New book explores $19 billion legal battle over oil
Brooklyn BookBeat: Author to Speak in Cobble Hill
In his bestselling book “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun” (Crown, 2012), author and journalist Paul M. Barrett wove together fifteen years of research and interviews to tell the story of how an obscure Austrian curtain rod manufacturer who spoke barely any English stormed the American gun market, and, in the space of a few years, made his handgun an American icon. Now, in “Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who’d Stop at Nothing to Win” (Crown; on sale Sept. 23), he returns with the story of one man’s obsession with righting the wrongs perpetrated by a major U.S. oil company accused of polluting the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador over a thirty-year period, destroying the lives of local farmers and indigenous tribe members. Barrett will appear in Brooklyn to launch his book at BookCourt on Sept. 23.
Steven Donziger, former journalist and social activist, is a Harvard-educated lawyer who was a classmate and friend of Barack Obama. He first signed on to the budding class-action lawsuit against oil giant Texaco (later Chevron) in 1993 to seek reparations for Ecuadorian farmers and Indians whose lives were disrupted by decades of oil drilling and production in their communities. The massive environmental damage resulted in entire villages losing not only their land but also their livelihoods. Water supplies were contaminated, roads were sprayed with waste petroleum and many people suffered rashes, stomach ailments and even death.
In the face of legal setbacks and a fierce defense by Chevron, Donziger emerged as the lead plaintiffs’ lawyer in the case, even though he had no prior civil courtroom experience. A charismatic, larger-than-life showman, he became a master at manipulating the media and doing combat in the court of public opinion. During 20 years of hostilities that played out in courts in Manhattan, Quito, and the jungle oil town of Lago Agrio, Donziger and Chevron employed tactics that would be considered unethical or worse by any American judge.
Donziger took this no-holds-barred struggle to greater depths, however, and outmaneuvered his more powerful opponent. In 2011, his civil action resulted in a $19 billion judgment against Chevron, the largest environmental award in history. Then the oil company began to fight back, and Donziger’s relentless quest for billions of dollars for his clients — and an enormous payday for himself — proved his undoing. Back in the United States, a fresh legion of Chevron private eyes and attorneys revealed Donziger’s ends-justify-the-means methods. The company filed a racketeering suit against him, alleging that his years of politicking, shady legal moves, and courting of celebrities like Sting, Bianca Jagger, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie amounted to an illegal shakedown of Chevron.
Donziger may have set out to seek justice and make a name for himself, but over time, he succumbed to self-destructive hubris, and his case unraveled.
Barrett, who attended college and law school at Harvard, has covered the Chevron case for years and wrote a cover story about it for Bloomberg Businessweek. His reporting has taken him to Quito, the rain forest, and the San Ramon, California, headquarters of Chevron. He has interviewed all of the key players in this story, including Donziger and his backers as well as Donziger’s latest lawyer, Deepak Gupta; top Ecuadorian officials; Chevron executives, lawyers, and oil field workers; tribal leaders and poverty-stricken peasants. He saw firsthand the extent to which oil production in the jungle has both fueled economic development in Ecuador and ruined a large swath of the rain forest.
Donziger, who faced a March 4, 2014, U.S. civil verdict finding him liable as a racketeer, portrayed himself as the champion of the “little people,” the foe of a powerful and evil oil giant. But in the end, rain forest residents may never see any compensation. With “Law of the Jungle,” Barrett has written an absorbing account of greed and brash ambition.
The Sept. 23 event will begin at 7 p.m. BookCourt is located at 163 Court St. in Cobble Hill.
–Information courtesy of Crown
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