‘Not necessary’ to probe spills linked to Chevron, energy minister says

Despite activists’ calls for urgent public debate about oil giant’s pollution record, Yuval Steinitz ‘confident’ that $5 billion deal to buy Noble Energy will be approved

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A tanker truck passes the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, on March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)
A tanker truck passes the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, on March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz has declared that it is “not necessary” to investigate oil spills linked to oil and gas giant Chevron before it buys Texas-based Noble Energy and its Israeli gas reservoirs for $5 billion, despite calls from environmental activists worried about the US-based multinational’s record.

Yuval Steinitz told Bloomberg News last week that “With natural gas, there is no problem with spills.” Adding that natural gas evaporates into the air “all the time,” he said he was “confident” that Israeli regulators would approve the Chevron deal.

The transfer of rights in Israel from Noble Energy to Chevron must be approved by the Petroleum Council, part of the Energy Ministry, after deliberations that are not open to the public.

Steinitz welcomed the acquisition as soon as it was announced last month as “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.” Prof. Brenda Shaffer, an international energy expert, said the deal was an “incredible” reflection of the warming of ties between Israel and the Gulf states.

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

Queried about Chevron’s record, Energy Ministry Director-General Udi Adiri told the Times of Israel last week that he had not looked into pollution claims but thought the company could really help Israel market its gas and exploit the potential for export.

Asked about permits to explore for oil in Israeli waters, he said that to date, no substantial amounts had been found.

Late last month, activists used a Knesset committee meeting on climate change to question Chevron’s pollution record, highlighting 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 Chevron, describing the company as “unreliable and immoral” and charging that it must not be allowed to enter the Israeli market until it proves otherwise.

Oil contamination in the Ecuadorian rainforest. (YouTube screenshot)

On the matter of Ecuador, Chevron insists that the Texaco company had already cleaned up the area in which it operated before Chevron acquired it in 2001. In a statement it said, “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.”

The lawyer who led the team representing the Educadorians, New-York-based Steven Donziger, has always denied these claims and 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.

Last month, the chairwoman of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights asked the US Congress to look into the issue.

Lawyer Steven Donziger, right, speaks to Huaorani women during this 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)

Donziger was disbarred on Thursday by a state appeals court on the basis of a 2014 ruling by a US judge that the Ecuadorian judgment against Chevron was invalid because it was obtained through “egregious fraud.” The case against Donziger was based on the testimony of a former Ecuadorian judge that has itself been found as false.

Donziger has also been under house arrest for nearly a year, without trial, for contempt of court in relation to the case, after he refused the judge’s order to hand over his computer and cellphone to Chevron, citing attorney client privilege. The maximum sentence for the contempt offense is six months.

Donziger and his supporters say he is suffering judicial harassment for daring to stand up to a hugely powerful international corporation.

Writing on Twitter, Martin Garbus, a lawyer for Donziger, called the disbarment decision “horrendous,” saying it read as if written “by a Soviet-era apparatchik carryout a political function to help a major corporation get rid of its main critic.”

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