chad Cameroon Pipeline caused a storm of criticism regarding the environmental safety of this project. This Exxon-managed pipeline extends from landlocked Chad through Cameroon and extends 11 kilometers off the coast into the Atlantic. This project, which is overseen by the World Bank, has already received much criticism due to money from this project fueling conflict in Chad.

IRIN News quoted Kribi Mayor Gregoire Mba Mba:

"Our town lives on fishing and tourism. If more incidents like this or worse occur it is the economic future of the town that is threatened."

Environmental groups are warning that a similar spill could happen in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline operated by BP that transports crude 1750 kilometers from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea. On Monday, a coalition of Azeri, British and US watchdog groups leaked a report from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which says that cracks and leakages in the coating of the pipeline will need to be monitored closely.

Beyond We Told You So

Posted by on August 24th, 2006

John Kenney, a former advertising guy, wrote an op-ed entitled "Beyond Propaganda" last week in the The New York Times about his disillusionment upon finally accepting that the new company name and identity for BP he helped create – "Beyond Petroleum" to replace "British Petroleum"– has turned out to be just so much bunkum designed to make a dirty oil company look environmentally friendly on TV, while it's busy drilling for ever more petroleum and spilling billions of gallons all over Alaska.

Its nice to know there are (or were) still idealists in the ad business, people who believe their job can be something noble instead of public deceipt and manipulation. And kind of sad he was so naive.

We at CorpWatch, however, have always been cynical enough to see through obvious rebranding. Way back in 200, we wrote this about BP's new image: "British Petroleum: Beyond Pompous, Beyond Protest, Beyond Pretension, Beyond Preposterous, Beyond Platitudes, Beyond Posturing, Beyond Presumptuous, Beyond Propaganda... Beyond Belief."



 

Yes-Men Taunt Halliburton

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 10th, 2006

Have we mentioned how much we love the Yes Men, since even before the Dow Hoax that suckered the BBC in 2004?

They have now come out with a faux press-release and website claiming that Halliburton has solved global warming. Good for a laugh, and an inevitable cease-and-desist, so we repost here the press release before it is wiped from the ether.

Halliburton Solves Global Warming
SurvivaBalls save managers from abrupt climate change

An advanced new technology will keep corporate managers safe even when climate change makes life as we know it impossible.

"The SurvivaBall is designed to protect the corporate manager no matter what Mother Nature throws his or her way," said Fred Wolf, a Halliburton representative who spoke today at the Catastrophic Loss conference held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Amelia Island, Florida. "This technology is the only rational response to abrupt climate change," he said to an attentive and appreciative audience.

Most scientists believe global warming is certain to cause an accelerating onslaught of hurricanes, floods, droughts, tornadoes, etc. and that a world-destroying disaster is increasingly possible. For example, Arctic melt has slowed the Gulf Stream by 30% in just the last decade; if the Gulf Stream stops, Europe will suddenly become just as cold as Alaska. Global heat and flooding events are also increasingly possible.

In order to head off such catastrophic scenarios, scientists agree we must reduce our carbon emissions by 70% within the next few years. Doing that would seriously undermine corporate profits, however, and so a more forward-thinking solution is needed.

At today's conference, Wolf and a colleague demonstrated three SurvivaBall mockups, and described how the units will sustainably protect managers from natural or cultural disturbances of any intensity or duration. The devices - looking like huge inflatable orbs - will include sophisticated communications systems, nutrient gathering capacities, onboard medical facilities, and a daunting defense infrastructure to ensure that the corporate mission will not go unfulfilled even when most human life is rendered impossible by catastrophes or the consequent epidemics and armed conflicts.

"It's essentially a gated community for one," said Wolf.

Dr. Northrop Goody, the head of Halliburton's Emergency Products Development Unit, showed diagrams and videos describing the SurvivaBall's many features. "Much as amoebas link up into slime molds when threatened, SurvivaBalls also fulfill a community function. After all, people need people," noted Goody as he showed an artist's rendition of numerous SurvivaBalls linking up to form a managerial aggregate with functional differentiation, metaphorically dancing through the streets of Houston, Texas.

The conference attendees peppered the duo with questions. One asked how the device would fare against terrorism, another whether the array of embedded technologies might make the unit too cumbersome; a third brought up the issue of the unit's cost feasibility. Wolf and Goody assured the audience that these problems and others were being addressed.

"The SurvivaBall builds on Halliburton's reputation as a disaster and conflict industry innovator," said Wolf. "Just as the Black Plague led to the Renaissance and the Great Deluge gave Noah a monopoly of the animals, so tomorrow's catastrophes could well lead to good - and industry must be ready to seize that good."

Goody also noted that Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society was set to employ the SurvivaBall as part of its Corporate Sustenance (R) program. Another of Cousteau's CSR programs involves accepting a generous sponsorship from the Dow Chemical Corporation, whose general shareholder meeting is May 11.