In Alberta, Canada, many oil and gas operations are located near towns and farms, sometimes less than a kilometer away. Residents blame a rash of severe public health and environmental problems — from crop damage and childhood illness to miscarriages, livestock deaths and human brain damage — on the flaring and venting of natural gas at drilling sites and refineries. At the center of the controversy is hydrogen sulfide — or “sour gas” — a poisonous substance that has been compared to cyanide, and described by the 1924 U.S. Public Health Service as “one of the most toxic of gases.” According to Dr. Kaye Kilburn, a neurotoxicologist at the University of Southern California and the author of the book “Chemical Brain Injury,” hydrogen sulfide causes permanent brain damage at very low levels and can kill at 500 parts per million. Sour gas is widespread in Canada and throughout North America, he said, and “in Alberta, particularly, [oil companies] have exposed quite a few people who farm and ranch in the areas where they’re putting a lot of wells down …
According to the World Bank’s 1995 report “Defining an Environmental Development Strategy for the Niger Delta,” about 187 cubic meters of associated gas billows forth with every cubic meter of oil pumped. Shell estimates the amount to be much lower at 28 cubic meters per barrel, but affirms that 95 percent of this gas is flared — more than 56 million cubic meters every day. According to Nigerian Minister of State for the Environment Imeh Okopido, flaring in the Niger Delta makes up about 20 percent of the worldwide total. The U.S. Department of Energy calculated a release of 11 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon by Nigerian flares in 1998 and more than 300 million metric tons since 1963. About 12 million tons of methane were released from Nigerian flares last year.
Opposing sides of the lawsuits paint radically different pictures. Depending on who you listen to, the energy companies are either corrupt, ruthless and complicit in human rights abuses, or hard-working, well-meaning investors who were ignorant of the crimes or powerless to stop them. Though plaintiffs will probably wait for years for the final rulings, many observers see the cases as damning. “This case would not have gotten this far unless there were all sorts of evidence — frankly from people who were involved militarily — who subsequently came to people like Oronto [Douglas] and said, ‘I need to tell my story,'” said Michael Watts, director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “These are not corporations being sued because they happen to be doing business in a bad place,” said Steinhardt.
Conflict in Nigeria spawned another lawsuit, Bowoto v. Chevron, filed in San Francisco in July 2000 by a group of 25 Nigerians. In their complaint, the plaintiffs claim to be victims of machine gun attacks by the military against protesters on the Parabe oil platform in the Niger Delta, and later against the villages of Opia and Ikenyan from May 1998 to January 1999. The suit maintains that Chevron “did willfully, maliciously and systematically violate Plaintiff’s human rights, including summary execution, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” by ordering the attacks, transporting the soldiers in company-owned helicopters and boats, and providing them with salaries, ammunition and other tools. One of the named plaintiffs, Larry Bowoto, ran a small fishing and boating supply shop in Ogoniland, and joined in the protests on the Parabe oil platform in May 1998. Soldiers in three helicopters fired upon him and about 200 other demonstrators.
Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC) is the largest oil corporation in Nigeria, producing about a million barrels daily in 2001, according to the Department of Energy — close to half of the country’s output. Last year, oil provided 95 percent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings and nearly 80 percent of the government’s revenue. In 1998 it was Africa’s greatest oil producer, and the fifth largest crude exporter to the United States. Despite this extraordinary wealth, Nigeria usually has to import gasoline because of its inadequate, ill-functioning refinery infrastructure. In Wiwa v. Shell, filed in New York, plaintiffs accuse the petroleum company of conspiring with the military tribunal that hanged Nigerian playwright and author Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with eight other activists who were organizing opposition to Royal Dutch Shell operations in their native Ogoniland on the delta of the Niger River.
The Doe v. Unocal case managed to get a step further than Aguinda in August 2001, when Judge Victoria Chaney ruled that the case could be heard in California state court, after its dismissal in federal court. The case, originally brought before Federal Judge Ronald Lew in Southern California by 15 unnamed villagers from Myanmar’s Tenasserim region, asserts Unocal’s complicity with murder, torture, forced labor and forced relocation during work on its Yadana pipeline project through the area. Soldiers hired by the enterprise — a joint venture between Unocal, the French company Total and Myanmar’s SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) government — allegedly committed the acts. Among other arguments, Unocal reasoned that the pressed labor could be considered “mandatory public service” akin to a Florida statute requiring six days of work or $3 from every man circa 1916. The court denied that argument, writing that the Florida law “is hardly analogous to the nature of the forced labor utilized by SLORC in recent years.”
