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Activists derail business school visit with Chevron CEO John Watson

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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.

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!

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