Lever Time - How Corporations Can Put You In Jail (feat. Steven Donziger)
10:50PM Jul 26, 2022
Hey there, and welcome to lever time the official podcast of the fossil fuel industry. They paid us a bunch of money. So now we think the fossil fuel industry is great. I'm your host, David Sirota, if you didn't get that that was a joke. Not me being a host, but us being sponsored by the fossil fuel industry. But speaking of the fossil fuel industry, on today's show, we're going to be talking about how Joe Biden is aggressively tackling the climate crisis by considering doing stuff, talking about doing stuff, putting stuff on the table, and ultimately not doing much of anything. Then we'll be talking about nuclear energy in the 21st century, as well as the nuclear reactor meltdown in Idaho that you've never heard of. Finally, I'm going to be talking to environmental lawyer Steve Donziger, the man who won a historic $9.5 billion settlement from the oil giant Chevron for polluting the Ecuadorian rainforest, but was then targeted by Chevron's legal team charged with contempt and put under house arrest. I spoke with Steve Donziger, about the status of his case, and the implications of being criminally prosecuted by a corporation, a reminder for our free listeners to head over to lever news.com and become a supporting subscriber. That gives you access to our premium podcast feed plus much, much more. As always, I am joined by producer Frank who was roasting in New York. Hey, Frank,
how's it going? David, it's actually I'm very, very fortunate in that we have air conditioning in our apartment and in my office where I record this show, so fortunately, not roasting too badly at the moment.
Well, that's good. That's great. I'm glad to hear that yesterday, I almost had heatstroke here in Denver, Colorado. I was coming home from I was exercising. I was coming home, it was like 900,000 degrees. And it took I had to like sit down three times before I got to my house. And so that was my miniature, I guess climate experience here in the burning planet. So and I've heard that it's been horrible on the east coast. It's certainly been horrible in Europe.
Oh, yeah. It's I mean, it's it is definitely sweltering outside. For sure. I've limited my outside time as much as possible this this past week.
Well, the great news is it looks like that Joe Biden is not coming around to do much of anything as the climate and the planet burns. Kidding. That's not such great news, but he could be issuing an emergency declaration on the climate stuff. But that gets to our first story. This past week, countries around the world experienced a global Heatwave, which we've been discussing, in which record setting temperatures have been clocked all over the planet. Things got really bad in the UK where temperatures rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. For the first time since the country started keeping temperature measurements. It also went up to 115 degrees here in the United States in Oklahoma, the home of Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, who published that book calling climate change a quote hoax.
Oof, I did not know about the Oklahoma 115. That's a horrific My God.
Yes, yes. Really bad. Amid the record heat a clip from the UK is GB news went viral for being compared to a scene from my movie. Don't look up. All my friends have been texting me this scene from this clip on the news in Britain. Here's the clip. And first you're going to hear the don't look up clip. And then you'll hear the actual clip from the real news broadcast.
All right. Are we not being clear? We're trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be
destroyed. Okay, well, it's um, you know, just something we do around here. We just keep the bad news light. Oh, you see, John, you're outside enjoying the sunshine? It's not too hot, is it?
No, it's absolutely lovely. It's what 20 degrees out here. It's perfect. But on a serious note, folks, by early next week, you can scratch 20 degrees, it could well be 40 degrees. I think there will be hundreds if not 1000s of excess deaths. Early next year. Our charts that I can see in front of me are frightening. So we all like nice weather, but this will not be nice weather. This will be potentially lethal weather for a couple of days. It'll be brief, but it'll be brutal. So we can
Oh, so this is So John, I want us to be happy about the weather and everything goes I don't know whether something's happened to meteorologists to make you all a little bit fatalistic and harbingers of doom because all of the broadcasts particularly on the BBC, every time I've turned on anyone Talking about the weather, they're saying that there's going to be tons of fatalities. But haven't we always had hot weather? John? Well, I mean, wasn't the 76 The summer of 76 that was as hot as this, wasn't it?
No. And, you know, we are seeing more and more records more and more frequently and more and more severely.
When I saw this trending on Twitter, it blew my mind. Like I like they say life imitates art, but like, you almost think that they're trying to be satirical here. But they're not. This is just how real people in media behave, which is insane.
A lot of my friends texted it to me kind of high fiving like, Hey, man, you really nailed it. Like, you totally predicted this is gonna happen or like your writing was so on point. And look, I'm glad that don't look up, did capture this horrible reality. But actually, I find it really sad. Like, I don't want to live in our movie.
Yeah, you don't want people for the rest of your life texting you being like, see, it's even more like your movie because that means we're not doing good is what it's
like. The movie was not written and created as a kind of aspiration. It was written as a cautionary tale. And I don't want it to be prophecy. But that clip is a really perfect illustration of how the media just has not taken this crisis seriously, even in places that are quite literally on fire. Now in perfect, dramatic irony. Amid this global Heatwave, the Democrats were negotiating a new budget package, which included new climate programs as well as tax increases on billionaires and corporations to pay for it. As we all know, Joe Biden has stated numerous times that he wants to be and he will be the most aggressive modern president when it comes to combating the climate crisis. He's pledged to push forward on his own in the absence of congressional action. He's promised to go full FDR and use his broad executive authority to do things that start helping solve the problem. But about a week ago, Senator Coal Baron aka Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the guy who lives on a yacht drives a Maserati, he made national headlines by killing the climate and tax provisions in the newest budget package. mansion, of course, is heavily invested makes money from the coal industry, he stated that his reason for killing the climate provisions was to reduce spending. So hey, we say we're going to save $300 billion by not dealing with the climate crisis. Of course, most reports, Wall Street reports, for instance, say that the climate crisis, if it goes on unchecked, will cost hundreds of trillions of dollars. That's trillion with a tea. And of course, the actual reason He blocked it is because he's a fucking Coal Baron. It's not because he cares about spending. I mean, look,
when you elect a Coal Baron, you can't be surprised when he acts like a Coal Baron. You know, coal barons gonna call Baron.
