(CN) — Two years before a judge in the Ecuadorean Amazon handed Chevron a massive judgment for oil pollution, one of its executives pledged to "fight this case until hell freezes over and then fight it out on the ice."
So it's fitting that, after more than two decades of litigation across three continents, Chevron could face its final reckoning over a $9.5 billion environmental lawsuit in Canada, where balmy summer days have started to carry an autumn chill.
Dozens of the Ecuadorean villagers, representing a region of nearly 30,000 indigenous people, have been fighting for compensation to repair their rainforest lands since 1993, the year after Chevron's predecessor Texaco left their country.
Chevron meanwhile has sought to cast the Ecuadorean court proceedings against it as fraudulent since 2009.
The Ecuadoreans won their verdict against Chevron in 2011, but Texaco's assets had long been pulled out of the country by then. As Chevron pursued international arbitration and a federal racketeering trial in New York, the Ecuadoreans brought collections actions against Chevron's corporate subsidiaries in Brazil, Argentina and Canada. Canada's judiciary so far has been the only one to advance this maneuver.
In Ontario Superior Court proceedings that began Monday, Chevron has been trying to dodge a future enforcement action through two defenses.
The first involves the byzantine and secretive corporate structure of Chevron Canada, described in a redacted version of one of the parent company's filings as a "seventh-level indirect subsidiary of Chevron Corp."
Despite exploration of offshore oil fields, a refinery and the Alberta tar sands in Canada, Chevron insists that its heavy investment just north of its corporate headquarters is not enough to pierce through multiple layers of corporate veils.
Days ahead of this week's court proceedings, Greenpeace, Amazon Watch and the Sierra Club joined nine other civil-society groups with an open letter that urges Canadian courts to reject what they called "an international litigation 'shell game'" by Chevron to avoid liability.
"After agreeing to jurisdiction in Ecuador, Chevron sold its remaining assets there to escape justice," the letter says. "Now Chevron claims its assets in Canada are immunized because they are held by wholly owned subsidiaries. Chevron is seeking to make a mockery of justice by creating a jurisdiction shell-game to deny the Ecuadorians full justice for its environmental crimes in Ecuador."
Canadian human-rights lawyers are watching to see if Chevron's machinations will work.
Murray Klippenstein, an attorney representing indigenous Guatemalans who are suing the Canadian mining company HudBay, said in a phone interview that he the two international wrangles have more than a few overlaps.
In the HudBay case, Mayan women from Guatemala claim that security guards employed by HudBay's subsidiary in their home country gang-raped them.
Accusing the parent company for negligence in Canada, Klippenstein's clients achieved a breakthrough three years ago when HudBay dropped its objections to the Toronto venue.
In that sense, Klippenstein said, the case is the "mirror image" of what happened in the Chevron litigation, in which the indigenous plaintiffs initially filed their lawsuit in New York until the oil giant succeeded in moving the case to Ecuador.