The Commonwealth Club of California is drawing criticism from dozens of environmental and human rights groups from around the globe because of its plans to fête Chevron CEO John Watson and bestow its "Distinguished Citizen Award" on him at its annual fundraising gala this week. The environmental groups have asked the Commonwealth Club to rescind Watson's award because of the damage and destruction Chevron has wreaked on communities around the world.
The Commonwealth Club's 27th annual gala will be held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Francisco on Thursday and is expected to raise more than $1 million for the public affairs nonprofit — the oldest of its kind in the United States. Typically, the club gives awards to the leaders of industry who have significantly contributed to the global community. Watson's co-recipients this year are venture capitalist Sir Michael Moritz, Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, and Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a documentary filmmaker and wife of Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.
Amazon Watch, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to protect the world's rainforests, has sent a letter, co-signed by 35 environmental responsibility groups, to the Commonwealth Club's president and governing board members asking them to rescind Watson's award. But according to a spokesperson for Amazon Watch, the nonprofit has not received a reply. A Commonwealth Club spokesperson also did not return calls for this report. On Monday, Amazon Watch announced that it will take part in an alternative award ceremony outside the gala during which Watson will be awarded the dishonorable "Public Eye Award" for Chevron's bad corporate behavior in Ecuador.
The club has not disclosed why Watson merited the Distinguished Citizen Award, but according to Chevron's website, the company has donated millions of dollars to social welfare organizations in Africa, South America, and the United States. In Nigeria, Chevron contributed $90 million to improve socioeconomic conditions. Chevron also gave $60 million to the Global Fund, which fights HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, primarily in Africa. In the United States, Chevron has contributed $100 million toward education programs in the past three years. It also donated $94 million globally during 2013 to develop teaching programs that emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math.
But Amazon Watch spokesperson Paul Paz y Miño said those donations add up to little more than public relations greenwashing. "That money is a drop in the bucket compared to the money they spend on legal fees to avoid their responsibility for environmental and human rights disasters they have created," Miño said. "If you spend $15 million to fight AIDS in Nigeria, does that make it okay to deliberately cause cancer on an epidemic scale elsewhere in the world?"
In 2014, Chevron earned profits of nearly $19.2 billion.
In 2011, an Ecuadorian court ordered Chevron to pay 47 plaintiffs from the Lago Agrio region $8 billion for years of dumping "produced water" — a carcinogenic byproduct of oil drilling procedures — into open pits. The toxic water leached into streams and rivers that the indigenous community relied on for drinking water. The Lago Agrio plaintiffs cited numerous studies that found that the toxic dumping resulted in elevated cancer rates. In 2013, the Ecuadorian Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and held Chevron liable for cleanup costs. Chevron denied that there's a connection between the increase of cancer and their drilling practices and refused to pay the fines.
The multinational oil company has spent an estimated $2 billion in legal fees to avoid paying the fines and another $400 million to pursue racketeering charges against the plaintiffs and their attorneys in US federal courts. Lower courts ruled in favor of Chevron, but the decision is on appeal.
According to Amazon Watch, Chevron has been the global poster child for corporate irresponsibility and bad behavior. In 2011, a Chevron oil spill contaminated the waters off the southeastern coast of Brazil. In Nigeria, a drilling borehole exploded, killed two employees, and ignited a fire that burned for 46 days. In Bangladesh, a sloppy Chevron seismic survey resulted in a fire that significantly burned a forest in the Lawachara National Park. In the United States, there was an explosion and fire — which sent 15,000 people to local hospitals complaining of respiratory problems — in 2012 at the company's Richmond refinery. The Richmond City Council filed a lawsuit against Chevron, which is still pending, and in 2013, the company pleaded no contest to six counts of criminal negligence and paid a $2 million fine.
"John Watson earns a $32 million salary while he makes a mockery of the rule of law and consistently abuses the communities where his company operations," Miño said. "It is shocking the Commonwealth Club would consider honoring him."