Tuesday, February 15, 2011

CRUDE - news from the decline of the fossil fuel age

Last June on klimazwiebel, we discussed some aspects of the fossil fuel age, especially the Texan oil spill and the case Texaco / Chevron versus Ecuador. I wrote: "Oil means uncontrollable corporate industries, corruption, irresponsibility, dependency." Who ever was so naive to think that justice might succeed in an oil story? Today, we can read in the Wallstreet Journal  and spiegel-online that the Ecuador / Chevron case came to an surprising end: Chevron will have to pay $8.6 billion dollars to clean up the rain forest, and they have to publicly apologize.

Chevron hit with record judgment.
An Ecuadorian judge on Monday ordered Chevron Corp. to pay $8.6 billion to clean up oil pollution in the country's rain forest in what is believed to be the largest-ever judgment in an environmental case.
And if the U.S. oil giant doesn't publicly apologize in the next 15 days, the judge ordered the company to pay twice that amount.
Chevron shares rose today despite a court ruling in Ecuador ordering that oil giant to pay more than $8.6 billion in pollution damages. Jonathan Cheng has details and a brief wrap of the rest of today's market action. The ruling brings to an end one chapter of a legal drama that has played out in courtrooms in Ecuador and the U.S. for nearly two decades."
The last word on the Texan oilspill is not spoken yet. Someday we will look back at the fossil fuel age, and maybe only then we will realize that this was a dark age for many.  


isaacschumann said...


I think it's a bad sign that Chevron's shares rose following the ruling, I read elsewhere in an AP story that Chevron does not plan to comply.(surprise!) I know little about international law, how likely are the Ecuadorean courts to force Chevron to pay? I fear this is merely theater, it is my understanding that oil extraction continues in the same fields to this day.

Charly said...

One possible reason why Chevron will probably not comply:


Werner Krauss said...

maybe it's only theater for a few days, but it is a great play anyway - on the world stage. For one day, it sounds like victory for those who normally never win. Shame on Texaco / Chevron. Everybody can see that they have blood on their hands. If they don't have to pay now, they will have to pay in hell. Sure, it was and is a complex story. But families suffered, ecosystems were destroyed, children died. That's a fact. And the oil industry never cared. Nobody ever cared except a few people. I hope it's a great day for the people of Ecuador, for those who raised their voices for them, and those who made the film. I wish it were a victory.

Rainer S said...

Ecuador in the age of fossil fuels:

Population (1960): 4.44 million
Population (2010): 13.78 million

GDP per capita (1960): $230
GDP per capita (2007): $3,110

Life expectancy (1960): 55 yrs
Life expectancy (2010): 76 yrs

A dark age, indeed...

Hans von Storch said...

Rainer S - could you tell us where you have these numbers from? What about their uncertainty? - Hans

Hans von Storch said...

Werner, your assertion "Shame on Texaco / Chevron. Everybody can see that they have blood on their hands. If they don't have to pay now, they will have to pay in hell. Sure, it was and is a complex story. But families suffered, ecosystems were destroyed, children died. That's a fact. And the oil industry never cared. Nobody ever cared except a few people." is presented as facts. How can you be that certain? How do you know? - They may have blood on their hands, but I can not see it.

Rainer S said...

Hans, all but one figure was taken from "Fischers Weltalmanach 2010" (p.11), quoting "World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision, UN Population Division 2009".

The table in the "Fischers"(pp. 11) is quite instructive. Don´t know whether it is avialable online .

The GDP figure for 1960 was taken from

Sorry, I did not have the opportunity yet to do all the error bars :-)

Hans von Storch said...

Thanks, Reiner S. Would you mind generating time series for the three different quantities? The GDP is without inflation, is it?
Are there other sources, say World Bank, which would support these numbers? (Maybe, the cited web-page is a front page of the oil industry?)
Are the poorest in 2010 as poor and as many as in 1960?

Anonymous said...

@ Hans


Data acces ... a mystery ...


Werner Krauss said...

œRainer S #3
some numbers about number of rich / poor?
some numbers about the Indian population in the Amazone?
Some facts why Texaco / Chevron is responsible for these numbers you present?

Werner Krauss said...

@ Hans #5

Watch the documentary http://www.crudethemovie.com/
Yes, it is biased. No, it is not science.

Read the newspapers. Have a look here:

Look for "Environmental damage in Ecuador" section in:

Hans von Storch said...

Werner, I appreciate your heiligen Zorn, but ... nothing better? That's the stuff to generate a story about Himalaya glaciers and their disappearance in 2035. Maybe true, maybe a spin of interested parties?
Can we substantiate the story, and understand the different facets of the story? Or is it just black/white?
How does an ethnologist deal with such a situation?

Werner Krauss said...

