Former Rep. George Hochbrueckner: Chevron’s dilemma in the Amazon

Most Americans have no doubt seen the commercials being run by BP to promote its work cleaning up the Gulf Coast region in the wake of the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which dumped nearly 200 million gallons of oil into the waters off Louisiana, ruining the marine ecosystem and an economy driven by coastal tourism and fisheries. Facing great moral, commercial and legal hazard, BP owned up to its responsibilities and set up a $20 billion fund for cleanup and to compensate victims.

BP's constructive actions, which no doubt were prompted by hostile congressional hearings and public outrage, sadly are not the rule when it comes to how oil companies handle environmental disasters they cause. Just this month, the United States Supreme Court issued a major decision against Chevron, refusing to overturn an appeals court ruling against the company, which is fighting a multibillion-dollar judgment against it for spilling some 18.5 billion gallons of oil and highly toxic waste into one of the world's most precious and fragile biodiversity hotspots: the Ecuadorian Amazon.

The judgment paves the way for the plaintiffs — members of indigenous communities in Ecuador — to begin collecting on a $19 billion award against Chevron. Rather than respond with a bold and rapid act of contrition, Chevron has dug in, using every trick in the book to deny and delay justice, including most recently several attempts to threaten various trade agreements between the United States and Ecuador worth hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to both countries.

The case began nearly 20 years ago, when the indigenous peoples of Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region brought suit against Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001, claiming that oil gushed into their communities from 1964 to 1992. When an initial $1.3 billion lawsuit was filed by representatives of the Lago Agrio peoples in New York courts in the 1990s, Texaco lobbied successfully for the case to be moved to Ecuador. For years, the fight continued, until in 2011 an Ecuadorian court ruled against Chevron to the tune of $18.2 billion.

However, despite these rulings and this month’s United States Supreme Court decision, Chevron continues to deny its responsibility and refuses to pay a financial amount equivalent to less than one year of the company’s profits. Chevron appears hell-bent on fighting, and not particularly fairly. After arguing for the case to be moved to Ecuador and subsequently losing there, Chevron has launched an aggressive campaign in the United States to discredit the Ecuadorian courts. This campaign shamelessly disregards the fact that Ecuador has a history of satisfying all final adverse awards against it.

Perhaps most startlingly, this PR and lobbying campaign has extended to calling for a complete ending of any trade preferences between Ecuador and the United States, including both the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA). I have been advised that a recent release of letters submitted to the United States Trade Representative show that the company and its allies lobbied extensively for an ending of these agreements, which primarily benefit United States-Ecuador trade and security relations.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States and Ecuador, along with billions of dollars in bilateral trade and investment, depend on the continuation of the benefits provided by the GSP and ATPDEA. And the ATPDEA has proven essential to supporting Ecuador’s efforts to fight drug trafficking across its borders with Colombia and Peru, a crucial effort in halting the drug trade across the hemisphere.

Yet the economic and environmental well-being of millions of people in two countries is now being held hostage to this dispute. Chevron is flaunting its legal and moral responsibilities, and through its massive lobbying effort, attempting to ruin an important bilateral trade relationship upon which American jobs depend. The administration and Congress must do their part by weighing the United States-Ecuador trade deal on its merits and by encouraging the rule of law to prevail.

I can’t help but think that Chevron got away with this for so long because the people of the Ecuadorean Amazon are poor and do not have access to Congress or the mass media. What is possibly the vastest manmade ecological disaster in the world — 100 times more oil spilled into the Amazon than the Gulf Coast — has gone largely unreported in the United States.

But our moral and legal standards compel us to stand up, take notice and take action.

In his four terms (1987-1995) as the congressman for the 1st district of New York, Hochbrueckner distinguished himself as a national leader in environmental protection. In the wake of the Exxon Valdez incident, he worked to protect our environment from future oil spills by working with the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee to help write tough new oil spill prevention laws.