(Adds details on Texaco, paragraphs 7, 8)
By Amanda Beck
SAN RAMON, Calif., May 28 (Reuters) - Despite higher profits on record oil prices, the board of directors at Chevron Corp (CVX.N), the No. 2 U.S. petroleum producer, was lambasted at the company’s annual meeting on Wednesday.
Shareholders and activists urged company officials to take responsibility for the environmental and human costs of oil production.
They harangued the board on a range of human rights abuses in such countries as Ecuador, Nigeria and Myanmar.
“You are here comfortably, while other people are dying ... Imagine if you were one of them,” said Naw Musi, 30, a Myanmar refugee affiliated with Earth Rights International, a human rights group.
Chevron has a lucrative partnership with the Myanmar government but has not used its influence to demand the junta introduce human rights reforms or force the government to admit aid workers since the country’s recent devastating cyclone, Musi said. The cyclone has left 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million destitute.
Speakers from other countries where Chevron has operations also fired a barrage of human rights complaints. Before the meeting, many had stood outside the company headquarters in San Ramon, California, near San Francisco, with 50 other protesters dressed in hazardous materials suits and holding signs that read, “Clean Up Chevron.”
Chevron Chairman David O’Reilly sought to be conciliatory with several speakers from Ecuador, who urged the company to remediate areas of the Amazon where Texaco, later purchased by Chevron, dumped water that residents claim is toxic and linked to thousands of cancer cases.
Chevron bought Texaco in 2001 and is now facing a lawsuit potentially worth up to $16 billion in damages and pending in an Ecuadorean court.
“Before the oil company arrived, our people lived without any contamination,” said Emergildo Criollo, 48, who traveled from Ecuador to speak at the meeting with members of Amazon Watch, an environmental group. “Today, the streams are contaminated with oil that flows into the rivers.”
O’Reilly admitted that there was an environmental problem in Ecuador but said, “Chevron is the wrong target here.”
The company has spent $40 million to clean contaminated areas and has been absolved of further responsibility by the Ecuadorean government, he said.
The company showed a video that claimed Petroecuador, the state-run oil company, is responsible for current problems.
Perhaps the most emotional exchange involved company actions that Nigerian residents say led to bloodshed in 1998.
“Chevron has used violence as a way of doing business,” said Larry Bowoto, a Nigerian community leader and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Chevron now pending in a U.S. court. “I was shot several times, and my arm is permanently damaged.”
Residents claimed a protest over polluted drinking water disintegrated into violence when Nigerian security forces hired by Chevron fired on them.
Chevron countered that protesters had taken 150 hostages and that the forces were sent by the Nigerian government.
O’Reilly said the company should not be criticized for asking Nigerian authorities to handle the situation and called Bowoto’s comments “the most outrageous presentation that I have seen in my years as chairman.”
Most speakers remained critical. “This is about your legacy, Mr. O’Reilly,” said Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch. “Really, it’s about moral responsibility from Ecuador to Burma: There’s a trail of systematic violations of human rights.”
Some shareholders said they were also concerned about whether the company was evaluating environmental and human rights risks during a time of record profits.
Earlier this month, Chevron reported that first-quarter earnings rose 10 percent to $5.17 billion, or $2.48 a share, from $4.72 billion, or $2.18 a share, a year before. Analysts, on average, had expected $2.41 a share.
Company officials, speaking at the annual meeting, said Wednesday Chevron would invest $23 billion in oil and gas exploration and production in 2008, an increase of $3 billion over 2007. (Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Gary Hill)