I admit my heart sank when I read the news that on June 25 the United States Supreme Court reversed the $2.5 billion in punitive damages awarded to victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the worst and most damaging oil spill in history. The court decided that over the course of 19 years of corporate litigation, Exxon had apparently suffered enough.
The Supreme Court reduced Exxon’s penalty to $500 million, a fifth of the original amount awarded and just about 1% of Exxon’s profit for last year. In 2007 alone, Exxon netted $40.6 billion in profit from sales that exceeded $404 billion, which is more than the gross domestic product of 120 different countries. Exxon’s profit for the first quarter of 2008 has exceeded $10 billion.
So, it’s not like they don’t have the money.
Exxon claims it has already spent $3.5 billion cleaning up the Alaskan coastline, and the court decided 5-3 that indeed that was plenty good enough for them. Justice Alito sat the decision out because he owns stock in Exxon. Lucky Samuel Alito. The five siding with Exxon interpreted the letter of the law and said they saw no precedent for a punitive award that large. Justices Ginsberg and Stevens dissented, noting that Congress has already chosen not to impose restrictions on punitive damages in such cases.
In reversing this award, the court violated the spirit of the law if not the letter of it, and to reverse the decision now, just as ordinary Americans are watching the American standard of living plummet as fast as oil prices rise, is like kicking a body that’s already down and nearly dead.
I have to ask, why did Exxon feel the need to pursue and argue that decision for 19 years ongoing after the fact; a decision which, even in its original $2.5 billion form, was but a small fraction of the money the corporation made in any single one of those 19 years since the spill occurred? What was the point of that? To demonstrate that they had the resources to do it? To argue until they won? Were they thinking, “Wow, we aren’t hated nearly enough yet. What can we do that will make even our few remaining friends wince and hide? I know! Let’s get back that paltry Exxon Valdez money!”
What was the cost of the litigation itself? I have to wonder, what if the cost of all those corporate lawyers over all those 19 years had been put into some kind of subsidy for green energy initiatives? It’s a good thing it wasn’t, or we’d think we were living in Iceland or Sweden, and we wouldn’t want that! Sure we’d have enough heat and power to free up money for, I don’t know, healthcare or education or something, but that would be too much like socialism. Thank God we were saved from it by raw corporate greed and the reliable power of enormous amounts of money in the hands of a select few.
Because of their legal persistence, our capitalist way of life has been preserved.
A study conducted by NOAA determined that as of early 2007 about 26,000 gallons of oil remain in the contaminated sandy soil at the site of the Alaskan spill. But what’s 26,000 gallons after 19 years among friends? Certainly it’s a whole lot less than the 10.8 million gallons that covered over 11,000 square miles in 1989 the day of the spill and instantly killed between 250 and 500 thousand seabirds, 22 Orca whales, 250 bald eagles, and countless other creatures during years and years of slow, ineffective clean-up efforts that relied heavily on wildlife volunteers and local citizens who were working for hours and hours for free.
What exactly are 500 thousand seabirds and 250 bald eagles worth on the open market anyway? Can we even put a price on something like that? Maybe not. But we do know now what they are not worth.
I just hope they don’t decide to charge the citizens who live around Prince William Sound for those 26,000 gallons of good oil still lurking in their beach soil. It does belong to Exxon after all.