Aguinda v. Texaco, a class-action suit brought in November 1993 in New York by approximately 25,000 Indians from eight tribes, was one of the first cases to use the Alien Tort Claims Act against an American petroleum company for environmental damage abroad. The case has been consolidated with another suit, Jota v. Texaco, which was filed on similar grounds by Peruvians living downstream on the Napo River from the drilling operations. The suit alleges that from 1972 to 1992 Texaco Petroleum Company (TexPet) in Ecuador dumped an estimated 30 billion gallons of toxic waste — including benzene, mercury and lead, much of it in hundreds of unlined pools throughout the rainforest. In the complaint, plaintiffs say the pollution jeopardizes “their very existence as a people” by killing livestock and fish, and causing cancer, skin rashes, spontaneous abortions and other effects. Lawyers estimate cleanup costs to be over $1 billion.
The ExxonMobil case is the latest in a growing number of lawsuits filed against transnational energy corporations in U.S. courts alleging complicity in human rights abuses abroad. The filings reflect the complicated business of oil drilling and profit-making in countries where corrupt governments, brutal military forces and ethnic and economic tensions are often caught in an ongoing cycle of violence. Inevitably, it is poor, rural communities — like the plaintiffs in these cases — who say they suffer the most injury from military crackdowns and environmental destruction. Active cases around the world include:
Doe v. Unocal and Roe v. Unocal, alleging forced labor, torture and wrongful death during the building of the Yadana natural gas pipeline through Burma;
Aguinda v. Texaco and Jota v. Texaco, accusing the oil company of improper handling and dumping of toxic waste leading to large-scale environmental destruction in the Oriente region of Ecuador and neighboring Peru;
Wiwa v. Shell and Wiwa v. Anderson, asserting Royal Dutch Shell’s complicity in the wrongful death of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa;
Bowoto v. Chevron, charging that Chevron (Now ChevronTexaco) was involved in the massacre of Nigerian protesters on an oil platform. The suits have come to the United States under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law that gives U.S. courts jurisdiction over tort cases “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States,” if the defendant has a presence in the U.S.
On the books since 1789, the little-used act originally took aim at piracy, but was dusted off in 1979 in New York by the Center for Constitutional Rights in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala.
In June 2001, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) did what Jafar Siddiq Hamzah did not live to do: it filed a lawsuit in the Washington, D.C., U.S. District Court against ExxonMobil Corporation and PT Arun for hiring Indonesian military forces responsible for torture, crimes against humanity, sexual violence, kidnapping, murder and genocide in Aceh. Lawyers also claim that ExxonMobil provided hired troops with facilities and equipment, including excavators that were used to dig mass graves, and buildings where illegally detained prisoners were tortured. The suit requests compensatory and punitive damages, as well as an injunction to curtail ExxonMobil’s use of Indonesian security forces to protect their operations. The plaintiffs, eleven villagers from Aceh, are listed as John and Jane Does due to fears for their safety. On its website, ExxonMobil denies any responsibility for the actions of the military: “We are disturbed by any suggestion that ExxonMobil or its affiliate companies are in any way involved with alleged human rights abuses by security forces in Aceh.
Indonesia — an archipelago nation assembled in the wake of Dutch and British colonial rule — has never dealt kindly with independence movements. Its military invasion and occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999, for example, took the lives of at least 200,000 there. In 1989 Jakarta designated Aceh as a military operations zone — daerah operasi militer, or DOM — initiating a 10-year period of martial law in which thousands of people were killed or disappeared. “So many people were affected that, today, virtually every Acehnese in the hardest-hit areas can cite a family member who was the direct target of a human rights violation — and who had no link to GAM at the time,” Human Rights Watch reported in August 2001. Although DOM was repealed in 1999, violence continues unabated.