Absolutely. I mean, but But even worse, the Democrats put a Coal Baron in charge of the Senate Energy Committee. I mean, he's literally the Chair of the Senate Energy Committee.
That part boggles my mind can like, can you explain to me can they just remove him at any time like this? Who gets to remove him? Is it is it Schumer and there, but they're like, No, we're just we were like, he throws great parties. Like we don't want, we don't want to upset him.
I mean, the tradition is it's usually awarded by seniority. So he was in line to be the chair. And I think the theory was, if we tell him, Listen, we can't have Senator Kohl as the head of the Senate Energy Committee during the climate crisis that he would bolt to the Republicans. But it doesn't negate the reality that the Democratic Party has put a Coal Baron in charge of the Senate Energy Committee during a climate emergency. Now, in response to mansion, killing the climate provisions in what used to be called the build back better bill, Joe Biden said that he's not afraid to take executive actions as negotiations faltered. He's saying, quote, I will not back down the opportunity to create jobs and build a clean energy future is too important to relent. That was Friday, July 15. Well, on Tuesday, July 19, the White House said that Biden will not be signing an executive order to officially declare a climate emergency, which would immediately allow him to use federal funds to try to tackle the climate crisis without congressional approval. Here's the AP story that headline Biden holds off for now. On climate emergency declaration, though, I guess to be fair, the White House did say they're considering it.
I feel like Joe Biden is treating us like Jim Carrey at the end of Dumb and Dumber
I came a long way just to see you married, just least you can do is level with me. What are my chances? Not good. You mean not good? Like, one out of 100? I'd say, more like one out of a million. So you're telling me there's a chance? Totally. Right. So there's there my chance. I mean, here's the thing. If you're if you're the president, the United States, and you have campaigned on being a Climate Champion, and you look out at a world that is quite literally on fire, like fires in and around London, a major world capitol, and you're like, Yeah, I'm gonna make news by saying I'm considering calling this an emergency. But I'm not actually just going to call it an emergency. You're not really serious about being President. I mean, it really is like, like, why are you why are you president? Like, why did you run for this office?
Well, look, I'm I'm starting to get the suspicion that like, edging is Joe Biden's fetish. Like he likes doing like policy edging, like almost like right there at them. Right.
Right up student debt. Ready to say, for months, I feel like there's been like a series of Washington Post stories, or it's like, Joe Biden is considering student debt relief, Joe Biden is now considering considering student debt relief. Joe Biden is considering thinking about student debts and like seven stories of him thinking about thinking about doing the thing. And I feel like, you're right, there's like a tactic to it. There's like a strategy to it. I don't think it's a very good strategy, because it's like procrastination. It's it's he knows he needs to make a decision, and he doesn't want to make a decision. And in this case, in this case, it really is it really is something truly dark in the sense of like, you're you're not willing to say that what's going on? Is an emergency, you're not willing to like, what's what's the problem? Now, my theory is is what he thinks he's doing is he thinks he's being savvy. There's this whole idea that he has to not take serious climate action, in order to get mentioned back to the negotiating table, that anything that he would do to try to halt the climate crisis, or at least help fight the climate crisis would alienate mansion. And so he's holding off on doing these kinds of things, in hopes that mansion will come back to the negotiating table, which I think is delusional at best. And refusing to declare a climate emergency means that the White House for now can't use it as a legal basis to block oil and gas drilling. It can't use it as a way to redirect spending towards renewable energy, like wind and solar power. So it's not just Joe Biden won't say there's an emergency, he won't sign an order declaring an emergency which give him the power to actually do the some of the things that he promised. But of course, the last President Donald Trump made clear what he was willing to use declarations of national emergencies for remember when Donald Trump declared a national emergency at the southern border, so he could reroute federal money to complete his border wall, you know, like super important stuff like that. Obviously, I'm being I'm being facetious. But the point is, it's not like declaring a national emergency is something presidents don't do. They do do it. It's just this President, Joe Biden is refusing to do it, specifically on a set of priorities that he promised. And again, that's not on Joe. Joe on Joe Manchin. That's not on Donald Trump. That's on Joe Biden. Now, speaking of the climate crisis, there's a lot of discussion about where are we going to get cleaner energy to reduce carbon emissions and survive the climate crisis. And that gets to our first interview. For today, I'm going to be speaking with journalist Laura Krantz, about her new narrative podcast series wild thing, going nuclear. It's a great podcast series wild thing. The series as a whole has explored all sorts of different topics. The latest season is about nuclear energy. Now, this series this season, centers around the meltdown of the SL one nuclear reactor near Idaho Falls in 1961. But it uses that story, to do a kind of comprehensive, deep dive into the whole history of nuclear energy, its usage, its potential risks, and how it might become, at least its advocates argue, one of our most sustainable energy alternatives. But of course it does come with risks. So that's what this discussion is about. Hey, Laura, how you doing?
I'm well, thanks for having me on.
Well, thank you. And thanks for making your wildthings series. As you know, I'm a huge fan. And the new season of wild thing is something I'm particularly interested in, which is the debate over nuclear power. So why don't you first and foremost, tell us about this new season of wild thing, and what inspired it.
