From where I’m sitting – my desk in San Francisco – global warming is by far the biggest threat posed by our continued reliance on fossil fuels.
But many communities around the world would probably not list global warming as their most pressing concern when it comes to fossil fuels. Grave as the climate crisis may be, these people are much more worried about the pollution caused by the mining, transporting, refining, and/or burning of coal, oil and gas. Often these are poor, disadvantaged, and minority communities – those who will be hit hardest by global warming all the same.
One especially egregious case in point: Tribal people of the Ecuadorian Amazon have been dealing for over four decades with the fallout from what’s been described as “the largest environmental disaster of this new century.” Between 1964 and 1990, oil and gas giant Texaco dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into Amazon waterways and 916 waste pits, many of which overflow into streams. Hundreds of square miles of the Amazon rainforest have been polluted.
Several of the tribes that rely on the rainforest for their livelihoods brought a suit in US federal court against Texaco in 1993, seeking redress for their polluted watercourses, as well as for abnormally high cancer rates and other health problems. Chevron bought Texaco in 2001, inheriting the mess Texaco made in the Ecuadoran rainforest as well as the lawsuit.
Chevron has tried everything to quash this suit. In 2003 it asked that the trial be moved to Ecuador, where the company no doubt figured it could buy its way out of a guilty verdict. Chevron lobbied the Bush administration to threaten Ecuador with cutting off trade relations if the trial proceeded unfavorably for the American corporation. Amazon Watch recently caught Chevron paying off bloggers to attack the Ecuadorian courts on the company’s behalf.
Chevron has even gone so far as to produce a faux-news broadcast, complete with a former CNN news anchor, as part of a coordinated misinformation campaign.
And Chevron might have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky facts. On May 3, The TV news program 60 Minutes aired an exposé about Texaco/Chevron’s “toxic legacy” in the Amazon:
The Ecuadorian tribes are seeking $27 billion in damages. I expect Chevron will appeal endlessly and delay paying this money as long as it can, taking a page from Exxon’s playbook in dealing with the Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. (Which, by the way, was around 10.8 million gallons, far smaller than the 18 billion gallons Texaco is alledged to have spilled in Ecuador’s rainforest).
But still, a ruling against the company would set a powerful precedent in holding fossil fuels companies accountable for their actions. It would be a huge victory not just for the tribal people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, but for the communites around the globe that are being poisoned and oppressed by the inordinate amount of money and power we’ve handed to unscrupled companies like Chevron because of our dependence on fossil fuels.
These things don’t just happen in developing countries. Right here in the Bay Area, environmental justice groups are battling a Chevron oil refinery expansion in Richmond, where low-income and minority communities are already dealing with health problems like asthma and cancer due to the pollution from the existing facility.
And it’s not just oil companies. People in West Virginia and other Appalachian communities have seen their homes and local ecosystems destroyed by mountaintop removal, the supremely destructive method of coal-mining.
New Mexicans in the Four Corners region of the state recently got good news, when the EPA canceled a permit for a new coal-fired power plant that was to be built there. “If built, the Desert Rock coal plant would further pollute the air and water in the region, which already suffers from the nearby San Juan and Four Corners coal plants, and pour hundreds of millions of tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere,” wrote Greenpeace member-blogger Joe Smyth. “While not quite yet a final verdict, the EPA’s decision is a major step forward in ensuring that yet another dirty coal plant is not built here in New Mexico.”
There are many more examples from all over the world of people fighting for their lives and livelihoods against environmental injustice.
But no matter where you live, you have a stake in the outcome of this trial in Ecuador. We in the US are working to break our addiction to fossil fuels and build a sustainable energy economy. But unless everyone benefits from the clean energy future, there is no true sustainability.
And for everyone to benefit from clean energy, we have to clean up the messes left over from all these years of using dirty energy.