BUENOS AIRES - A multibillion-dollar legal battle between Ecuadorean indigenous groups and Chevron Corp. has moved to Argentina, where lawyers say the company can be held responsible for environmental damage claims in Ecuador.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs estimate Chevron's assets in Argentina are worth around $2 billion.
"The Ecuador judgment is a product of bribery, fraud, and it is illegitimate. The company does not believe that the Ecuador judgment is enforceable in any court that observes the rule of law," Chevron said in a statement Wednesday.
The suit is the latest development in an almost 20-year legal dispute over claims that Texaco Inc., which Chevron bought in 2001, contaminated parts of Ecuador's Amazonian region when it was operating in the country.
The start of litigation in Argentina comes just as the country's state oil company YPF SA is courting Chevron to help it explore for potentially massive, but as yet untapped, unconventional oil and gas resources.
In September, Chevron and YPF signed a memorandum of understanding to explore for unconventional energy in the South American nation.
Last year, a court in Ecuador found Chevron liable and levied an $18.2 billion judgment. In July, an Ecuadorean judge raised that amount to $19 billion.
Chevron doesn't have significant assets in Ecuador, but the plaintiffs have been trying to seize the company's assets in other countries to enforce settlement on the judgment.
In June, lawyers for the indigenous groups filed a lawsuit in Brazil one month after they launched a similar suit in Canada.
The Ecuadorean plaintiffs are also suing Chevron and seeking an embargo of its assets in Colombia.
Chevron, which is the second-largest U.S. oil company after Exxon Mobil Corp., has repeatedly denied the claims.
Earlier this month, an Ecuador court ruled that the plaintiffs could collect the oil company's assets and receivables in the country that were related to Chevron trademarks licensed in the Andean nation.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs estimated those assets to be worth around $200 million, though Chevron said at the time it hadn't calculated its exposure in Ecuador.
The court also ordered a freeze on all bank accounts related to Chevron, Texaco and any subsidiary in the country.
Courts in Brazil and Canada have yet to rule on the suits brought against Chevron.
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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