So the third season, similar to the first season kind of had this personal connection to it, I grew up in a town called Idaho Falls, which is in southeastern Idaho, on the Snake River plain, near a fairly extensive area of high desert that's fairly deserted, and the US government during World War Two and after World War Two decided to use this area first for testing artillery, and then for trying to wrap our heads around nuclear energy and what we can do with it. And so they developed the national reactor testing station out here. And they were putting all kinds of reactors up and you know, they would test the tolerances of different materials and test these different types of fuels just to see what would happen that was pretty fast and loose, they were blowing stuff up, sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally, there was all kinds of radiation that was being like, spewed into the atmosphere. And kind of everybody was in on this game, all the different branches of the military civilian. And in 1961, the Army's S L one reactor blew up in the middle of this desert, and it killed three men. And to this day, it is still the deadliest nuclear reactor accident in American history. And I grew up in this area, and I didn't even hear about this until I was an adult, you know, I'd heard about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl obviously happened when I was a kid, Fukushima, but this one just did not get on the radar for whatever reason. And so I found it kind of interesting that this happens so close to home. And yet, I didn't know about it, and then you fast forward 60 years. And Idaho Falls, which has never been on the receiving end of any of this nuclear power that they're testing out there in the desert, is now potentially going to be getting some from these new small modular reactors that are being developed. This in this case, it's from a company called New Scale. And so I thought this was kind of an interesting book, and you have this really big disaster, and then you have sort of the next generation, the future of nuclear energy happening in this area. And I wanted to know where we come in 60 years, you know, obviously, the technology is better. But we're still human. So are we better at doing this?
I mean, I think the fact that this was the largest nuclear reactor accident in American history, and only three people died, and not to not to downplay the deaths of three people. But that I think, is an important thing to keep in mind. When we talk about whether or not the United States should move forward into more nuclear energy in the era of climate change. And I'm not taking a a hard position on whether to do that or not, because I'm I'm find myself fairly conflicted. I would ask you, in your reporting on this, before we get to what some of the takeaways are, what were some of the most surprising things that you found out about as you looked at America's history with an experimentation with nuclear energy as an energy source, not as a weapon, but as an energy source?
Yeah, well, I think one of the first things I found out, has to do with this question about weapons and the fact that, you know, most Americans, in fact, the vast majority of Americans in the vast majority of the world didn't really know anything about nuclear energy or nuclear power or its capabilities until August 6 1945, when we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From that point forward, the government is very invested in scientists to are very invested in trying to come up with peaceful ways of using nuclear energy. But when the introduction is something like the atom bomb, it's very hard to separate those two things out. And I think that that tension that intertwined nature of, you know, nuclear energy for war, nuclear energy for peace, it's very hard to separate those out even now, you know, some 70, almost 80 years later, like, it's, it's remarkable how that has stuck in our minds. So I think that was one of the surprising things was just how similar the the very, very basic sciences visually.
Let me just let me just interject on that because because I was going to ask you about what advancements had been made since this this disaster in 1961. I guess I'd be curious about that. But I also want to hear a little bit more about it. It's interesting that you say that, while I'm sure advancements have been made, we're still Fundamentally messing around with fission energy. I know there is fusion energy research. But basically when it comes to when it comes to nuclear energy right now, conventional nuclear energy, it's still basically fission, right?
Yeah, no, it's definitely fission, I think, you know, they're working very hard towards doing fusion instead, which I think is a lot less dangerous in many ways. But right now, the power input to creating fusion is a lot more than the power output or has been, I think there have been some tests recently that have have flipped out a little bit, but we're not, we're not quite there yet. But you know, there are a lot more safety mechanisms in place. And in fact, sl one, that disaster highlighted some of the most important safety mechanisms. And, you know, they, the nuclear, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the government after this accident happened, went around all the reactors to make sure that this this exact mistake could not be replicated elsewhere. You know, and I don't want to give too much away, but essentially, it was problems with the reactor design that was fundamentally at the heart of this problem. And that has since been done away with, of course, you know, hindsight is 2020, it was problems with the reactor design with Chernobyl, although to be fair, and people knew in advance that that was a problem. And the Russian or the Soviet government being what it was, at the time, kind of allowed things to go forward, Fukushima, they were aware of some of these design problems in advance, and they kind of let things go forward. So I think, you know, I'm with you. I'm kind of conflicted, because I think we can do this stuff. And I think there's a lot of potential, no pun intended, for us to use nuclear energy, especially in the face of climate change. But there's an element of also having to be cautious and be smart about it and not sort of cut corners or be like, hey, yeah, this, this probably isn't a problem. We're just going to keep moving ahead.
In your research, did you find that there are perhaps, ways that not only can nuclear energy be used safely, and not only can we put in place safety standards for large scale nuclear reactors, but talk a little bit about the alternative methods of nuclear energy, that are smaller scale, that aren't necessarily the Three Mile Island model or the Chernobyl model? And I'm just curious, if you think that those different models of nuclear energy of smaller scale models are viable? Are they legit? Where are we on those?
Yeah, I can't speak so much to the like ins and outs of the mechanics of how they work. But I can talk a little bit about, you know, some of what these new ideas are. One of them are these small modular reactors, where the idea is you have basically different modules, and you let's say you want to power like a huge city. So you might get, you know, 12 modules, and you know, a 12 pack, if you will. And then if you're trying to power a smaller amount, you might only need four of them, and you can expand and contract as needed. The other thing is, all of these modules would be built in a factory. And then similar to like, you know, on assembly lines, similar like Ford, or Boeing or something along those lines, and then shipped to the place and the design is very specific. And up until this point, nuclear reactors designs have been built on site. And they have been different every place you go, they're basically bespoke. So if something goes wrong with one, it may not be necessarily the same parts are in the same places if something goes wrong with another. Whereas if you do something on an assembly line, you have quality control. And theoretically, you are putting out the same high quality product every single time. And so if something does go wrong with one, you know exactly where you need to go to fix the problem on all of the others. So I think that's one thing to its advantage. I like the fact that you know, it can be expanded or contracted as needed, it doesn't take up as much of a footprint, it doesn't have those giant cooling towers, like you see in, you know, The Simpsons. And I think that they have really put a lot of thought into the fact that Americans are nervous about nuclear energy. And they have tried to put in as many fail safes as they can to prevent this from having a meltdown. And I believe, if I remember correctly, these are passive safety safety systems. So you don't need to have a person involved. They will essentially shut themselves down if things start going wrong, and they use basic laws of physics in order to do so.
