Oil Company Opts for Legal Hearing in San Francisco. Is Chevron Crazy?


The presiding judge in the case seems to think so. Judge William Alsup of San Francisco’s federal court, hearing arguments in a case pitting Chevron against aggrieved residents of the Ecuadorian Amazon, was perplexed why Chevron’s lawyers hadn’t asked to relocate the case to South America. “It’s a legitimate question to ask,” he recently said from the bench. Alsup was no doubt aware that Texaco (now Chevron) faced a similar case in New York in 1993 (jungle, pollution, health problems) and won a motion to send it to Ecuador. “Let me hear from ‘Big Oil,'” Alsup commanded, joking about the Big Oil part (perhaps). “Tell me why you didn’t make that motion.”

Chevron’s lawyers argued the quickest way to dispense with the case would be to press for its dismissal. SF Weekly has been reporting on the trail, and today has an insightful piece on why Chevron is tempting fate at the pink hands of SF liberals instead of the well-greased arteries of a banana republic:

The plaintiffs’ lawyers cite a couple of good reasons why Chevron might be wary of sending the present case down to Ecuador. The company may be getting nervous about an ongoing case in Quito, the remnant of the case removed from the United States in the 1990s. The judge recently put the trial on the fast track, and a ruling is expected in the next year. That lawsuit demands a massive environmental remediation effort; Amazon Watch estimates it could cost $6 billion in total. Meanwhile, in New York federal court, Chevron is locked into a lawsuit with the government of Ecuador about who should pay for the cleanup or any other legal damages awarded.

With governmental relations already frayed by the litigation in New York, the company may also be wary of the anti-American, socialist sentiment on the rise throughout South America — what commentators have taken to calling the “pink tide” that has swept leftist leaders into power across the continent. “Ecuador just kicked Occidental Petroleum out, and the government is starting to make populist noises,” says Terry Collingsworth, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. “Chevron is damn nervous.”

These macro forces mean little to Judge Alsup, however, as he wades through the muddy legal waters of this case that has its roots in a South American rainforest. In October, he spent a long day hearing testimony from experts flown up from Ecuador. The next day he would have to discuss how the Ecuadorian plaintiffs would be deposed, and whether they could appear for trial; there was some concern that the impoverished Indians wouldn’t be able to get visas to enter the United States. It was the end of the afternoon, and the judge finally let his irritation show. “I just don’t understand why a case that involves Ecuador is up here!” he burst out. “Now you want a lowly district judge in San Francisco to resolve it! It’s all topsy-turvy.”

The judge sighed, resigned. “But that’s what I’ve got to do. See you tomorrow,” he said, standing up. Chevron’s lawyers stayed quiet.

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