Keep ‘unreliable, immoral’ Chevron Corp. out of Israel, activists urge MKs

Demanding debate on oil giant getting Noble Energy’s Mediterranean stakes, campaigners say Chevron avoiding $9.5b payout for ‘Chernobyl of the Amazon’ spill, boding ill for Israel

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Lawyer Steven Donziger, right, speaks to  Huaorani women during the first day of the trial against Chevron-Texaco, in Lago Agrio, on October 21, 2003. A decade after Texaco pulled out of the Amazon jungle, the US petroleum giant went on trial in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,000 poor Ecuadoreans who say the company's 20 years of drilling poisoned their homeland.  (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
Lawyer Steven Donziger, right, speaks to Huaorani women during the first day of the trial against Chevron-Texaco, in Lago Agrio, on October 21, 2003. A decade after Texaco pulled out of the Amazon jungle, the US petroleum giant went on trial in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,000 poor Ecuadoreans who say the company's 20 years of drilling poisoned their homeland. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

In a dramatic twist to last week’s news that the American multinational Chevron Corporation is set to enter the Israeli oil and gas sector by buying out Texas-based Noble Energy, part owner of offshore natural gas fields, activists on Monday used a Knesset committee meeting on climate change to question the company’s pollution record. They also highlighted what they described as the company’s failure to honor a court-ordered $9.5 billion compensation deal with tribes in Ecuador and to clean up oil spills there and elsewhere in the world.

Solar entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, who created Israel’s first solar energy field and whose business interests are now in Africa, called for an urgent, public debate about the US-based multinational, describing it as “unreliable and immoral” and charging that it must not be allowed to enter the Israeli market until it proves otherwise.

The oil giant, he told the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, was responsible for the “Chernobyl of the Amazon” — the contamination of large areas of groundwater in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Chevron, said Abromowitz, has refused to pay the $9.5 billion fine ordered by an Ecuadorian court.

Turning to Environment Minister Gila Gamliel, who was present in the room, he said, “I beg you, Minister — don’t let the Petroleum Council pass the rights [to Chevron] until there has been a public debate. Don’t have an oil spill on your watch.”

Solar entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz addresses the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, July 27, 2020. (Screenshot)

The deal to transfer the rights from Noble Energy must be approved by the council, part of the Energy Ministry, before it can go ahead. The council’s deliberations are not open to the public.

Maya Jacobs, head of Zalul, which  campaigns for marine preservation, called on committee chairwoman Miki Haimovich to summon the Petroleum Council to an urgent committee meeting about Chevron.

Abramowitz and Jacobs have teamed up with Nan Marie Greer of the US organization Alistar International, which works to strengthen indigenous human rights, to pressure Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and Petroleum Council chairman Eli Ginzberg not to proceed any further with the Chevron deal until the Knesset has had the opportunity to conduct a public debate.

Maya Jacobs, head of the Zalul environmental organization, seen campaigning to protect the sea. (Facebook)

In a letter sent to Steinitz and Ginzberg on Monday and presented to Haimovich during the committee hearing, the three campaigners wrote, “The Israeli public deserves an open and transparent process to deliberate the question of whether the Petroleum Council and energy minister should potentially transfer Noble Energy’s Israeli assets to Chevron.”

The letter charges that the company has “one of the worst track records when it comes to environmental planning and protection” and warns, “Past behavior is a key determining factor in assessing how they would relate to Israeli law, waters and courts — especially if there is an oil or gas leak in our waters.”

Any major leak in the Mediterranean Sea — crucial not only to the economy but also as the source of the nation’s desalinated drinking water — would not be covered sufficiently by insurance and the costs would have to be borne by the public, they wrote. “Therefore, it is imperative that only a company with high moral standards and commitment towards the people living by its oil fields be allowed to work in Israel.

Oil contamination in the Ecuadorian rainforest. (YouTube screenshot)

“If Chevron is not honoring its current obligations in countries and communities around the world, including some of the most marginalized populations, is refusing to restore destroyed lands it has falsely declared to have cleaned, and is attacking the defenders of populations that have suffered from their inconsistent and destructive business practices, why should we trust Chevron to honor Israeli laws, Israeli court judgments and Israeli environmental regulations and respect Israeli lives?”