Yeah, let's go back to SL one for a second. Because there's the other side of this which is, which is the nuclear waste issue? I mean, there's the potential for a meltdown and explosion and then there's the where do you put this spent fuel or or residual nuclear or radioactive material? Explain how that came into play in the SL one disaster. and why we're whether we're closer to why we haven't solved the issue. Or maybe we're closer to solving the issue of just where to put this stuff when it's already used.
Yeah, we haven't solved the issue. And we have been basically trying to figure that one out for like, I don't 50 years, 40 years 90, it was in the 1980s. When they started, they passed, Congress passed a bill that said that we would have two repositories, and then it was brought down to one repository, that was Yucca Mountain, Harry Reid got Yucca Mountain shut down. And nobody has found out from Nevada, oh, yes, former Senate majority leader from Nevada, he got that shut down. And then it hasn't gone anywhere, we haven't found another place to put this stuff. So all of the spent fuel that we have, from all these different reactors around the country, just sits on site basically, like either still in the reactor buildings itself, not in the reactor, but in cooling ponds, or they are in dry storage, which is basically like, you know, get cement casks that are sitting on an asphalt pad just kind of out there. At this point, they're not leaking radiation, you can walk right up to one, you can put your hand on it, you're gonna be fine. Like, it's not an issue from from this in this time period. But fast forward a few 100 years, and I'm not sure that that's going to be the best place to be keeping this stuff. Um, the waste is a real problem. And that is one I think we really need to come up with solution to before we start putting a lot of money and time and energy, if you will, into making nuclear a big a bigger part of our energy portfolio. Because a lot of people are uncomfortable with this. And we have to think of the long term repercussions in a way that we're not very good at what as humans. I mean, climate change is kind of a perfect example of this. I know that the Biden administration has really put forth efforts to try and find communities that are willing to take this stuff, the idea being that they would raise their hand volunteer, say, hey, we'll take some of this stuff. And in return, you know, there would be some nice big slices of pork that would be available to them to, you know, schools, roads, what have you. But I think the problem there is is you have a community that says yes, we'll take it and then you have the community down the road, that's like, you're not taking that or the state says, no, no, no, no, no, this is not going to happen. Well, also,
I would presume that some of it is that is that Americans don't trust the government. Yeah. I mean, I think you can trace so much of our politics back to this fear that the government is going to screw something up or not take it seriously, or let the the subcontractors making the stuff, you know, make it in a shoddy way. i I wonder how much of that is going to continue that that suspicion that fear, that distrust of government is going to still is going to, I guess, shape the debate over whether to use this energy?
Yeah. And I think it well, you know, one of the people I talked to is the editor for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. And he was saying look like whether or not we want to use it, it's whether we will and the political will for this stuff is not particularly high. You've got states like Minnesota that have said absolutely not outright ban, you have California saying we will not do any more, there will be no more nuclear reactors, or at least no new ones, until you figure out how to deal with the waste problem.
I mean, I think with all this stuff, we're weighing obviously, risks. And I obviously get a look, I watched Chernobyl. I remember as a kid hearing about it. I watched the HBO show like I like I get it I that stuff is absolutely terrifying. Fukushima also terrifying. But climate change is terrifying air pollution from conventional fossil fuels right now in the here and now kills 1000s 10s of 1000s of people a year according to science. So I feel like the discussion isn't a discussion about weighing different risks that we want to believe that there's, you know, a sort of completely risk free way to get all of our energy. And I'm not sure that's the case. I mean, yes, obviously, I'm a huge proponent of solar and renewables and all that stuff, but I'm not sure that can get us all the way there. Do you think that that that we have a problem in in the conversation about nuclear energy that we don't talk about it in terms of different risks, we see nuclear as just this huge glaring red light risk, and somehow the existing fossil fuel infrastructure for instance, we don't see that necessarily as as big a risk even though I could certainly make the argument that it is
yeah. 100% To your point, first of all, a coal burning coal releases radiation into the atmosphere. So a coal plant releases more radiation into the atmosphere than a nuclear plant does just for, you know, just something to keep in mind. That's something I had no idea. And I learned that during the reporting this right? Yes, and there is no energy that does not have trade offs, solar takes up a huge amount of space, you still have to get all of the rare earth minerals that go into making solar making the batteries, et cetera. You know, coal and oil and gas, we obviously know what those problems are, their nuclear is the same way. You know, there, there are risks, but there are also positive sides to it. I think, though, that the stories like Chernobyl, Fukushima, like those looms so large in our mind, and also going back to World War Two, and the bomb, and like all of the baggage that comes with that, it is very hard for us to be rational when we think about it. Risk is something that is a gut feeling. It is a reaction, it is oh my god, there's a big scary thing, I'm going to run away. And it is very hard for us, you know, this is these are survival instincts that we have evolved with. But they don't always serve us well in the modern world, when you actually have to think about long term. And you have to think about sort of big picture and you have to weigh you know, things in a way that you might not have to if you're just trying to run out outrun a lion on the savanna.
