Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Fortune Of Reversal

Eighteen years, for what?

For eighteen billion dollars.

"We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this," is what a Chevron lobbyist told Newsweek in 2008.

This is the story of Chevron, the third-largest corporation in the United States, with annual revenue of around 200 billion dollars, versus Ecuador, whose entire economy is only about a quarter of that.

The issue is that Texaco, now owned by Chevron, began pumping oil from Ecuador's Amazon basin territory in 1967.

Fine so far.

That continued until 1992, when the company withdrew, allegedly leaving "hundreds of open pits full of malignant black sludge" and roughly eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste. The settlement thus amounts to a dollar a gallon.

The judgment came on February 14, 2011, at Lago Agrio in northeastern Ecuador, handed down by a local judge named Nicolás Zambrano. The ruling was the largest-ever in an environmental lawsuit.

Chevron has one last appeal, to the Ecuadorean Supreme Court, but to do that would have to first post a multi-billion dollar bond. And, since Chevron has no assets in Ecuador, you might think that the whole point is moot.

But the company does have huge assets elsewhere, all of which could be fair game for any cooperative government to seize and turn over to Ecuador.

Which makes the situation strange, especially considering that in 2001 Texaco could have settled the case for $140 million and walked away. This is about what Chevron is now paying every year in legal costs to fight the case.

At the New Yorker:

Reversal of Fortune A crusading lawyer helped Ecuadorans secure a huge environmental judgment against Chevron. But did he go too far? By Patrick Radden Keefe

Why Chevron Will Settle In Ecuador By Patrick Radden Keefe

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fun At The Post Office

Deja voodoo time.

I want to leave the country. Legally. At least for a while.

To do that I needed a passport.

Several months ago I checked at the post office to find out the days and hours I could do this.

The man I talked to said I'd need a photo. I knew that. He said it would cost $110. I knew that.

He said there was a $25 fee. I didn't know that, but OK.

To confirm I said "So that's $135." No, he said, $110 plus $25. "$135, right?" I said, hopefully.

He said that the passport fee was $110 and there was a $25 processing fee. I wrote all this down, added it up, and came to $135, which seemed to make sense at the time. He seemed dubious.

The hours were OK: Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

So far so good. He reminded me that I'd need a photo. Twice. (Three times in all.)

So far so good.

Later, I went back.

I had:

  • The official form, filled out.
  • $135 in cash, since I didn't want to mess with a check or credit card.
  • Two photos, as required, in the correct size.
  • An official birth certificate.

I didn't know my mother's or father's day and month of birth, so I put down the years. I was hoping that would work.

The clerk saw that I had already signed the form and told me I'd have to come back in three years, after getting a spanking, because I shouldn't have. He was right. On line 1476B, subsection 18, in bold, 3-point type it says not to. I'm a naughty one, I guess, but he pulled out a scrap of paper and had me sign it while he watched. To prove I could write, I guess.

OK so far. I passed.

Time to pay.

I offered $135 in cash.

They don't take cash.

There are two fees: $110 and $25. They have to be two separate transactions. The first one is $110. To pay that I had to buy a money order with cash, at a cost of $1.10, print my name on it and hand it back to the clerk.

I tried not to.

I tried giving him my credit card. He said it was good for only $25. But I could pay with a check if I wanted.

No. I had brought cash so I wouldn't have to do that. Because I so much wanted it all to be simple. So very simple.

But after a while we got it worked out. Meaning that we did it his way.

One hundred ten dollars in cash, plus $1.10 in cash. Good. It worked. He gave me the money order. And then I handed back the money order.

On to part two. Cool.

The clerk accepted cash for the $25 fee, without twitching, while I held my breath. I have no idea why this worked. Maybe he was starting to like me. Maybe the game was boring him.

But he forgot to make me kiss his ring. I'm having some guilty feelings now.

Then he cut my photograph in two. I had brought two images, as directed. Two images on one sheet of photo paper even, to keep it all simple, and handed them over, then he cut one out, kept that, and handed the other to me. He said I could keep it for my records. But I have a mirror in the bathroom, which fills my needs for self-identification. You know.

I said I was supposed to bring two. It's on the form.

He said they don't do that any more, so I should keep the second one.

I told him it's a good thing I'm not the kind of guy who, about now, would be standing there waving his arms and screaming. He didn't say anything. I'm not sure he heard me. Or maybe he was thinking how bitchin I looked in my 2x2-inch photo. Or how he'd like to brain me in his behind-the-counter, government-clerk sort of way, with a large club. I couldn't tell which.

Time passed.

Then the clerk disappeared.

I had my credit card out. I had one superfluous photo floating around, and that had to be recaptured too. And I had another piece or two of paper there, plus two receipts, one for $110 and one for $25, signifying the two transactions.

But I had no driver's license.

You have to bring one.

For identification.

And I didn't want to lose it, because, you know....

And now I couldn't find it.

After a while the clerk came back and handed it to me. He had gone off to make a photocopy, which I hadn't known, because he's a mumbler. A good one.

In fact it was only then that I realized why I hadn't been able to understand any more than every third or fourth word. Because he must have been a mumbling instructor.

They are the best of the best.

I imagined him in the front of a room, showing every counter clerk how to talk like you talk when you have a whole cheeseburger in your mouth. But he didn't have one.

I know.

I had him open his mouth and stick out his tongue and there was no cheeseburger in there. Anywhere.

He's a pro.

I could never be that good.

But we got past it.

Only one thing left.

For some reason he had to check my birth certificate and find my birth date. I'm not sure why. It could be his hobby. But he got it wrong. He found the date I applied to get the copy, which is on there, and it says "December 23, 2010".

And that confused him. Because I was too young to apply for a passport. Without my mommy there too.

I directed him to the birth date line but it still, to him, appeared wrong.

I tell him that I should write Harry Shearer about how my day went but I don't think he heard me. Or he didn't care. Or he thought I was bluffing. Or doesn't know who Harry Shearer is. Not that Harry Shearer would care.

I'm just this guy, you know?

But it passes. The clerk finds my birth date and reads it out loud. Four or five times.

It must be a good one.

It may be a first for his collection.

He seems pleased in his non-expressive, mumbling way.

Almost done. I only have to gather up my collection of waste paper and receipts, and leave.

While I do this the clerk tells me that the process will take three to five weeks. He says this at least four times, except that once he says four to six weeks.

I think he wanted to see if I was paying attention.

I was paying attention.

Helpfully, the clerk finally informs me that if I want to know about the progress of my passport application I can check the web site. I pull out my receipts, looking them over while asking if there is a tracking number I can use.


But I can go to the web site and search around. Somewhere.

Fine, I say. I'll keep that secret close to my heart. I say it with feeling. And I will do it too. Keep it so very close to my heart.

I am now free to go.

I can't wait to meet the TSA. I hear they're nice.

On the way out of the post office I check my box.

In it I find, exactly on schedule, my latest DVD from Netflix. "Duck Soup".