The letter charges that Chevron has refused to take “meaningful action” to stop spills of more than 1.3 million gallons of crude oil and other liquids into a dry riverbed in Kern County, California, last year.

In this May 10, 2019 photo provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, oil flows at a Chevron oil field in Kern County, California. Nearly 800,000 gallons of oil and water has seeped from the ground since May. Chevron and California officials say the spill is not near any waterway and has not significantly affected wildlife. (California Deptartment of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response via AP)

It also accuses the company of not completing cleanups and failing to pay compensation for oil spills in the Niger Delta, allegedly caused by a subsidiary, Chevron Nigeria Limited.

But the three are focusing mainly on Ecuador.

Chevron, the letter says, “has acted with brazen disrespect of the local rule of law in a judgment awarded to 30,000 indigenous [Ecuadorians]” living in a “once pristine environment” that was contaminated by oil and has “viciously attacked the plaintiffs’ human rights defender, Steven Donziger, who won the Ecuador case against it — one of the biggest in environmental legal history.”

Donziger’s case, while hardly reported by most of the mainstream media, has attracted the support of 29 Nobel laureates including nine Peace Prize winners, more than 475 lawyers and human rights defenders worldwide and a long list of bodies working in law, social and environmental justice, among them Amazon Watch, Greenpeace, Global Witness, Rainforest Action Network and the Harvard Law School National Lawyers Guild. Celebrities, such as Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, have also voiced their support.

Trudie Styler, co-founder of the Rainforest Foundation and wife of singer Sting, speaks to the press along with human rights lawyers Pablo Fajardo, center, and Steven Donziger at the Live Earth concert at Giants Stadium, July 7, 2007, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The concert is part of a 24-hour series spanning 7 continents to raise awareness for global warming. (AP Photo/Tim Larsen)

The activists demand intervention that will compel Chevron to immediately halt moves against Donziger, including a $35 million lawsuit against him, and to restart negotiations to reach a compensation deal with the Ecuadorians affected by the oil contamination.

“Without the immediate above two signs of goodwill, we will push for a permanent moratorium on approving the transfer of Noble Energy’s Israeli assets to Chevron in all ways available to us, including legal action and making sure the Israeli public learns about this harmful history.”

In this July 30, 2006,photo, Mariana Jimenez walks on her farm where burst oil pipes contaminated her land earlier in the month near Lago Agrio, in Ecuador’s Amazon region. Late Tuesday, July 10, 2018, Ecuador’s highest court upheld a $9.5 billion judgment against oil giant Chevron for decades of rainforest damage that harmed indigenous people. (AP Photo/Lou Dematteis, File)

‘Welcome, Chevron’

As first reported a week ago by the Wall Street Journal, Chevron has entered into a definitive agreement with Noble Energy, Inc. to buy all of the outstanding shares of the Houston, Texas based oil and gas explorer, in an all-stock transaction valued at $5 billion.

Israel’s offshore Leviathan gas platform. (Albatross)

Noble Energy has stakes in Israel’s offshore natural gas fields Tamar and Leviathan.

Welcoming the news, Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said it represented a “tremendous expression of confidence in the Israeli energy economy, and in the continued development and export of natural gas from the State of Israel.”

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz at the Knesset Interior and Environmental Protection Committee, July 22, 2020. (Adina Velman, Knesset spokes)

With the Tamar gas field having begun commercial operation in 2013 and Leviathan in January this year, there have been no major disasters to date. Still, environmental organizations and residents living near the Leviathan processing rig just off the northern coast have been locked in battle with Noble Energy over repeated system breakdowns, uses of the flare to burn off gas, and air pollution fears.

The Energy Ministry said in a statement that it had not yet received a request to transfer rights from Noble Energy to Chevron and that, “if and when it will be received, it will be discussed in all its aspects.”

The Chevron Company said in a statement, “The judgment against Chevron Corporation in Ecuador was the product of fraud, bribery and corruption. The environmental claims against Chevron are false and unsupported by scientific evidence. Decisions by courts in the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Gibraltar and an international tribunal in The Hague confirm that the fraudulent Ecuadorian judgment should be unenforceable in any court that respects the rule of law. More information is available here and on Chevron’s environmental stewardship here.”

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