Oil and Religion Mix

by Bill Berkowitz

Dissident Voice

August 16, 2003


In late-May, while the Indonesian government was ramping-up its military operation in Aceh and with the stench of America's corporate scandals still lingering, Father Robert Sirico stopped off in Dallas, Texas, to deliver a brief pep talk to the corporate leaders and shareholders of ExxonMobil.


Father Sirico, the president of the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, brought along the Reverend Jerry Zandstra, the director of the Institute's Center for Entrepreneurial Stewardship. Their mission: Speak against human rights and environmental resolutions brought to the floor by a coalition of religious and environmental activists.


Father Sirico told ExxonMobil stakeholders to disregard the "religious activism" directed against the company because "it stems from the desire of certain religious activists to force what is clearly a left-wing economic and political agenda on ExxonMobil specifically and society in general."


The agenda of the human rights advocates and religious and environmental activists "is based upon specious economic arguments, many of which have been duly discarded and repudiated by the experience of history." And, these activists are putting "human lives at grave risk in the name of political ideology with a mere moral gloss."


Pursue "your duty" to "act upon the reality of consumer demand, obligation to your shareholders, and the needs of your thousands and thousands of employees," Father Sirico said.


The Rev. Zandstra chimed in by claiming that the presence of so many religious activists was less about ExxonMobil human rights violations and more about "accountability and control." Religious activists want to "set the ethical tone for ExxonMobil because [they believe] you cannot do it for yourselves."


Religious activists believe that "our nation (sic) business leaders must be soulless, heartless creatures who, if left to their own devices would merely rape and pillage," the Rev. Zandstra said. He finished by complimenting the company on its "excellent" record "in human rights" and its "excellent" record in the environment.


ExxonMobil, Aceh & Human Rights


In a late-June telephone interview, University of California, Berkeley, retired Professor Peter Dale Scott told me that ExxonMobil's human rights record "is no better or worse than most other oil companies. However, they aggravate human rights situations because attacks on rebel movements inevitably turn into a defense of oil company facilities. The companies' presence then becomes an integral part of the conflict and they [the companies] are closely identified with the regime."


Robert Jereski, former Executive Director of the International Forum for Aceh, reported in June 2001 that "that ExxonMobil's wholly owned subsidiary, Mobil Oil Indonesia (MOI), provided crucial logistic support to the army," and that its facilities "were used [by the military] for interrogating and torturing local people, that the company's excavators were used to dig mass graves for military victims in the Sentang and Tengkorak hills, and that its roads were used to bring victims to the mass graves."


ExxonMobil's natural gas facility in Aceh Province -- the site of the current military assault by the Indonesian government against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) -- produced nearly a quarter of Mobil's earnings worldwide in the early 1990s, the Wall Street Journal has reported.


"The [Indonesian] army provided security for Exxon-Mobil installations, and human rights activists have charged that the company's facilities were used by the army for rape, torture and murder. The corporation is being sued in the United States by relatives of victims," Prof. Scott, the author of "Drugs Oil and War" (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, March 2003), wrote in an August, 2001 Pacific News Service article.


(In mid-June of this year, Unocal Corp. asked an 11-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco to dismiss a suit similar to the one brought against ExxonMobil. In this case, Unocal is being sued by Burmese villagers "claiming brutality by soldiers guarding the company's pipeline," the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Unocal is hoping that a two-century-old federal law - the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act or ATCA - which "allows suits in U.S. courts for human rights violations abroad" will be repudiated. The Bush Administration has also "urged the court to dismiss the case against Unocal and repudiate post-1980 rulings allowing ATCA suits for violations of international law," the Chronicle pointed out.)


In December 2002, the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government signed an agreement that, according to Business Week, would have ended the centuries old conflict between Indonesia and Aceh: GAM would lay down its arms and the government would surrender some control over Aceh's oil and gas reserves. After talks broke down, Indonesia launched its military operations. Prof. Scott believes that negotiations "were doomed to break down because there won't be peace until there is a fundamental redistribution of the profits from oil included in any agreement."


At stake in the conflict, reports Business Week, is access to "the Straits of Malacca, the world's second-busiest waterway after Britain's Dover Strait and a vital trans-Pacific route for supertankers," and an Indonesian oil company facility in Lhokseumawe, run by ExxonMobil LNG.


ExxonMobil and the Environment


A number of shareholder-raised resolutions brought to this year's confab -- including ones on global warming and renewable energy resources -- went down to defeat. A coalition of religious activists associated with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) -- including the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order, the resolution's primary filer, as well as the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, NJ -- brought one of three global warming resolutions: According to CSRWire, "the resolution pointed out that ExxonMobil's major competitors (ChevronTexaco, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Total Elf Fina) all have investments in renewable energy while ExxonMobil by its own admission has virtually none." The group also pointed out that "ExxonMobil's refusal to acknowledge that carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming was creating a PR backlash and serious reputation damage to the world's largest oil company."


ExxonMobil "publicly softened its stance toward global warming over the last year" [and has] "increased donations to Washington-based policy groups that question the human role in global warming and argue that proposed government policies to limit carbon dioxide emissions associated with global warming are too heavy handed," The New York Times reported in late May.


The company is now giving more than $1 million a year to conservative think tanks and public policy institutes including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Frontiers of Freedom, the George C. Marshall Institute, the American Council for Capital Formation Center for Policy Research and the American Legislative Exchange Council. "Exxon has become the single-largest corporate donor to some of the groups, accounting for more than 10 percent of their annual budgets," according to The New York Times.


The Power of Acton


In a recent op-ed piece published in the Detroit News, Father Sirico asked: "Should a company be 'greenmailed' into adopting a dubious agenda clearly at odds with the company's obligations to countless employees and customers merely to satisfy the passions of professional agitators?" Revisiting the issue of shareholder resolutions and what he termed "high profile direct action campaigns" against multinational corporations, Father Sirico defended the Ford Motor Company's refusal to "adopt higher fuel economy standards for its fleet," an action he wrote, that "would be detrimental to both the company and consumers."


Founded in 1990 by Father Sirico and Kris Alan Mauren, in recent years, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty has grown in scope and stature within the corporate and conservative communities. Father Sirico's imprint is all over a number of current social and economic policy debates: He has advised President Bush on "charitable choice" and welfare reform issues; edited a book for the Vatican aimed at reordering the Catholic Church's tradition of social justice teachings, and he helped launch a right wing religious-based environmental coalition aimed at countering liberal environmental organizations called the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (ICES). Father Sirico's op-ed pieces have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Times, the Detroit News and Investor's Business Daily.


Since its founding the Institute has garnered considerable financial support from a phalanx of right wing foundations: Between 1991 and 2001, it received more than $2.5 million in grants from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, the Scaife Family Foundation and John M. Olin Foundation, according to Media Transparency, a Web site that tracks "the money behind the media."


It was not surprising that Father Robert Sirico -- who did not return my telephone call -- and the Rev. Jerry Zandstra were given a platform at Exxon/Mobil's confab in Dallas. They were there to defend the corporation against attacks from its critics. Religious and environmental organizers want Ford, and companies like it, to "commit corporate suicide" and they want to stifle its "right to economic initiative," Father Sirico wrote in the Detroit News. His bottom line: "Unnecessary regulation" and forcing companies "to cede their corporate governance to national and supra-national authorities" forces "creative initiative" to be "replaced with passivity rather than innovation." In the end, this "results in less competition, loss of market share, higher consumer prices and increased unemployment."


Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.


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