@Hans #11
oh boy, that's a big question!
No, it's not black and white, but it's Texaco / Chevron versus people living in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
As an anthropologist, I am interested in the clash of two universalist / global approaches: one exemplified by Texaco / Chevron who seek profit (oil) and control in Ecuador (and in many other foreign places); the other exemplified by tribal people / forest dwellers living in the exploitation area, and their alliance with Ecuadorian activists, American film makers, a global environmental movement, and superstars such as Sting, his wife or Bianca Jagger.

How do these global connections come into being? I assume that Texaco stands in a long line of conquering South America in the search for resources such as gold, oil or cocaine. How did they get access to this area, how did they get themselves established, what were the relations between governments of US and Ecuador, Texaco and Ecuador and so on - a long and complicated story, with the state of Ecuador as the successor of Texaco.

On the other hand, there is the perspective of tribal people and other forest dwellers. Not a success story, I guess (except for today, maybe!). What exactly are forest dwellers? I would look for ontological differences (compared to mine, for example). What kind of world do they inhabit? Listen to them. Make surveys of various kinds. How do the Texaco explorations look like from their perspective? Did they get any profit? What about pollution? How did the river change, the forest, the community? Cancer? Did they get offered jobs? Were they able to work for Texaco? What happened to their community when Texaco came? We have to find out.

We also should have an eye on their allies. How did the film director, the environmentalist groups (Amazon watch, for example) connect? Who are the brokers? What kind of language brings those completely different groups together? (from indigenous languages, Spanish to American, from oral traditions to literacy, from local imagery to global environmentalism). How did the community of forest dwellers change through these contacts?
We also should find out those guys from the forest who ended up on global rock festivals, in parliaments, maybe fully dressed in their traditional costumes? What did they experience on their journeys?

And we should listen again and again to their songs, their stories, and play with their children. Just spend time. If necessary, we should try to help them. Maybe they need money or have to go to the doctor or to sue Texaco / Chevron. You never know, but it's better to be prepared. I guess those kind of people are on the other end of Rainer S. Ecuadorian success story.

I guess that's how I would do it. Sounds like a great project, don't you think so? Give me a year or so for field work. I'll tell you more afterwards.

Similar field projects:
Kim Fortun (2001) Advocacy after Bhopal. Environmentalism, diaster, new global orders.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2005) Friction. An ethnography of global connection.
And some general remarks about prospects of contemporary anthropological fieldwork here in my book review essay:

Werner Krauss said...

Just re-read my yesterday's entry to find out whether I answered your question or not, Hans. It still makes me think...

It's not really comparable to the question of Himalayan glaciers. It's about unequal relationships, environmental pollution and justice in the age of fossil fuels. My statement is about these unequal relationships. It is not a yes / no story.

There is the jungle and the resources, both long lasting systems (très longue durée). There is the history of South America and Europe and North America - again, a long story (longue durée, the history of gold). And there is the short term exploitation of oil in the jungle and the subsequent conflicts, which in the moment resulted in a verdict against Texaco / Chevron.

These different time levels are interconnected, with gold, drugs and oil as the objects of desire and power.

Is science the arbiter? Can it tell the truth about this world of blood and unequal relationships? Both sides theoretically can make use of satellites, environmental assessments, health and human rights surveys etc. Maybe those guys from Texaco have some more means to pursue scientific objectivity (or bend it in their direction). Not even science stands above those historical relationships. Environmentalists showed up as allies and enabled access to the law, to science, to rights. In this case, they indeed seem to have changed the course of history. They give a voice to those who have no access to the media.

The victory of this activist / forest dweller - coalition was highly unlikely, and for sure it will not last. Texaco will find something to debunk an environmental assessment or whatever, or they will find other means to avoid too severe punishment. But they already put their bets on renewable energies, as much as I know.

It's important to remember the dark side of fossil fuel energies and to show respect for those who did not belong to the winners. Tribal people all over the world deserve a privileged place in the future oil museum, which should not only display the triumphs of the fossil fuel age. There was a price to pay, and some paid more than others.

Anyway, I wish the verdict against Texaco / Chevron were a milestone on the way to low carbon societies. No more crude.

isaacschumann said...


I honestly don't see how this is a turning point, oil companies get sued all the time, and it doesn't even look like chevron will pay. Furthermore, oil production indeed continues in Ecuador,(see below) do you think that oil revenues are now equitably distributed? Is this suddenly earth friendly exploration? The second largest producer in Ecuador after Petroecuador is a Chinese consortium.



I don't want to come off as a defender of oil Chevron, this is just the reality of the situation, we will not get off crude anytime soon. And I say this as someone who works for a small company(not a big evil corporation) doing sponsored research on producing biofuels and other chemicals from industrial and agricultural waste.
I care about this very much, I've made my career in alternatives to oil. IMO, this kind of theatre is a distraction; to me, a real victory would be internationally accepted norms for mitigating the harm from oil extraction and equitably distributing revenues.


Werner Krauss said...

