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Steven Donziger on “freedom” under the reign of fossil fuels
The environmental and human rights advocate, known for his legal battles with Chevron, discusses what’s next for him and for democracy under Big Oil.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
On a 93-degree afternoon, I sat with Steven Donziger at his favorite coffee shop on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, blocks from the apartment where the environmental attorney was confined while on house arrest for almost three years. Donziger has faced relentless legal persecution by Chevron after helping Indigenous peoples and farmer communities win a $9.5 billion judgment against the oil giant for its cancer-causing pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He became the first U.S. attorney to be placed on house arrest pretrial for a misdemeanor contempt charge, thanks to the work of a private prosecutor with documented ties to Chevron. You can learn more about the bonkers details of what Donziger calls “the nation’s first corporate prosecution” in a previous EXXONKNEWS here.
Donziger was denied a jury but nevertheless spent more than 900 days on house arrest and 45 days in prison — all while top elected officials, 68 Nobel laureates, and jurors from the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for his release, and while Chevron refused to pay the damages it still owes to the Indigenous peoples of Ecuador. In April, he was finally set free.
But as we sat under the oppressive sun, the towering, gray-haired lawyer reminded me that he isn’t in the clear just yet. Even without an ankle bracelet tethering him to his apartment, and even with a growing swath of supporters cheering him on, he still doesn’t have a law license or passport, his bank account is depleted, and he remains under the watchful eye of one of the most powerful fossil fuel corporations on Earth.
Weeks later, speaking again over Zoom, I asked Donziger about his predicament, the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold over American politics, and the need for oil companies to pay for the extensive harm they’ve caused to communities across the world.
Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
ES: When I spoke to you last, you said your case would be a “bellwether” for other activists and advocates doing the work of holding fossil fuel corporations accountable. Can you talk about that some more?
SD: I think my situation is part of the corporate playbook. They created a sort of laboratory around me to see if they could push this idea of a private corporate prosecution to target a very big critic of the industry. And they have so far gotten away with creating this bizarre animal in the law where Chevron prosecuted me directly in the name of the United States government and had me detained as a lawyer.
I’d like to think the United States is not one of those countries that locks up its human rights lawyers or its environmental justice lawyers. My case proves that at least for now that’s not true anymore. So I think this is a bellwether for the industry, for the legal system, for our society as a whole, for all of us who do this type of advocacy work. Whether you're a lawyer or a campaigner, or just someone working in your community, doing environmental justice work, this cannot become the new normal, and that's what the industry wants. The playbook is not just designed to silence those who are effective at confronting the fossil fuel industry. It's also to use the criminalization of activists as a weapon of intimidation to try to scare the heck out of others who might think about doing this important work.
So I'm speaking out and trying to call attention to what this means.
The bottom line is that we can't let what happened to me happen again to anyone else. We have to call it out in my case so I get protected, I'm able to do my work, and the people of Ecuador whom I try to help are in the best position to get a recovery on their judgment — and so that no one else in America or in any other country is victimized again by this corporate fossil fuel industry playbook designed to lock people up who successfully challenge the industry.
ES: Oil companies seem to have an endless amount of wealth and power over American democracy. What are some of the ways you see Big Oil’s power being checked and challenged, and how can we build on that?
SD: Well, first I think we need to educate people on how to notice where the power is. What I've found as a lawyer is that a lot of people fighting for climate justice are not fully aware of what they're up against in our courts. They don't know that our court system is stacked against those of us who do this environmental justice work. We need to understand what's going on in terms of corporate control, generally over our society, but specifically over all three branches of government, including most importantly for our purposes the judiciary.
Once that gets noticed, you see things like in the Line 3 protests in Minnesota, the local public police were being financed by the pipeline company, by Enbridge. In my case, you have Chevron prosecuting me, that is, using a public function directly against me.
We also need to reverse this power [that this industry and its law firms] have accumulated that allows them to do things that are clearly illegal and in violation of the rule of law in order to maintain their privileges and their ability to profit at the expense of all of us and at the expense of all of our ecosystems. That’s their game. [The industry wants to] keep control, keep us dependent on fossil fuels, make as much money as they can while the earth burns and we all suffer. They do not care. So we need to, as a citizens’ movement, fight back, and we need to also pressure our government to be responsive to the needs of the planet and to the needs of its own citizens. Right now, the government is under way too much control of the fossil fuel industry, in my opinion.
We are in grave danger as a society. What happened to me is just a little piece of a much bigger picture, but it is a telltale sign of how bad things could become if we don’t counter mobilize. I think the stakes could not be higher for the survival of our planet and for the survival of what’s left of our democracy, two issues that in my view are intimately connected.
