A 215-year-old law originally written to address piracy and crimes abroad against American ambassadors is at the heart of litigation targeting some of the world’s largest energy corporations. Plaintiffs allege that ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Unocal and Royal Dutch/Shell are responsible for atrocities committed by foreign troops guarding their refineries and facilities overseas. The corporations say that the lawsuits are without merit, and that such human rights problems are the domain of U.S. foreign policy, not domestic courts. But a recent Supreme Court ruling may have left the door open for the suits to proceed. Anticipated ruling
The cases were filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, a law giving federal courts jurisdiction over international civil suits brought for violations of “the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”
Critics cite a January 16 article in the Wall Street Journal, describing a meeting between State Department officials and oil company executives. “The Bush administration is eager to secure Iraq’s oil fields and rehabilitate them, industry officials say,” the article reads. “They say Mr. Cheney’s staff hosted an informational meeting with industry executives in October, with Exxon Mobil Corp., ChevronTexaco Corp., ConocoPhillips and Halliburton among the companies represented. Both the Bush administration and the companies say such a meeting never took place.” Former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader believes the meetings happened, and said that “41 members of the administration have ties to the industry.”
In 1983, under President Ronald Reagan, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force became the Central Command, the instrument of American military policy in the region, and capable of drawing up troops from all branches of the armed services. “Each of the four services provides personnel on an as-needed basis, depending on the requirements of the mission,” explained Central Command spokesman Commander Dan Gage in an email correspondence. “In other words, there is no set number of personnel who are assigned to Central Command.” The Central Command was never used during the ’80s to directly confront Soviet ambition in Afghanistan, that crucial access route to Persian Gulf and Central Asian oil and natural gas reserves. Such matters were left to the Islamist mujahedeen, who, according to the CIA World Factbook, were trained and armed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others.
When 19th century entrepreneurs began drilling and refining oil, natural gas was an unwelcome byproduct. The fledgling industry lacked the pipeline technology now used to capture and transport the volatile fuel released when oil is extracted from the ground. Instead, gas was simply burned off — a process known as flaring. Today the natural gas industry is worldwide, netting billions of dollars each year. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that demand for natural gas will double by 2020.
While the debate rages in Nigeria and Alberta, flares continue to burn around the world. According to Dr. Chris Elvidge, a scientist at the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration who studies satellite images of flares, other hot spots include northern Siberia, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. The United States, like Canada, is home to plenty of flaring. According to Julia May of Communities for a Better Environment, California refineries share many of the same issues as Alberta and the Niger Delta: a lack of comprehensive studies on the community impacts of emissions, and little or no monitoring of what kind of gases are in the flares. According to Paul Faeth, economist and managing director at the World Resources Institute, impacts on the environment and society are costs that the oil companies currently don’t pay — a phenomenon he calls “market failure.”
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.