UPDATE 2-Chevron takes Ecuador fight to trade arbitrators

* Seeks to enforce release from liability by Ecuador govt

* Chevron faces $27 bln claim in Ecuadorean court

* Plaintiffs’ adviser says oil company is ‘forum shopping’ (Adds comments from Chevron, plaintiffs’ lawyer, background)

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 23 (Reuters) - Chevron Corp CVX.N said it had filed an international arbitration claim against Ecuador, opening a new front in its defense against a $27 billion environmental damage lawsuit in Ecuadorean court.

The second-largest U.S. oil company has often complained of government interference in the 16-year-old case, in which indigenous communities have accused Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001, of damaging the environment and their health while operating petroleum facilities in the region.

Three weeks ago, Chevron accused the judge in the case of being involved in a $3 million bribery scheme and offered secretly videotaped footage as evidence that led to an Ecuadorean investigation. [ID:nN01508780]

Claiming Ecuador’s government has violated a bilateral U.S.-Ecuador investment treaty, Chevron said on Wednesday an arbitration proceeding had commenced before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague under United Nations trade law.

“Because Ecuador’s judicial system is incapable of functioning independently of political influence, Chevron has no choice but to seek relief under the treaty,” Hewitt Pate, Chevron’s recently appointed general counsel, said in a company statement.

Chevron says that in 1998, Ecuador and state oil company Petroecuador released Texaco from further liability after Texaco’s remediation work was completed.

But plaintiffs in the case argue that the release did not deal with private claims against the company.

According to Chevron’s filing, the arbitration process will involve three arbitrators. Chevron has appointed Horacio Grigera Naon, from the college of law at American University, Washington, and Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said Ecuador would appoint a second who would work with Grigera Naon to appoint a third.

The plaintiffs say Texaco dumped billions of gallons of polluted water in the jungle around where they live for more than two decades before leaving Ecuador in the early 1990s. The first legal action in the case was filed in New York in 1993, but the case was moved to Ecuador earlier this decade.

An expert appointed by the Ecuadorean court said last year that Chevron should pay around $27 billion, including more than $8 billion in unjust enrichment.

Steven Donziger, a U.S. legal adviser to the plaintiffs, said the latest move by Chevron followed a series of setbacks in courts for the company in both countries.

“Filing an international arbitration campaign at this point in time smacks of desperation and is a clear example of forum shopping,” Donziger said in emailed statement.

As for the Ecuador case, Judge Juan Nunez sought to remove himself from it to allow for an investigation into Chevron’s claims against him, but Donziger said it had not been allowed.

“The judge’s request for recusal has been denied,” Donziger told Reuters in Bogota. “Our interest is not in who the judge is. Our interest is that the process be fair.”

Chevron has faced increasing media scrutiny over the Ecuadorean case, with a documentary on the dispute opening up in New York earlier this month. [ID:nN08279516]

The film opens later this week in San Francisco, about 30 miles (50 km) to the west of Chevron’s headquarters in San Ramon, California. (Reporting by Braden Reddall, with additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein in Bogota; Editing by Richard Chang and Steve Orlofsky)