Corporations do

Chevron faces landmark human rights trial and angry voters just as profits peak


No amount of feel-good advertising can counter the perfect populist storm that has been brewing around Chevron, the giant Bay Area-based oil company that for the last month has spent $15 million plastering billboards and the airwaves with slick, heartwarming appeals to use less energy.

Few expect the greenwashing campaign to do much good in a political climate that has had everyone from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin bashing "Big Oil." And in the week leading up to an historic presidential election, Chevron was looking bigger and badder than ever.

The week began Oct. 27 with the start of a landmark human rights and corporate responsibility trial in federal court in San Francisco, in which Chevron stands accused of complicity with Nigeria's authoritarian government in the torture, murder, and abuse of those protesting Chevron's exploitation of the Niger Delta.

And the work week ended Oct. 31 with Chevron announcing record quarterly profits of $7.9 billion, more than double what the oil giant earned a year earlier, when the company's $3.7 billion in profits triggered calls by Obama and other political figures to levy higher taxes on such windfalls.

That's exactly what city officials in Richmond were trying to do this election with Proposition T, which would steeply increase the tax Chevron pays the city for its Richmond refinery. The measure would assess a tax based on the value of raw materials being processed, increasing to about $26.5 million per year, 440 times what it currently pays the city through a payroll tax. (Election results were expected after the Guardian's press deadline, so check for more.)

Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer rights and the author of Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom and What You Can Do About It (Penguin, 2003), said the combination of events creates a moment that makes significant reform possible.

"They make a very juicy target for people who want to show that oil companies do not share the values of the American people," Court said. "I think this trial could very well become a defining moment for how public opinion moves policymakers in Washington to real energy reform."

The case, Bowoto vs. Chevron, breaks new ground in seeking to hold an American corporation responsible in US courts for atrocities committed half the world away. The complaint, first filed in 1999, alleges that "the military, at the request of, and with the participation and complicity of Chevron, killed and injured people, destroyed churches, religious shrines, and water wells; burned down houses, killed livestock; and destroyed canoes and fishing equipment belonging to villagers" who were peacefully protesting Chevron's pollution and destabilization of the region.

The trial, which is expected to continue until December, was brought under the little-used, 219-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act. Unocal faced a similar lawsuit for its alleged abuses in Myanmar and settled the case in 2004. But the Chevron case is the first of its kind to make it to trial.

Michael Watts, a geography professor who directs the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley, said the political momentum has been building against big oil companies for a long time and the combination of this case, record profits, and the election create an opportunity for reform.

"The case is very important for a lot of reasons in and of itself, even if there was nothing else going on in the industry," Watts told us. "This is a big, precedent-setting case."

Not only could Chevron be hurt financially by the verdict, but the precedent could affect multinational corporations of all kinds that do business with regimes around the world with poor human rights records.