So let me ask a final question to you about this. After all of your reporting that you've done on this after looking at the disaster, near your hometown, in Idaho? Where do you come down on whether nuclear should be in the energy conversation completely out of the energy conversation? It should be the center of the Energy Conference conversation. Like if you were a president, or you know, I don't know, Emperor of America or the world and you could wave a wand and somebody said to you, Okay, listen, you gotta wave a wand and create an energy policy. Where does nuclear fit in? After all of your research?
You know, I went back and forth. And this was this was, I thought I would have a clear answer when I came out of this. And I think where I land at this point is, if communities are willing to take the risk and want to try using this stuff, and seeing how it works, and trying out these new small modular reactors with the micro reactors, I think they should go ahead because I think this can be done safely. I mean, the US Navy is sort of a perfect example of this. They've been operating nuclear submarines now for 60, almost 70 years, and they haven't had an accident. That's a lot of hours, using nuclear reactors without issue. So I think it can be done. I think communities though, should have a say in it, I don't think it should be forced on them necessarily. And my other thought is that, as those nuclear technologies prove themselves, as we show that we can be safe with that, as we show we can deal with, you know, if there is a problem, it's very well contained, and the cleanup is good, and everyone is transparent and open and honest, then maybe interest in this as a technology in other places will grow. That's kind of the best solution I could come up with.
I mean, that's basically you've summarized, you're being honest about how this is just I don't think it's it's that cut and dry an issue in the era, especially in the era of catastrophic climate change. And and I found myself thinking that I had clear views of nuclear, and I've started to do my own reading and deep dive research. And then I listened to your podcast, and I'm, I feel very conflicted as well about this. And, and frankly, I know that, you know, in, in our social media age, people don't want conflicted feelings they want either for it or against it. They want binary feelings. And I think on this one, I appreciate you being honest, in saying, Listen, this is not a cut and dry issue. And I think we our discourse, frankly, needs more of that kind of honesty, more of that kind of frankness about the very difficult choices that we face. I want to let our listeners know where they can find your podcast. Where can they find this a new season of wildlife?
Yeah, so wild thing is available pretty much on every podcast platform, Apple, Spotify, Google. If you can't find it, let me know and I'll make sure it gets on there. But I'm pretty sure it's everywhere. You can also find more information at wilding. podcast.com. That's the website. And then I'm also on social media, although not as prolific as you are at ping pong.
You're lucky. You're lucky. Laura, thank you so much for taking the time with us today. And thank you for for your reporting on this.
Thank you for having me on. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.
We're gonna take a quick break, but we'll be right back with more leisure time. Welcome back to leisure time. For our final segment. Today we're going to be sharing My interview with environmental and human rights lawyer, Steven Donziger. For those of you who haven't heard Steve Donziger story, it is truly truly truly one of the most terrifying examples of how much legal power corporations are now wielding here in the United States. The summary is this. About a decade ago, Steve Donziger won a landmark climate settlement from oil giant Chevron, for polluting giant swaths of the Ecuadorian rainforest, which poisoned and killed 1000s of indigenous Ecuadorians. But rather than pay the damages, Chevron, the oil giant decided to use its massive high paid legal team to go directly after Steve Donziger, the lawyer and sue him for fraud. They found a corporate friendly judge in the Southern District of New York to preside over the case, who then charged Steve with criminal contempt of court and placed him on house arrest. After the US Attorney's Office declined to prosecute the contempt case. That same judge used an obscure legal loophole to appoint a private law firm to criminally prosecute. Steven, and the law firm he chose works. Wait, sorry. And the law firm the judge chose has in the past worked with Chevron. You heard that right. This is essentially the first ever corporate prosecution of a US citizen. In other words, the State gave a private law firm the power to criminally not civilly but criminally prosecute, Steve Donziger. And they did it this judge did this after prosecutors, federal prosecutors in New York declined to prosecute Danciger. In other words, federal prosecutors said no, we're not going to prosecute him. There's not really a case here. And the judge used his power under a very obscure law to appoint a private Chevron connected law firm, to nonetheless prosecute Steve Don sucker. Oh, and also, remember that case I told you about when Ecuador is the case that Steve Donziger, originally one, Chevron has still not paid a single penny of that original settlement. Steven Donziger was kind enough to sit down with me and update us on the status of his case, but also on the status of what it means for the legal system. And for people challenging the fossil fuel industry in the years ahead. Hey, Steven, how you doing?
Great, good to be here.
First of all, tell us just remind everyone, you're you're now out of jail. You're a free man, after How long were you in in custody, under house arrest and in prison
993 days and 26 months of that over two years was prior to my misdemeanor trial, I was detained at home with an ankle bracelet. So you know, misdemeanor, you know, the normal maximum sentence is six months in prison. And for first time offender like me, a lawyer is almost you never hear anyone getting even a day of jail time. And I ended up spending almost three years on a suppose a crime, which I still assert my innocence for, for, you know, almost three years. So, you know, I served over 10 times longer than the previous maximum longest sentence ever given a lawyer for misdemeanor contempt, which is what I was convicted of the case
in which this all revolved around. For folks who don't know, the broad strokes, you basically one helped indigenous people win the largest case against Chevron and the fossil fuel industry. In Latin America, one of the biggest cases, probably the biggest case in history and Chevron, essentially, then use the American legal system to try to punish you, and that thus and so the 900 days, I think the thing moving forward beyond that, that's so terrifying about your case, in a sort of precedential kind of way, is the use of it private of a private law firm, a chevron connected private law firm that was employed by the state by the, the, the government against you. For folks who don't really understand what that means. Just tell that story.
