A licence to kill and drill
Sunday 14 June 2009
From the Morning Star.
There's an easy way to find oil. Go to some remote and gorgeous natural sanctuary, say Alaska or the Amazon, find some Indians, then drill under them.
If the indigenous folk complain, well, just shoo them away. Shooing methods include bulldozers, bullets, crooked politicians and fake land sales.
But be aware. Lately the natives are shooing back. Two weeks ago, indigenous Peruvians seized an oil pumping station, grabbed the nine policemen guarding it and, say reports, executed them. This followed the government's murder of more than a dozen rainforest residents who had protested against the seizure of their property for oil drilling.
Again and again I see it in my line of work of investigating fraud. Here are a few pit-stops on the oily trail of tears.
In the 1980s, Charles Koch was found to have pilfered about $3 (£1.80) worth of crude from Stanlee Ann Mattingly's oil tank in Oklahoma. Here's the weird part. Koch was - and remains - the 14th richest man on the planet, worth about $14 billion (£7.9bn). Mattingly was a dirt-poor Osage Indian.
She wasn't Koch's only victim. According to secret tape recordings of a former top executive of his company Koch Industries, the billionaire demanded that oil tanker drivers secretly siphon a few bucks worth of oil from every tank attached to a stripper well on the Osage Reservation where Koch had a contract to extract crude.
Koch, according to the tape, would "giggle" with joy over the records of the theft. Koch's own younger brother Bill ratted him out, complaining that, in effect, brothers Charles and David cheated him out of his fair share of the looting which totalled over three-quarters of a billion dollars from the Native American lands.
The FBI filmed the siphoning with hidden cameras, but criminal charges were quashed after quiet objections from Republican senators.
Then there are the Chugach Natives of Alaska. The Port of Valdez, Alaska, is arguably one of the most valuable pieces of real estate on Earth - the only earthquake-safe ice-free port in Alaska that could load oil from the giant North Slope field. In 1969, Exxon and British Petroleum companies took the land from the Chugach and paid them one dollar. I kid you not.
Ex-governor of Alaska Wally Hickel dismissed my suggestion that the Chugach deserved a bit more respect - and cash - for their property.
"Land ownership comes in two ways, Mr Palast," explained the governor and pipeline magnate. "Purchase or conquest. The fact that your granddaddy chased a caribou across the land doesn't make it yours." The Chugach had lived there for 3,000 years.
No oil company would dream of digging on the Bush family properties in Midland, Texas, without paying a royalty. Or drilling near Malibu without the latest in environmental protections.
But when Natives are on top of Exxon's or BP's glory hole, the great defenders of private property rights suddenly turn quite Bolshevik - lands can be seized for the public's need for oil.
Some Natives are "relocated" through legal flim-flam, some at gunpoint. The less lucky are left to wallow, literally, in the gunk left by the drilling process.
During an investigation I conducted for BBC, we captured footage in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador showing a stinking, black glop of crude oil residue pulled from an abandoned Chevron-Texaco waste pit. A pipe runs from the toxic pit right into the water supply of Cofan Indians.
Chief Emergildo Criollo told me how oil company executives had been helicoptered into his remote village and, speaking in Spanish - which the Cofan didn't understand - "purchased" drilling rights with trinkets and cheese. The Natives had never seen cheese. "The cheese smelled funny, so we threw it in the jungle," recalled Criollo.
After drilling began, Criollo's son went swimming in his usual watering hole, came up vomiting blood and died.
I asked Chevron about the wave of poisonings and deaths. According to an independent report, 1,401 deaths, mostly children, mostly from cancers, can be traced to Chevron's toxic dumping.
Chevron's lawyer told me: "And it's the only case of cancer in the world? How many cases of children with cancer do you have in the States? They have to prove that it is our crude," which, he noted with glee, "is absolutely impossible."
Big Oil treats indigenous blood like a cheap petrol additive. That's why the Peruvians are up in arms. The Cofan of Ecuador, unlike their brothers in Peru, have taken no hostages. Rather, they have heavily armed themselves with lawyers.
But Chevron and its Big Oil brethren remain dismissive of the law. Last week, Shell Oil paid $15 million to the Ogoni people and the family of Ken Saro-Wiwa to get rid of a nasty PR problem involving the oil giant's alleged role in the killing of Wiwa and his associates - activists who had defended these Nigeria Delta people against drilling contamination.
Shell pocketed $31 billion last year in profits and hopes that the pay-off will clear the way for a drilling partnership with Nigeria's government.
Congratulations, Shell. Fifteen million dollars for a licence to kill and drill. That's a quite a bargain.
Greg Palast is a journalist and writer. His latest book is Armed Madhouse, published by Penguin. You can see footage of his report on Big Oil in the Amazon in the DVD Palast Investigates, available from his website