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Payback time for Big Oil?

by Avaaz Teamposted 11 October 2012

For decades, Big Oil has ruled supreme in the developing world. When western oil giants like Texaco, Chevron and Shell set up business in Africa, Asia and Latin America, they’ve throw their money around to get the cheap labour, lax environmental enforcement and legal immunity from local officials and courts.

But now, a pair of groundbreaking legal cases raises hope that the petro barons may at long last be held to account.

Game time for Shell

This week, a court in the Hague is hearing a case against the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. It’s the first time a major Dutch corporation has faced trial in a civil court in the Netherlands for damage caused in another country.

The case has been brought by four Nigerian fisherman and farmers, with the support of Friends of the Earth. They are seeking damages for massive pollution caused by spills from Shell oil facilities in Nigeria, which devastated the land and waterways of the Niger Delta and ruined thousands of livelihoods.

Shell had tried to claim that its Nigerian subsidiary is responsible for any claims, so that a lawsuit could be filed only in Nigeria, where Shell’s money and political clout could protect the company (although that may be about to change too). But Dutch courts ruled they had jurisdiction and allowed the case to be brought to the Netherlands.

The decision is long overdue. Last year, a damning report from the United Nations Environmental Programme found that over the course of 50 years, oil companies, including Shell, had caused deep environmental damage to the Niger Delta region.

The court isn’t expected to rule on the case until next year, but if this case is successful, it could open the door to many others from exploited people all over the world.

Chevron smackdown

Good news, also, from Latin America: after decades of struggle, the people of the Lago Agrio region in Ecuador have just won a huge victory against Chevron, one of the largest oil companies in the world. The US supreme court has decided not to block a judgment from an Ecuadorean court that ordered Chevron to pay $19bn in damages.

This is the culmination of a 20-year legal battle for justice by the indigenous people of Ecuador who say that from 1964 to 1992, Texaco (recently bought by Chevron) illegally dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste in the Ecuadorean rainforest. In what became known as the “Amazon Chernobyl”, the pollution decimated over 1,500 sq miles, triggered a spike in cancer rates and destroyed locals’ livelihoods and habitats.

After the group finally won their case in Ecuador, Chevron immediately asked a New York court for an injunction against the decision, which would let them avoid paying any damages. Although initially granted, the injunction was soon overturned by an appeals court.

Chevron, of course, tried to take the case all the way to the US supreme court, hoping that this body would act to protect a US corporation’s profits. Turns out they were wrong, leaving Chevron on the hook for the $19bn awarded in damages, one of the most costly rulings against a US company by a foreign court.

Chevron has said it will continue to fight the case. Nonetheless, the supreme court’s move is a major blow to Big Oil.

Hope across the world

These two stories are major reasons for hope. Not only will they galvanise the struggle to bring other oil behemoths to account, they should inspire all those fighting against corporate crime around the world.

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