Healing the Legacy of “Black Gold”

I was aware of the exploitation of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador by Texaco, and must admit to not being terribly surprised that similar offenses have occurred throughout the world. Reparations and restoration may be impossible, given the vast extent of the degradation. They will certainly bankrupt the industry – Ecuador alone represents a $27 billion liability to Chevron, which bought Texaco back in 2001.

The two European oil giants, Shell and BP, have both made forays into renewables. This piece from Platform London describes their uncomfortable attempts to muster the conviction to do what is right for the future.

In America we addressed the issue of culpability for environmental degradation with the Clean Air and Water Acts. Parts of the legal framework were moderately unfair: “joint and severable” liability meant that if a small-potatoes polluter dumped something into a landfill, non-polluters had to pay to clean up the mess. Even when a polluter was able to pay, the chemical  and oil industries have evolved a sophisticated array of legal practices to avoid financial liability, ranging from divestment of operations responsible for managing polluted sites all the way to bankruptcy.

As it became clear that the original Acts were not going to generate assets sufficient to undo decades of exploitation of workers and ecosystems, Congress responded with a broad tax on the industry. This recognizes that the benefits of exploitation accrued to the society as a whole, motivating local, state and federal elected officials to turn a blind eye to the effects of pollution. The Superfund Act recognized that society as a whole needed to take responsibility for the problem, and contribute through taxation to remedies.

I’m not certain whether those at Platform London and elsewhere recognize that we need to move beyond attempts to hold Big Oil responsible for its servicing of our addiction to fossil fuels. All of us, as citizens of an energy rich economy, need to do our part to contribute to a solution. That means a global pact to finance restoration and restitution.

Given the Brexit vote, it appears obvious that we lack the institutional means to negotiate that kind of commitment. What the activists might consider is that Big Oil itself may be a powerful and motivated partner in creating the conditions under which that negotiation can take place.