Steven Donziger Took on Big Oil and Paid a Hefty Price
Donziger was released from two years of house arrest in 2022, the latest wrinkle in his decades-long fight for justice in the Amazon rainforest
In the long history of huge oil companies operating in fragile ecosystems—sometimes to disastrous effect—the case of Texaco’s former presence in the Amazon rainforest is notable, not least for the foe it found in human-rights lawyer Steven Donziger.
According to Donziger, from the 1960s to the 1990s the fossil-fuel giant knowingly dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Ecuadorean wilderness. The pollution took a devastating toll on the Indigenous population nearby: locals claimed that cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects occurred at higher rates.
Donziger’s involvement in the area dates back to 1993. Fresh out of Harvard Law, he helped build a case against Texaco on behalf of the tens of thousands of Ecuadorans affected by the dumping. Many experts considered the effort doomed from the start, but after 18 years, an Ecuadorean judge found Chevron—which inherited the lawsuit after acquiring Texaco in 2000—liable for widespread pollution and ordered the company to pay $18 billion in damages (the sum was later reduced to just over $9 billion on appeal). At the time, it was the largest penalty attached to an environmental judgment in history.
That was 11 years ago, and Chevron still hasn’t paid. Instead, the company launched a legal campaign against Donziger, claiming, among other things, that he helped fabricate key documents in the Ecuador case. “Chevron has spent, we estimate, $3 billion on 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers to try to undermine the gains of these communities in Ecuador,” Donziger says. “And they’ve done that primarily by attacking me personally.”
Even among similar instances of corporations taking on whistleblowers, the ferocity of Chevron’s crusade against Donziger is nearly unprecedented. In 2018, he was disbarred in New York as a result of Chevron’s counter-litigation. In 2021, he was convicted of misdemeanor contempt and sentenced to six months in jail for refusing to hand over his computer and cell phone during the discovery phase of the Chevron suit—a demand he claims violated attorney-client privilege. While he awaited trial for that charge, he was under house arrest for more than two years.
In a statement provided to Outside, Chevron categorically denied the legitimacy of the Ecuador ruling and Donziger’s version of the story. “Virtually every statement that Mr. Donziger routinely makes regarding Chevron and [its law firm] Gibson Dunn is false and defamatory,” a litigation partner at Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher wrote. The firm called him an “unscrupulous con man who has no regard for the truth” and pointed out that a Texaco subsidiary spent $40 million on environmental remediation in Ecuador. “We’re going to fight this until hell freezes over,” a Chevron representative told reporters in 2009. “And then we’ll fight it out on the ice.”
But the house arrest and jail time only seem to have bolstered the public’s support of Donziger. His name generated a flurry of headlines in April, when he was finally released. “It’s been a big year for me,” he says. “I went from someone who very few people knew about to someone who now has the support of hundreds of lawyers and tens of thousands of citizens around the world.”
Donziger’s disbarment means he’s finished with the case in any legal capacity. Yet he senses a tide shifting in his favor in the fight to force Chevron to pay. He may not be able to practice law anymore, but Donziger has become something of a folk hero in the modern environmental movement. His focus is a call to arms to young lawyers with notions of standing up to Big Oil.
“Do the work,” he says. “Don’t be intimidated. The work must be done.”