Activists Derail Business School Q&A With Chevron CEO John Watson

Chevron CEO John Watson was invited to speak about “The Energy Economy” at the University of Chicago business school, Chicago Booth this morning. The event provided audience members a chance to ask Watson questions, and as it just so happens, we have a few we’ve been meaning to ask him.

Some friends and I were concerned about Chevron’s attempts to evade both the law and the company’s moral responsibility to clean up the 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste it deliberately dumped in the Amazon, killing 1,400 people and poisoning thousands of others. So we paid him a visit.

 

Rainforest Action Network photo: Change Chevron activists confront John Watson at his alma mater, University of Chicago

Chevron CEO John Watson flees up a staircase (Watson is on the top left) while we hold banners.

 

Dressed business casual, we came in early and each took seats in different parts of the room. We listened to John Watson distance Chevron from the BP oil disaster. He reassured us all that Chevron is a thoughtful oil company. He went on to say that, above all other objectives, “No goal is more important than operating in a safe and responsible manner.”

On that note, Debra Michaud, a University of Chicago alumna, jumped up to express her dismay that a fellow graduate would be involved in poisoning the communities of 30,000 people. She asked Watson to speak to Chevron’s toxic legacy in Ecuador.

Watson was quick to evade the question, claiming that the damage was not Chevron’s responsibility. He seemed relieved at the end, as if he was thinking, “Phew, glad that’s over.” But it wasn’t.

A couple minutes later I took the mic and pointed out the irony in Watson’s allegations of “deception and conspiracy” on the part of the Indigenous plaintiffs in the court case, as his comments themselves were the real deception. After pointing out his false claims of remediation, he asked that we all just wait and “see how it all plays out.” After waiting through 17 years of Chevron’s delay-deceive-and-distort tactics, I kept pushing and went on to challenge his arguments.

The students in the room were engaged. Our respectful tone and figures presented from scientific case studies played well with the Business School crowd. One person near me glanced to the podium and murmured to her neighbor, “Why isn’t he answering the question?” Watson’s eyes darted around nervously as he realized that his presentation was being hijacked.

Watson’s entourage from the Business school looked panicked. The moderator escorted me off the microphone. A few minutes later, Abigail Singer went up to the mic to speak, and the alarmed moderator declared the Q&A over, after seeing Abigail’s paper, fearing she too would ask about Ecuador. She was escorted to her seat, and the event was declared over.

It was clear that the one thing people would remember from the event was the controversy about Chevron’s role in poisoning Ecuadorean Amazon communities.

We went up to shake Watson’s hand, and were immediately blocked by security guards who ushered him away. We persistently followed him out, holding up a banner reading “Energy shouldn’t cost lives” all the way out of the building. Two people from the crowd cheered us on, saying “Way to stand up!” and “Keep going!” We did, until the moderator, furious, saw to it that we were escorted from the building.

John Watson needs to know that this issue won’t simply go away. It is going to stay in his face until he addresses it head on — even on his home turf and alma mater.

Video forthcoming!

9 Responses to “Activists Derail Business School Q&A With Chevron CEO John Watson”


  1. 1 Hippies go home Oct 13th, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Yeah, I was at the event, and I thought your attempt at social commentary was really immature and lame. That’s the type of crap you expect at a hippie undergrad program (Berkeley, or any of the UCs for that matter), not at a leading business school. Each time someone got up to vocalize what was essentially the same question, it felt very awkward and did not represent our school very well. I was dissappointed to be associated with you guys. Not sure if any of you are Booth students, although I trust that the first woman who spoke was an alum. Anyways, that type of dialogue is more appropriate for the editorial pages of a newspaper than a professional discussion about the direction of energy. And I hate to say it, but there’s absolutely no way that you all aren’t complete hypocrites. Oil is a reality, and like he said, there is no technology available today that can replace it. Someday, I’m with you, I hope we can replace it. But that day appears to still be a long way off. Until then, unless you’re willing to live like you are in the 19th century, we’re all collectively responsible for the damage that an oil-based economy creates- not only the companies that harvest it – but everyone who relies on it (which is everyone).

  2. 2 MG Oct 14th, 2010 at 1:24 am

    This wasn’t your platform to question this man. I agree with your initiative, but you it sounds like you trespassed and domineered a session intended for the students at Chicago Booth, perhaps the finest and most reputable business school in the world. You wasted the time of these students, who likely had to commit a lot of energy and time to bring this man to their school. You wasted their time and achieved nothing in terms of achieving your goals. I encourage you to find more appropriate platforms for your agenda in the future; blatantly redfacing executives will not change their behaviors.

    From Seoul, Korea,
    MG

  3. 3 california Oct 14th, 2010 at 11:11 am

    You should really look into the case, who is bringing up the charges, who stands to profit from the case. To have such a strong feeling, I hope that you have fully educated yourself on the facts of the case, you can have your own opinion, you cannot have your own facts. The suit was against Texaco, not Chevron, and Texaco was operating as a 50/50 partner with PetroEcuador, (Ecuadorian national oil company, who released Texaco from liability and settled this 26 year old case already) PetroEcuador is at fault, the partnership of Texaco/PetroEcuador is at fault. Chevron is not.

    Your argument would be similar to Google purchasing BP in 25 years and then Google being sued for the Gulf Oil Spill.

    “activists” should also aim to be fair, impartial, and educated. Rather than attempt to embarrass others.