No objections, Isaac, guess you are right. I just wanted to raise interest in this case. Don't forget, environmentalists appear in skeptics' arguments mostly as over-sellers, alarmists or Himalaya-gate-ists. This case is good to think with, and it can help to adjust the moral compass.

isaacschumann said...

Holding oil companies responsible is a good thing, don't get me wrong. But I would like to see more emphasis on better regulations, something for the WTO or the G20 maybe? I think advocacy orgs could play a role in this to in the meantime, preemptively holding them accountable by playing the role of watchdog, which I don't perceive is happening in many developing countries, (let alone developed ones for that matter).

A criticism I would make of some activists is that I hear an awful lot about the dangers of drilling in the arctic but very little about oil production in Nigeria, India or Latin America, where there is way more people to be harmed. (except for this, of course) But don't take what I say too seriously, I will cop to contrarian tendencies which I try, often unsuccessfully, to keep under control. So don't let me be a party pooper, this is definitely a good thing.

Werner Krauss said...

Oil as a power supply brought specific power relations into being. The fossil fuel age shaped and affected the relationships between people, between people and things, between people and their environment. Ralph S. above was right, too, when he listed the rising GDP etc - oil brought enormous wealth to many. But not for free, and not to all. From Texas to Saudi Arabia, from Nigeria to Ecuador: the story of oil is a bloody one.
Maybe it's time to bring back politics into the climate debate, which is a debate about energy, right? The quest for a low-carbon society comes too often disguised as a merely technological problem.
What do you think?

Rainer S said...

Werner, don´t get me wrong - I basically do appreciate your commitment to alleviate the plight of people who are not benefiting from the use of natural ressources in their country.
What I took issue with was the use of this specific incident to drive home the message of "ceterum censeo fossils delendam est" - at least that was my first impression.
If have read to many non sequitur, OTOM articles in the media about climate, environmental and public health topics not be annoyed by such a combination.

To make it "worse" here is a take of Big Money/Big Oil/Big Something-or-Other on the Chevron-Ecuador-case:


(disclaimer: links posted do not necessarily convey the views of the poster)

Perhaps, in Nigeria even more so than in Ecuador, the basic problem might be bad government and the absence of a civil society. In some countries, windfall revenue from natural ressources appears to create net harm by hampering development and fostering corruption. Did this happen in coal-rich UK and Germany in the 19th century? I don´t think so.

And do we need to keep on carrying the White Man´s Burden by assisting them little brown people in stickick to their however ancient ways, by telling them how to sue, how to use modern (emotionalized) communication?

Rainer S said...

"The quest for a low-carbon society comes too often disguised as a merely technological problem."

Whether we like it or not: in case AGW really turns out to be a severe problem, it will be tackled by some tech-fixes. After all, the whole of human history is one big tech-fix.

The chances of going low-carbon are ever diminishing anyway. A high price for crude drives exploration and tapping of ressources in remote places. A rising price for coal will re-activate production in high-cost regions (in early 2010, German black coal wasn´t even classified as "Reserves" - due to cost - but as "Ressources" only).

Shale gas offers new opportunities.

And if "we" (the west) don´t use them, China, India etc. surely will.

So we better research tech-fixes. IMHO, e.g. going Thorium makes much more sense than paying subsidies for old tech like windmills.

Werner Krauss said...

@Reiner S. #19

I agree with your statement:
"Perhaps, in Nigeria even more so than in Ecuador, the basic problem might be bad government and the absence of a civil society."

I have difficulties with this one:
"And do we need to keep on carrying the White Man´s Burden by assisting them little brown people in stickick to their however ancient ways, by telling them how to sue, how to use modern (emotionalized) communication?"

What kind of humor is this? There is something about the "white man's burden' argument, I agree. But you need a context where it fits. It's cynical only when together with "them little brown people" - or do I misunderstand you?

It's the problem of advocacy or activism. What do you do as an anthropologist in a situation like this? Say: "Oh my little brown informants got fucked up by oil industry and / or their corrupt government" and go to the next case?

I absolutely agree, those cases are of enormous complexity. There is no simple black or white, and there is no neutrality. But their are reasons to engage. You cannot kill environmentalists' or activists' arguments with a routinely played out 'white man's burden' argument. There is a real problem 'out there', with real people.

Werner Krauss said...

@Reiner S. #20

I agree concerning technological fixes. But each and every technology has its own sociology, geography and history, be it nuclear, coal, wind, oil or unknown yet. We have to buy into new technologies, no doubt. But we better take into account what we really buy into, the full cost.

Rainer S said...

@Werner #21

You are right, my last remark in the post you are critizing was somewhat over the top, and it is not meant to be a "killer argument".

However, it is frustrating to see good causes being highjacked by lawyers or aloof NGOs which even care less about the people involved than my heartless self does.

Who can one trust? I stopped donating to every outfit that jumped some bandwaggon, AGW or other.