While say at the outset, not just any law firm. This is a law firm that had Chevron as a client, Chevron being the entity against whom I help my clients win this historic judgment. So Basically what happened to distill it down. You know, I worked for years with other lawyers for really almost 20 years down in Ecuador, in the Amazon helping indigenous peoples win this enormous pollution judgment against Chevron. I'll say during that trial, Chevron engage in all sorts of unsavory unethical tactics to delay and obstruct the trial, we ended up overcoming that we won the trial. They refuse to pay it at that point, they targeted me here in the United States with the help of a federal judge, really two federal judges with ties to the Federalist Society who were come out of that same dynamic that just produced the spate of completely extremist Supreme Court decisions that we've seen over the last couple of weeks. So that dynamic, I think, allowed this judge who comes out of that world, to help Chevron target me, and He charged me with criminal contempt of court for no good reason. He claimed that my appeal of a civil discovery order that I turned over my computer to Chevron, which is just unprecedented, somehow constituted a crime appealing it i pending appeal on his order. He then had me locked up again unprecedented for a misdemeanor offense prior to trial claim that was a risk of flight. This is all a process to try to criminalize me to punish me for my successful human rights advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples. And ultimately, when he took these, what I think are bogus charges against me for not giving my computer to Chevron, he took them to the US Attorney here in Manhattan refused to prosecute me. At that point, the judge Lou Kaplan appointed a private law firm to go after me as if they were the US government without disclosing the fact that the law firm had Chevron as a client. So essentially, Chevron, as a private corporation took control of the prosecutorial machinery, obviously, normally a public function in our society. They privatized it, turned it against me and had me locked up for this unprecedented period of time to retaliate against my successful advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples that held them accountable for probably some of the world's worst oil pollution data, the Amazon.
So the I want to go back to this point to underscore it. The New York prosecutors, the US Attorney's Office, declined to prosecute you, based on these allegations that Chevron made against you. allegations about the sort of, they allege misconduct in the original case. Yeah, they bring it to the US Attorney like the prosecutors, the prosecutors are like, No, we don't see the case here. We're not prosecuting it. The judge in the case then uses this obscure part of the law to effectively have you prosecuted by a private law firm. So I think that's the part that is so mind blowing. And it came up again, I believe this issue came up again, very recently, in June, just talk to us how it came up, again, how you tried to challenge that. And here's the the bigger question, what does it mean moving forward? That judges appointed for instance, by let's say, Donald Trump, in theory are now there's now a precedent that says they can appoint a private prosecutors to prosecute people they don't like?
Well, I, you know, you raise a critical issue. You know, my view of this, first of all, my prosecution by a private entity is unprecedented, not only in US history, I haven't seen one example of this even in any other country. So the idea that the United States, you know, brags about being a rule of law country, then we look at what's happened recently, both writ large, and in my case, like we have serious flaws right now going on, but terms of you know, look, we all know about the problems of police racism and the problems in our carceral system. This is a different kind of problem that is really disturbing. It's a problem of corporate control over the prosecutorial apparatus to target activists who take on the fossil fuel industry, which is me. And it's happening not just to me, I've sort of the most visible case, perhaps, but it's happening to a lot of people who protest oil pipelines. You know, mine, three people, Jessica resinous, sec, who has deemed a terrorist now serving eight years for putting a blowtorch to a pipeline, she harm nobody. She's not a terrorist. Okay, she's she engaged in civil disobedience. So it's not just me, it's happening as part of a playbook by the industry. Normally, they can easily find prosecutors to do their bidding. What's unusual here is they couldn't because I live in New York, and I think there's more sophistication here in terms of the US Attorney's office than in many places. So when they turn the judge down, the judge is engaged in what I believe is a nakedly corrupt act, and hadn't be prosecuted directly by a chevron law firm and had me locked up. I mean, I never would have been prosecuted much less is locked up. If it was a normal prosecutor, they never people don't get locked up in America on misdemeanors prior to trial, it just doesn't happen. So why was I locked up for two years and two months? Obviously, it's because it's a chevron law firm who was prosecuting me. And I will say this, I think it's very important people. I'm glad you're bringing this up, David, it's important people understand the connection. Between my case, the fossil fuel industry, the climate issue, okay. They don't want people like me doing this work successfully. Yeah, the system tolerates lots of people doing this in that, but they, we've gotten it to a very high level, we want a $10 billion judgment on behalf of people with no money, you know, indigenous peoples, that's really threatening not only to Chevron, but to the entire industry, because they know they have literally trillions of dollars of legacy, environmental liability, and dozens of countries around the world. If this model succeeds, in making that transfer of money, that was legitimately won by the people of Ecuador, down to Ecuador to do a cleanup, their whole business model is going to be under threat. So they want to snuff out this case, by destroying me and my life, my reputation, I will say they have failed, I'm here speaking and I'm cool. And we're going to continue the work. But their goal was to snuff me out to send a message of intimidation to every young activist, every young campaign or every lawyer who's even thinking about doing this work. And I'm telling you, they have failed, the case is going on. And not only that, it's backfired. Because the reason I'm talking to you, and the reason I'm getting a lot of attention now is because they locked me up. I mean, very few people that actually heard about this case five years ago, and now there's literally 10s of millions of people who are deeply into it, including 68 Nobel laureates, 120 human rights groups have asked Biden to pardon me, we're growing, we're getting stronger. And I think ultimately, Chevron is going to have to pay this judgment.
