Published on Friday, June 30, 2000 in the Washington Times
Gore Resists Calls To Halt Oil Drilling in Colombia
by Bill Sammon
Vice President Al Gore, who controls at least $500,000 worth of stock in Occidental Petroleum, has ignored pleas from environmentalists to fight the company's plan to drill for oil on sacred Indian land in Colombia.
The Gore family stands to benefit substantially if Occidental finds the 1.5 billion barrels of oil it estimates are buried beneath the pristine forest inhabited for centuries by the U'wa Indians.
The 5,000-member tribe is threatening mass suicide if Occidental goes forward with drilling.
But the Clinton-Gore administration is pushing more than $1 billion of aid to Colombia that Occidental says will help protect its oil interests. The money will be used in part to fight guerrillas who have often attacked the company's pipeline, spilling more crude than the Exxon Valdez.
Gore supporters inside and outside the administration are pushing hard for the Occidental project.
Scott Pastrick, the former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee who in 1996 prepared "call sheets" for the vice president's use in fund-raising solicitations, was hired the next year by Occidental to promote the project.
The Clinton-Gore administration, in turn, hired a former Occidental lobbyist who was pressing the Energy Department to back the drilling. Lobbyist Theresa Fariello was hired last year by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.
"There has been a lot of back-room negotiations between the Clinton administration and the Colombian government on behalf of Occidental," said environmentalist Stephen Kretzmann of Amazon Watch. "Occidental is a favorite of the Clinton-Gore administration, particularly Gore."
In recent weeks, violence has escalated between the Colombian military and U'wa Indians who have been blockading a road to the Occidental drilling site. U.S. and Colombian environmentalists are growing more frustrated at what they consider the willful inaction of Mr. Gore.
"You have an imminent, unfolding, tragic situation in Colombia being perpetrated by a corporation with direct ties to the vice president and he won't do a . . . thing," Mr. Kretzmann said. "He has remained silent, and he hasn't pulled his money out."
Environmentalists are particularly appalled by the vice president's recent campaign to link George W. Bush with skyrocketing gasoline prices by portraying him as a puppet of Big Oil.
"It takes somebody who is independent from Big Oil to take on Big Oil, and I'm independent from them," the vice president thundered Wednesday.
But Mr. Gore controls between $500,000 and $1 million worth of stock in Occidental.
"Mr. Gore cannot pretend to be any better than Bush when his hands have the blood of the U'wa on them," said Sharon Wright of the Rainforest Action Network.
Gore spokesman James Kennedy said the standoff in Colombia "is an internal domestic matter and the United States does not have the unilateral authority to intervene in it." Asked why the vice president doesn't use his bully pulpit as a presidential candidate to articulate a moral stance on the controversy, Mr. Kennedy said: "I'll just leave it at that."
Although Mr. Gore lists Occidental on his financial disclosure forms, his aides insist he does not control the shares because they belong to a trust for his mother, Pauline.
But according to the last will and testament of Mr. Gore's father, Albert Gore Sr., the vice president — as executor of the Occidental estate — is vested with the same control as Pauline Gore, who is named in the will as trustee.
"The executor shall at all times during the administration of my estate be vested with all the powers, duties and authority of the trustee," the elder Gore wrote, "and shall be authorized to make payments in the same manner and to the same extent as if he were acting as testamentary trustee."
Thursday night, a Gore spokeswoman said: "The intent of the language is to ensure that the executor can distribute income before the trust is set up. But once the trust is set up, only the trustee has the authority to make the decisions regarding the trust."
Asked to reconcile this with the will's stipulation that the vice president retains full authority "at all times," Gore spokesman Kennedy said: "I'm not a lawyer. And when laymen try to interpret the law, they usually screw up."
He added: "The vice president does not have stock in Occidental and does not benefit from any stock in Occidental."
But the elder Gore stipulated in his will: "Upon the death of my wife, the trust shall terminate and all the assets thereof shall be distributed absolutely to my son."
Mr. Kennedy added: "If any are left. So it's entirely speculative and inappropriate to suggest that he will in fact ever benefit. Because No. 1, it is not known whether any funds will be left at that time. And No. 2, it is not known if that stock will still be in the trust" then.
Occidental Vice President Lawrence Meriage defended his company's plans, saying the oil is vital to the impoverished nation, which will get 85 percent of the revenue. He added that the Colombian government last year tripled the size of the U'wa reservation to 850 square miles, with the drill site outside the reservation.
"You know, it gets down to a question here of whether you have a democratically elected government that should be able to set policy for 40 million Colombians or having a bunch of noisy activists in the U.S. trying to dictate to the Colombian government," he said.
Mr. Meriage, who testified before Congress in favor of the $1 billion aid package to Colombia, said the drilling will go ahead.
"There is a potential here of a billion barrels of oil," he said. "Whether it's Occidental . . . or somebody else that controls this project, it's going to go forward."
© 2000 News World Communications, Inc.