Activists Demand Action At Chevron Shareholder Meeting

June 19, 2011

By Tony Cruz, Amnesty’s Business & Human Rights Group

Gas is flaring in the Niger Delta. © Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

On May 25, 2011, I attended Chevron’s Annual Shareholder’s Meeting representing Amnesty International.  This is the 4th meeting I’ve attended but much has changed since 2005.

With the recent 9 billion dollar class action verdict in Ecuador (and last year’s arrests in Houston), security was high and there were real questions as to whether or not the international delegation of NGOs would be allowed in. Fortunately, after an extensive security check, which makes TSA like a walk in the park, we were all allowed in to speak.

During the Q & A portion of the meeting, I addressed Chairman John Watson on the use of gas flaring in the Niger Delta; a technology that has led to serious health related issues and environmental contamination:

“My name is Tony Cruz and I am representing Amnesty International. Amnesty has documented extensively how oil companies operating in the Niger Delta have polluted the air, water, and land of that region of Nigeria. Our recent “Eyes on Nigeria” project has used satellite imagery to document the use of gas flaring by Chevron and other companies; a practice that has caused significant pollution to the air and water.

With the expensive litigation and recent judgment against Chevron in Ecuador for similar pollution, I think we can all agree that it makes sense for Chevron to seek to proactively reduce its pollution now, to avoid expensive clean up and litigation later. So, to what extent is Chevron continuing to use gas flaring in Nigeria and when will Chevron phase out that practice in the future?”

Mr. Watson responded:

We want this by tomorrow. We want what you want. But this is going to take several more years because of disruptions in Nigeria. But we have invested in gas to liquid projects.

Twenty minutes later, Laura Livoti from Justice in Nigeria Now pressed the Chairman further pushing for specifics stating:

“Chevron stated 10 years ago that you would phase out gas flaring in 5…. When was the 1st date that you made this promise?… Do you personally think that gas flaring causes asthma and cancer?…. and Do you believe that gas flaring contributes to Greenhouse gases?”

Watson responded:

Thank you for your question. Again, we have invested billions of dollars into gas to liquid projects. We are working on it but it will take some time because of conflicts such as sabotage.

Watson’s response was insufficient at best and unfortunately a sign of things to come later in the meeting. Delegates’ questions were gobbled up and regurgitated in similar fashion followed with the foreseeable statement of “I hear what you’re saying but we don’t agree. Chevron is a responsible company and working with the local communities to build a better environment.”

It became so predictable, that if you removed the issue and the location from Watson’s statements, you would essentially have the same generic statement; a kind of Q&A Mad Libs extravaganza that lasted for over an hour.  As each person stood in front of the Chairman pouring out unimaginable stories of the horror and hardship each has had to endure in their community because of Chevron’s operations, Watson managed to minimize and disregard their stories beginning with his casual tone of “We don’t agree.”

However disparaging and discouraging Watson’s antics had become, the feeling of unity amongst the delegation was undeniable. Passions ran high. Voices ran higher. Occasionally, there was the threat of terminating the meeting. But in the end, each person approached the microphone remaining steadfast in their conviction that injustice had been done and Chevron needed to hear it and that they needed to pay.

We heard from a woman who spoke on Chevron’s Pandacan oil deposit in Philippines; a site with a history of operational problems and by many experts said to be a ticking time bomb situated in a high densely populated area which is not equipped to handle a catastrophic environmental disaster.

We heard from Elias Mateus Isaac who grilled Watson on Chevron’s operations in Angola and the devastating impact it has left on the local fishing industries and communities.

We heard from the persistent Ecuadorian delegation who have been attending the shareholder meetings for the last decade and who pleaded with Watson to reconsider his decision to fight the recent verdict against Chevron, and work with them to find a resolution.

In the end, justice prevailed in a cold gray conference room on 6001 Bollinger Canyon Road in San Ramon, CA that morning. The lies and spin doctoring could not eclipse the powerful truth spoken by the brave men and women who traveled thousands of miles to face the corporate Goliath who had irrevocably decimated their lives.

As an avid Chevron shareholder attendee, I have seen the momentum growing the last few years. I’ve listened to the change in Chevron’s rhetoric to placate to the recent climate and movement towards sustainability. I have seen the negative press rapidly building around the company as news over loss of innocent lives overrides that of personal profit.

So in the spirit of Chevron’s ad -“We Agree”: your time is coming.