I keep going back to this separation of powers issue, which seems, which seems kind of esoteric, but it's actually terrifying. We've seen a lot of talk about the judicial coup that is underway in America, the this third branch of government that doesn't get as much attention that is, has been seen as a political. I think a lot of people are now shaken into awareness that at the Supreme Court level, there is this kind of judicial coup happening, a kind of rampage to repeal the 20th century. I put this case inside of debt judicial coup in the following way, that this ruling that came down as you appealed your contempt, the contempt conviction. This ruling that came down by this, this lower federal court reaffirmed the idea that a judge can appoint a prosecutor. If the judge doesn't like that the executive branch's prosecutor isn't prosecuting a case. And if that sounds technical and esoteric, but it seems to me that the way the Constitution was created was to separate the prosecutorial power from the judging power, right, the executive branch, which is which is directly accountable to people voting in a president puts in place the prosecutors who decide what cases to bring, and then this separate branch over here judges the case. What what this contempt case reaffirmed in your case very recently, is that actually, the court is saying, if we don't like that the executive branch isn't prosecuting somebody, we the judicial branch, can appoint our own prosecution. Don't there is no check on our power, right, we get to be judge, judge and prosecutor. And then you think of the the ramifications of that the concert, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump have focused so much on putting judges into not only the Supreme Court, but all throughout, you know, can very conservative judges into the judicial system. Now you think those judges potentially cannot necessarily be checked by a presidential election? I mean, tell me if I'm wrong in fearing the implications of this.
I think you're right. And I think it's terrifying. And and, you know, look, I don't really care about people's politics. I mean, I've had lawyers from out of the Federalist Society, like right wing lawyers and judges, hyper offended by this complete violation of separation of powers, orchestrated by an oil company, to serve as private interests to take over the public machinery to serve private interests. Okay. So this has never happened before. We have to be sure in my opinion, that it doesn't happen again, which is why I'm out here talking about it. I will say this which is in your district, So the separation of powers problems is exactly dead on, you know, you know, in our society, it is the Executive Branch The prosecutes crime judges, I'm sorry to tell you, you can't actually prosecute crime in our society, you can judge the case, you cannot, you know, make the charges and appoint the prosecutor and control the private prosecutor and be the basically the judge and the grand jury and the jury in the same case. And that's what Judge Kaplan did to me. It's an you know, it's beyond being an embarrassment, frankly, to the New York Federal Judiciary, where he sits and where this is being tolerated, beyond being an embarrassment, in my opinion, to Judge Kaplan himself, and being an embarrassment, frankly, to our country, because this completely undermines or any moral authority, the US might have to talk about what human rights means, in a rule of law context. What happened to me, you know, this is just, I'm just ashamed for our country as a lawyer, that this happened, and I just want to make one final point. My conviction under this private prosecutorial regime, by the way, was not given a jury. Kaplan appointed the judge, it was all a rigged system. Okay, guaranteed to convict me, I couldn't even put on a defense. I appeal this. And what you're talking about in June is a decision that came down by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, it was a two one decision affirming my conviction. But all three judges were extremely bothered by the private prosecution, the one judge who dissented judgment now she was appointed by Donald Trump. Now, why do I bring this up? Judgment Aashi wrote a 19 page dissent, where he said I would avoid this whole thing. This is crazy. This is unconstitutional. On the basis of that framework, my lawyers, my excellent lawyer, Stephen Vladek, from the University of Texas, Austin is my lead appellate lawyer are bringing this up to the US Supreme Court. Now call me crazy. Obviously, that court, and particularly the six justices who have staged the judicial coup, and it is a judicial coup, make no mistake about it, are not going to have any sympathy from me or the work I do personally. But there is a strand of thinking in right wing legal circles right now that got there as government overreach. I mean, the whole EPA decision that just came down was designed to make government back off from regulating the industry to basically render government inactive in terms of what its role should be in our society. Well, ironically, bizarrely, what Judge Kaplan did to me is an example in their minds of massive judicial overreach, governmental overreach.
And not only not only that, in the EPA decision, if I'm if I'm correct, the EPA decision was kind of an extremist vision of separation of powers to the point where they were arguing, you know, the Congress can't delegate any authority to the executive branch. Now you're going to be bringing a case where you're going to be simply saying them, Okay, listen, if you have that extreme misinterpretation of separation of powers, then here's a case where the judiciary Now granted, it's the Supreme Court's own own branch, so they may be biased towards it. But you're, you're basically gonna say to them, if you're worried about separation of powers, here's a situation where I need you, we want you to invalidate the idea that the judiciary can be the executive branch and the judiciary can be the prosecutor and the judge at the same time. Yeah, that's
exactly right. And look, as I said, you know, I'm a progressive lawyer, activist, I care about environmental issues and other progressive issues. But that's not what this case is about, and how on appeal at this point, it really is about a separation of powers issue that threatens free speech, free advocacy and freedom in our society. And I think that, you know, look, I get, you know, it's complicated, it's complex, and it's technical. But I really do think that this might get a sympathetic ear in a Supreme Court, that otherwise to me is gone rogue, you know, so I'm just trying to point out that there's just bizarre things happening. The fundamental problem, though, is we cannot have private corporate prosecutions in the United States or America or any other country, it's illegal violates the rule of law. And it happened to me. And if it can happen to me, it can happen to you. So I need people to pay attention to this. By the way, if I could just mention, I have a website called free donziger.com. You can learn more about this, you can we have a defense fund, this is expensive to deal with. Please donate if you can, but more importantly, learn about it spread the word. It's free. donziger.com More and more people need to hear about this, otherwise, we're not going to be able to stop it.