ES: I’ve written about Big Oil attorney Ted Boutrous, a prominent #Resistance Tweeter and lawyer who also represents Chevron in climate liability lawsuits across the country and calls the megapolluter a “really terrific client.” What do you think of these lawyers who say oil companies are just clients deserving of a defense just like anyone else?
SD: The role of big corporate defense law firms, like the one Ted Boutrous works at, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, which was used by Chevron to attack me and prosecute me, is in my opinion to launder unethical and even illegal behavior by the oil companies through the elegance of the law, through the esoterica of legal briefs, to make planet-destroying activities and attacks on activists all look normal and okay.
As these companies are ruining the planet and creating massive pollution problems and global warming, and really engaging in corrupt practices in many countries around the world, they say, well, we're just litigating this. It's our right to litigate it. That might be true, but the asymmetry in those litigations is astounding. I mean, we had a small legal team in Ecuador going up against literally dozens of Chevron law firms. It was almost overwhelming. The power structures underneath these environmental litigations need to be examined. The role of the big corporate law firms, the role of people like Ted Boutrous — who makes huge personal profits laundering for the polluters and attacking activists like me — needs to be examined.
I also think Ted Boutrous is an illustration of the major conflicts of interest at the highest levels of our society. For example, he represents The New York Times in their First Amendment litigation while at the same time representing major corporations that commit human rights abuses like Chevron. That plays out in bad ways. The New York Times never covered my 993-day detention. I'm a human rights lawyer in America locked up unfairly and illegally, according to the United Nations, and they didn't do a story because they used the same lawyer who Chevron pays to detain me. So there are conflicts of interest at the highest levels of many of our institutions that show a certain moral rot in our society. The only way to deal with that is from the bottom up, for citizens to organize and to notice it and to mount strategies to address it.
[Editor’s note: The New York Times did cover Donziger’s story once, on the day he went to prison, and more than two years after he was initially placed on house arrest. When asked to respond, a spokesperson for the Times said, “The business side of the company has zero influence in our news coverage. It is absurd to suggest that outside legal counsel would have any influence on what editors decide to cover."]
ES: It almost feels like sometimes Chevron’s malevolence flies under the radar while Exxon takes the infamous spotlight. Is there anything you think people should know about Chevron that they might not already?
SD: For those who want to understand Chevron and how bad the company is as an actor around the world, there's a report from an academic named Dr. Nan Greer that documents Chevron's horrific polluting activities in dozens of countries around the world. These aren't mistakes. These are deliberate design decisions by an oil company to offload pollution onto some of the most vulnerable communities of the planet. They're not paying to clean it up. They're not paying for operational practices that mitigate the damage. They're just flat-out dumping toxic waste in many of these places to keep their production costs as low as possible. They have no respect for the ability of local governments to regulate them, to find them and to hold them accountable. The damage is left behind and they rely on local communities or the host nation to foot the bill for the cleanup. It’s grifting off of taxpayers and from what I have seen it is endemic to the business model of the fossil fuel industry.
The fossil fuel industry almost always seeks taxpayer-funded bailouts for the pollution they cause. And that happens in every country, including the United States. In California you see thousands of abandoned wells that are polluting right now, and a bunch of oil companies, including Chevron, take the profits and leave the pollution behind. Many times the pollution sits in areas of the world where local communities don't have money or resources to clean it up. So people in local communities often die of cancer because of exposure to pollution that these oil companies have caused while the CEOs of these companies receive pay packages in the tens of millions of dollars annually. It's a damn outrage.
ES: What are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself continuing to do environmental justice and human rights work, and in what capacity?
SD: I definitely see myself continuing to do environmental justice and human rights work with all my energy. I love this work and I will continue to do this work as an advocate, both for the people in Ecuador and for other people who might come to me seeking assistance. I'm not gonna let Chevron or any judge take away my right to be an advocate. But I will point out that I still don't have my passport and I don't have my law license. I am trying to get them back so I can be a human rights lawyer again, and really be able to advocate fully for my clients.
ES: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
SD: I would re-emphasize that we are all in this together and that we have the power of numbers over the fossil fuel industry. In my case, please don’t let Chevron use me to distract from the real problem in our case which is that Indigenous peoples and farmer communities in the Amazon continue to suffer the impacts of what could be the world’s worst oil contamination.
There are multiple court orders that mandate that Chevron pay money into a trust fund so lives can be saved and the environment can be restored. They've refused to do so.
They're mocking the rule of law and the communities in Ecuador need help in holding the company accountable and in collecting their judgment so they can restore their ancestral lands. If you want more information, go to freedonziger.com.
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