Drilling in Alaska pales to Ecuadoran situation

Year after year, the debate over drilling oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge rages in Congress. As a rallying point for environmentalists, the ferocity of the exchange seems almost disproportionate to the potential damage drilling will cause. Meanwhile, oil companies around the world have free rein to gut pristine wilderness for the sake of relatively little oil. One such place is Ecuador.

From 1972-92, Texaco defiled vast tracts of the Amazon jungle, displaced and even assisted in the complete extinction of indigenous tribes throughout Eastern Ecuador. Long in bed with the government elite of Ecuador, Texaco, according to environmentalists and a Los Angeles Times report, “dumped more than 19 billion gallons of waste and spilled 16.8 million gallons of crude oil, 1.5 times the amount spilled by the oil tanker Exxon Valdez.” Now the company faces a lawsuit in Ecuadoran courts. The filers – both U.S. environmentalists and an estimated 40,000 locals near the oil wells – allege birth defects and increased rates of cancer as a result of the toxic waste.

Texaco shamelessly defends its actions as adequate environmental procedure for the time period. During the 1970s and 1980s, environmental concerns simply did not exist in Ecuador. Yet environmental regulations became prevalent in the United States during those years – unobserved by Texaco in Ecuador. Although the company has abandoned most of its polluter activity, as oil wells have dried up, and worked toward cleaning up some toxic waste dumps, the unlined pits of now-buried waste pockmark the dense jungles of Eastern Ecuador. Residents daily observe black sludge seeping from waste removal sites.

Because Texaco did not line these pits, it basically dumped toxic waste into a hole in the ground. Thus, the forest does not grow over these pits because of the buried waste – waste that occasionally seeps to the surface. Clean up meant burying the material but not extracting and isolating it from the soil.

Following Texaco’s trailblazing through the jungle, Occidental

Petroleum – a California-based oil company – plans to penetrate farther into the forest to extract an estimated amount of oil equivalent to eight months of U.S. consumption. The project, although much cleaner than Texaco’s, will require roads, wells and quarters much like proposed ideas for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil exploration – except in the far more biologically diverse and ecologically critical rainforest. Yet environmental advocates and regulators have little means to restrain this

destruction.

Because Ecuador suffers continuous economic crises, government leaders prostitute their resources for foreign investment to ease the burden. Ecuador is thus a big supporter of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The FTAA proposal – redrafted for the third time and published two weeks ago – contains no stipulation for enforceable environmental protections. It instead calls for “incentives and other flexible and voluntary mechanisms (that) can contribute to the achievement and maintenance of high levels of environmental protection.” If ratified, the effect will be that if Ecuador wishes to maintain its rainforest, the indebted government will have to provide oil companies financial “incentives” to contribute adequate

safeguards.

The FTAA draft contains nothing beyond superficial language supposedly devoted to environmental protection. Coupled with the struggling economies of Latin American nations, it appears little will be done to preserve perhaps the most pristine and ecologically crucial jungle in the world.

All for eight months worth of oil.

It is time national governments and, most especially, international trade regimes take environmental concerns seriously before Earth becomes a wasteland and more long-term economic benefits of the environment become unattainable. Most importantly, it is time large oil companies repent for their shameless sins and honestly work to achieve sustainable development instead of tightening their international stranglehold through self-serving trade agreements such as the FTAA.