You know, it strikes me that there is an analogue here, I mentioned that I see this as part of the judicial coup. It strikes me that also what's going on here fits into the judicial coup in this way. One thing that we've reported at the lever is that the right has worked very hard, using money in politics to surround the court on both both sides both in the prosecution and the end, the judges, essentially buying Supreme Court seats, buying Senate seats to then get nominations through. And then also funding and buying basically attorneys general seats in the states so that the the Republican attorneys general are now are then bringing cases to Republican bought judges Republican bought court seats. It strikes me that this is almost a similar situation in the sense of Chevron has a lot of power. Chevron is connected to all sorts of law firms. Chevron doesn't like that a US attorney in New York doesn't prosecute you. So a judge doesn't like that, that the US Attorney isn't prosecuting you. So the judge can appoint a chevron connected law firm to come after you. I mean, I guess I guess the question is, do you see this entire thing as part of a larger effort, a larger campaign to really manipulate the judiciary and make it not independent? Not? I mean, I don't think it's ever fully been independent. I think that's kind of a myth. But I feel like there's, this is all part of a larger strategy to kind of really strip away the last forms of independence that exists in our judiciary system.
Well, I go a step further, I think you're right, I think it's a little bit worse than that. I mean, they're trying the corporate elites and the corporate, you know, the, I'd say the, the sort of the right side of the corporate world, which is the fossil fuel industry in the US Chamber, the Koch brothers funding network, etc, the Federalist Society, etc, are trying to control our society writ large. And the way they have decided to do that, that is the weak point, the easiest path for their money to control 320 million people is through the Supreme Court, the unelected branch of government. Okay, the one unelected branch of government, because the majority, they know, the majority is totally opposed to all the steps the Supreme Court has taken. So as you know, and as you've written about, I salute you, because you do great journalism, this has been a multi decade strategy to basically go to that one little place where all their money can guarantee the optimum and the maximum amount of control over the rest of us. And they finally got it done through, you know, getting Donald Trump in who was not did not win the popular vote, he had three judicial appointments. And as you point out in your recent article, which I think is critical, people read, I tweeted this, this has been enabled by a Democratic Party that does not know how to deal with it, okay. It's that simple, whether it's Joe Biden, whether it's Barack Obama, et cetera, et cetera, John Kerry, Al Gore, this goes back 2025 years where there was basically the they were laying the groundwork for a right wing judicial coup that we just saw, the result of it was just completed for 2025 years, and the Democratic Party was asleep, largely, in my view, because it was accepting the same corporate fossil fuel money from the Koch brothers and others that took control the Republican Party. So you know, as you point out, until we find a great a party in this country, that can actually stand up to this and play hardball with this. It's gonna keep going. And I think that is the critical issue facing our society right now.
I think the good news there is good news here. I think the good news is, is that for for decades, the court has been seen wrongly in my view, and I and it's, it's boggled my mind and driven me crazy for as long as I've worked in and around politics in media, that the public has seen the court as this sort of a political tribunal of elders. And I mean, and that goes back. I mean, that goes back a long, long time. I mean, it even it was even in FDR time, until he decided to have the fight with the courts. And I think there's a whole lot of historical revisionism about, you know, whether he was successful or not in the public's mind is, oh, it was unsuccessful. Actually, he wasn't unsuccessful. His fight with the court was highly successful. But he was even back then fighting against this public perception that the court is a political and that has has existed even into after Bush v. Gore, right. Hey, though, the court is still a political, right, a whole bunch of nonsense. But I think the good news, when you look at polls now, I think people are starting to get it. And I think that is where you might finally start to get a larger political movement and pressure on a Democratic Party to actually start having a conflict with the judiciary and not continue to pretend that you did judiciary is just calling balls and strikes and they're apolitical. That's a bunch of horseshit.
And you couldn't agree what is really started without war accepted, that BS decision that basically stole the White House from him. He was weak. And at that point, he should have laid down a marker and said this is illegitimate. This work does not deserve legitimacy. You just made a political decision, okay? To steal the election from the people. And that was the first big step in this coup that we now see culminated in all these, you know, these five or six decisions in the last two weeks.
Do you know how you know the judiciary? I always say this to friends of mine, you know how you know, the judiciary and the Supreme Court is a political institution. Mitch McConnell has been obsessed with every single Court appointment for 20 or 25 years. It's his it's his obsession above all else. If you look at Mitch McConnell, he's, he's involved in all sorts of issues you would have to put at the top of the list. The thing that Mitch McConnell obsesses over is every single judicial appointment, and the point being is that guy does not obsess over a political things. That guy obsesses over highly political things that guy has been obsessed with with infiltrating that institution for a quarter century. And he's been aided and abetted by a Democratic party that has continued to effectively pretend that, that the judiciary, as it's being rigged, is just legitimate and worse, above political criticism. But I think that your case has played a pivotal role. I think the Supreme Court's rulings have played a pivotal role in spotlighting that this is an institution that needs to be challenged, because it is trying to repeal the 20th century and on climate change. It is trying to help the fossil fuel industry effectively destroy the livable ecosystem. So I want to thank you for waging the fight that you've waged. And I want to thank you for continuing to push it right I mean, you you got out of out of prison and you're continuing to push this you could have just sort of disappeared. And I very much appreciate you continuing to push this because this this really is the issue of our age. Thank you so much.
Thank you, David, for having me. Keep up the great work on your end. Really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.
All right. That's it for today's show. David is on the road right now. So I am doing the wrap up in his stead. Just as a reminder, our paid subscribers who get overtime premium will get to hear this week's bonus segment in which the levers Julia rock joined us to talk about an exclusive story that she reported on this past week in which a letter was circulated throughout the Biden administration demanding more aggressive tactics to pass climate legislation. The letter was signed by 165 staffers at federal health and environmental agencies as well as 75 congressional offices.
And these staffers on Sunday sent a letter to Biden and Schumer saying no, don't walk away from negotiations, you were making some progress with mansion. And you know what if he doesn't want to just take the deal you're giving him then you can force his hand, escalate your tactics and get mentioned to pass these investments.
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