  4. 4 Nick Magel Oct 14th, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Hippies Go Home – First off, classy name. Especially coming from a student from, as MG put it, “finest and most reputable business school in the world”. Rather than compensate lack of depth in your argument by name calling lets take a quick look at Chevron’s portfolio towards our shared goal of “replacing oil”. Chevron invests >98% of their total capitol and exploratory budget on oil and gas projects, leaving <2% put towards alternative energy advancement. Fact is, Chevron is the very company obstructing our path toward renewable energy.

    Regarding you calling the folks raising concerns about Ecuador hypocrites. Where is the hypocrisy it asking a company to clean up a mess that it is responsible for? Now had Josh spilled some oil on the floor during the Q and A mixed it with your latte and then told you to drink it and clean it up yourself, well then yes that would have been hypocritical.

    Finally your way off base on this "who’s responsible" argument. It is the company’s responsibility to be accountable to the communities it operates in; it is also their responsibility to clean up when they screw up. It is civil society's responsibility to hold them accountable to those communities and operations. Chevron has delayed this trail nearly 18 years to avoid accountability for the 18 billion gallons of toxic water they dumped and the 15 million gallons of crude they left in the rainforest. We are not responsible for that, but we are responsible to stand with the communities that are holding these companies accountable to their pollution.

    MG – I hear your concerns for the appropriate venue, but respectfully disagree. I have no doubt it took a huge amount of coordination to bring the CEO of the 5th largest corporation on earth to your school. I think his attendance represents the respect the business world has for the Booth program. Regarding the venue, I think there is no more appropriate venue for these questions. John Watson was one of the main architects in the Chevron / Texaco merger he has a deep understanding of Chevron’s responsibility in Ecuador. Also, this lawsuit, if found liable, will certainly affect Chevron’s profits and concern shareholders, he would be irresponsible to not be preparing to be held accountable. In fact if I were a shareholder I would be concerned on his inability to answer these questions capably. I surprised more students were not interested as how Chevron was preparing to be held liable in the worlds largest environmental lawsuit. It will change how businesses operate internationally forever.

    California- I have looked into the case and have followed it for awhile. I really like the “you can have your own opinion not your facts” I saw that on an MSNBC promo in the airport this morning. However, MSNBC aside, your right it’s about the “facts”, so lets explore the ones you brought up (you missed all 3)
    First- Chevron bought Texaco with full knowledge of Texaco’s massive and intentional pollution in Ecuador. The suite was initially filed against Texaco, and then Chevron bought Texaco. Call the company what ever you would like (I call them words I can’t write here), but it’s the same company and they will be held liable for the operations they inherited.
    Second- Chevron (then Texaco) was a partner with PetroEcaudor (40/60 to be exact) However Chevron was the 100% operator of the oil wells. Chevron is only one who build the pits, produced the oil, and left the toxic pollution in the communities. 100%
    Third- The government may have released Chevron, but the 30,000 community members to whom this civil case was brought forth on behalf of have released Chevron of nothing. They have every right to be taking Chevron to court.

    By the way, if Google purchased BP Google could be held liable to community members filing suites in the gulf. Remember that if you are ever brokering a merger, because either Watson skipped that class, or Chevron was arrogant enough to think they could get away with it.

    Finally, I think that these folks were “fair, impartial, and educated”. It’s the very fact that they were all three that led to Watson’s embarrassment. Like you said "you can have his opinions but you can’t have the facts', and he certainly doesn't have the facts.

    If you have any questions regarding the case I’m happy to direct you towards some resources. You can image how much info is out there in an 18 year old case.

    Nick

  5. 5 northernsong Oct 14th, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    @ California

    If you think the activists understanding of the case was incomplete, what justifies the CEO of Chevron’s ignorance and/or inability to answer the questions?

  6. 6 jasondylan Oct 15th, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Great job guys!

    I think Nick answered all the objections to the questioning with class and dignity and a verbal kick in the butt for crass obfuscation tactics.

    I wish the objectors would stick around and debate the logic of their argument to it’s bitter end, but probably not.

    Again, very well done!

    I trust that your written version here will be backed up by the video.

    Too bad, nobody had to yell out, “Don’t taser me bro!” so that the video could go viral.

    Be careful of asking the CEO’s about their Skull and Bones allegiances now!

    This is how it is done fellas.

    Let’s keep marchin toward a more compassionate truth till they can’t help but get in line, or at least stop heckling.

    They will still get their ice cream and doughnuts in a less consumeristic and more democratic society, they should relax. Their Viagra wont go up that much.

    Our level heads and compassionate awareness will win every time against the small-minded and greedy. It is all about greed isn’t it?

    We are all aware of this, yes?

    Greed and fear and old time religion are hard to overcome, but with compasson backed up by facts you can usually get people to at least listen.

    This really made me happy as you can see.

    Bravo!

  7. 7 Aaron Oct 24th, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    Awesome work folks. I’m very impressed by your fortitude and perseverance. Keep up the pressure and don’t let them win! :-)

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About Joshua Kahn


Joshua Kahn Russell is an organizer serving movements for social justice and ecological balance. He is an action coordinator, facilitator, & trainer with the Ruckus Society, and has trained thousands of activists. He has helped win campaigns against banks, oil companies, logging corporations, and coal barons; worked with a wide variety of groups in a breadth of arenas, from local resiliency projects, to national coalitions, to the United Nations Climate Negotiations. He has authored chapters for numerous books, most recently The Next Eco-Warriors. His articles have appeared in Yes! magazine, Left Turn, PeaceWork magazine, Upping the Anti, and Z Magazine. His blog is www.praxismakesperfect.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @joshkahnrussell For a full bio see: http://www.aidandabet.org/roster/russell-joshua-kahn

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