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Group Wants Union Oil's Charter Revoked

Energy: Petition by coalition of rights and environmental activists alleges violations here and abroad. Move is part of a years-old protest campaign.

September 11, 1998|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A coalition of environmental and human-rights groups petitioned California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren on Thursday to revoke the corporate charter of Union Oil Co. of California and seize the oil giant's assets because of alleged violations of state and international laws going back nearly three decades.

The unusual legal strategy is part of a protest campaign that has waged for years against Unocal, the El Segundo-based parent of Union Oil, and other multinational companies that do business in politically troublesome parts of the world, such as Afghanistan, Indonesia and Myanmar.

Unocal has already been the target of lawsuits concerning its activities in Myanmar--where it is a partner in a project to build a natural gas pipeline due to begin operation in December--and has been hit with protest rallies at various corporate facilities.

Unocal spokesman Barry Lane blasted the coalition's petition as "an attempt to organize anti-business pressure and further the political agenda of these activists."

"We operate to very high standards and we work very hard at that, and when we do make mistakes, we try to correct them," Lane said. "There is no legal basis for this action. . . . We have not violated any international laws in any of our business dealings."

The coalition delivered its petition to the attorney general's Los Angeles office during a protest at the Ronald Reagan State Building downtown. Staci Turner, an attorney general's office spokeswoman, said the document will be reviewed.

The last time the corporate charter of a large company was revoked in California, it was 1976 and Evelle Younger was attorney general, said Robert Benson, a Loyola Law School professor who was the principal author of the coalition's 127-page document. Younger went after a water company that was purported to be selling tainted water, but the firm settled and its assets were sold before its charter could be revoked.

Corporate charter revocation is gaining popularity as a legal maneuver. Earlier this year, the New York attorney general asked a court to revoke the charters of two tobacco industry research firms, and an Alabama judge, acting as a private citizen, filed suit to pull the charters of six tobacco companies in that state, Benson said.

The petition to revoke Union Oil's corporate charter (the parent company, Unocal, is chartered separately in Delaware) lists 10 causes of action alleging, among other things, complicity in "crimes against humanity" and environmental abuses related to Unocal's dealings in Myanmar, formerly Burma; its plans, currently suspended, to build a gas pipeline through Afghanistan; its treatment of U.S. workers; and various oil spills and chemical leaks.

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