How One Governor Robbed Wildlife to Help an Oil Company
In the history of corporate fines for industrial pollution, one oil giant’s recent deal with New Jersey stands out—but not for justice served.
Despite losing in court, Exxon Mobil Corp. may walk away from decades of ecological damage it visited on northern New Jersey for pennies on the dollar—thanks to Gov. Chris Christie.
Stewart focused on the sweetheart deal’s strong resemblance to a quid pro quo arrangement between Exxon and Christie, who is widely believed to be contender for the Republican party’s nomination for president in 2016. But it is also of a piece with the company’s history of spending a lot of money to undercut environmental protection, including efforts to sow doubt and deceive the public about the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming.
The story begins in 2004, when New Jersey sued Exxon for contaminating more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, meadows, marshes, and waterways with petrochemicals from its oil refining operations. The polluted sites are located along narrow waterways that divide northern New Jersey from New York City’s Staten Island and lead into New York Bay.
The administrations of three successive governors tried to wrest $8.9 billon in damages from Exxon, but the company resisted settling until February when, as The New York Times recently reported, the Christie administration “quietly” settled the case out of court for $225 million.
Exxon made $127 billion in gross profit in 2014, so that amount will barely register as a pockmark on the corporation’s quarterly earnings statement.
Most of that $225 million could end up being spent far from the contaminated sites. “An appropriations law in New Jersey allows money beyond the first $50 million collected in such cases in the current fiscal year to go toward balancing the state budget,” The Times reported.
And how did such a stipulation get put into the state’s appropriations law? Christie himself proposed it in 2014.
As Stewart put it on The Daily Show, “Damn, it feels good to be a governor.”
New Jersey based its $8.9 billion ask on recommendations from a expert report [PDF] that found that the areas contaminated by Exxon’s oil refineries historically supported habitat for diverse birds, from seaside sparrows to egrets, as well as other wildlife, including diamondback terrapins, blue crabs, horseshoe crabs, and more than five dozen species of fish.
“If restored to a more natural state,” the report’s authors stated, “the contaminated lands and waters at the Bayway [Linden] and Bayonne sites will provide important environmental benefits in this urbanized region.”
The $8.9 billion would have covered the costs of a hoped-for environmental restoration of the area and compensated residents of New Jersey for the areas having been useless to the public for decades.
Now it’s an open question whether those sites will ever be remediated and restored, or if Exxon has permanently avoided accounting for what it owes the people of New Jersey. The settlement still must be approved by a judge.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day in my life that $250 million was chicken feed. It’s like a fire sale,” Bill Sheehan, founder of Hackensack Riverkeeper, told the Hudson Reporter. “This is not about fixing things. It’s about stealing New Jersey natural resources.”