ExxonMobil will settle its $100 million fine for the Exxon Valdez spill out of court with the federal and Alaskan state governments after being granted a reprieve from a US District Court Judge. This is despite State Governor Sean Parnell being a well-known ex-lobbyist for ExxonMobil.
The US judge responsible for levying record fines against ExxonMobil two decades ago has refused to reopen the case to seek further penalties for continuing damage to Alaskan fisheries and wildlife.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989 was the worst oil spill in US waters until last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. (Unsurprisingly, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson has today condemned BP for its role in the April 2010 spill. Yesterday, BP’s CEO Robert Dudley claimed that the incident was not a “one-in-a-million occurrence” and that industry-wide changes are needed.) The Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of oil into the sound and contaminated about 1,300 miles of coastline.
The settlement sought for nearly 20 years was $5 billion. By June 2009, ExxonMobil had paid $900 million including interest (Exxon only paid 75% of the $500 million punitive damages eventually awarded), less than one fifth of what was originally sought and after 20 percent of the plaintiffs were deceased. In the fine’s clause was a further payment of $100 million for any lingering impacts of the spill.
Monday’s ruling by US District Court Judge H. Russel Holland means that ExxonMobil will not be forced to pay the $100 million sought. A settlement between federal and state governments looks more likely and, if the record of the Alaskan Governor is any indicator, with yet another reduction of the fine on the cards.
Current Governor of Alaska, Sean Parnell, worked at law firm Patton Boggs between 2005-2006, representing ExxonMobil against plaintiffs including Alaskan state prosecutors. It was Patton Boggs who managed to reduce Exxon’s original $5 billion punitive damages by more than $2 billion in December 2006. Before that, Mr. Parnell served as Director of Government Relations at ConocoPhillips.
Sean Parnell is not only a vocal critic of President Obama’s ‘red tape’ against oil drilling in Alaska but served under Sarah Palin as Lieutenant Governor when the federal government reopened the settlement agreement seeking further funds from Exxon for remediation. Under both Sarah “Drill Baby Drill” Palin and Sean Parnell’s leadership, Exxon’s fines have withered away. Neither Alaskan administration has bothered to take the company to court or pressed for money.
Professor Rick Steiner, who has long campaigned against irresponsible oil and gas drilling in Alaska, had sought to re-open the original 1991 settlement. He was understandably disappointed with the ruling: “”He’s the judge that approved this provision 20 years ago, and for him to disavow any responsibility for it now is pretty astonishing.”