It's a wrist-slap -- take it off taxes and insurance covers the rest
Biggest oil spill fine reduced to less than a few weeks of profit
As usual, the judges decided in favor of the side investing the most in representation and “expert” testimony. Not having competitive resources in our adversarial legal system spells near certain defeat. We trim, blend, and append seven stories of 2007 and 2008: BBC of Oct 29, AlterNet of Nov 5, USA Today of June 25 and 26, and the Christian Science Monitor of June 26, which also published our letter of June 18.
When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska two decades ago, it was one of the biggest ever oil spills ever, spilling somewhere between 11 to 38 million gallons; Exxon – the world's biggest listed oil firm – kept lowering its estimate. The deluge contaminated about 1,300 miles (2,080km) of coastline, killing millions of living beings while bankrupting many human beings.
Afterwards, the case went to court three times:
* First, in 1994 a jury of peers decided plaintiffs were owed by the corporate giant $5 billion in punitive damages, or about three weeks worth of their profits.
* Then a US Court of Appeals cut the award in half, making it $2.5 billion, but still the largest such award upheld on appeal.
* Now the Supreme Court has lopped off another two bill, leaving the award a bit over $500 million, one tenth the original amount, making their lawyers worth every penny.
Exxon had already paid $3.4bn in clean-up costs, some restitution, and other charges. However, Exxon wrote much of it off their taxes and recouped the remaining expense from its insurance companies. The other side didn’t fare so well.
While the salmon recovered, the herring did not; the herring fisheries are closed indefinitely. Fishermen who held $300,000 commercial fishing permits for salmon and/or herring fisheries at the time of the spill now own pieces of paper worth around 10% their former value, permits that the fisheries no longer support. Their debts in many cases exceed their individual share of the punitive award at the full $5 billion.
The fact the Supreme Justices agreed to hear Exxon’s appeal did not bode well. They refused to hear reasons for restoring the full original amount. Nor were they moved by the thirty-three states who backed Alaska in asking that the reduced $2.5 billion award be upheld.
The Supreme Court devoted 90 minutes to oral arguments in the case, 50% more time than usual. Justice Samuel Alito did not take part in the dispute. He owns Exxon stock.
Perhaps everyone should own stock in oil. And there is a way to accomplish that. We could tax oil in the ground then pay citizens a dividend from the pooled value of natural resources, similar to what Alaska does.
Public recover y of the value of land and natural resources, instead of taxing labor and capital, would benefit people in many ways, as cited in this letter of ours published by the Christian Science Monitor on June 18.
Letters to the Editor
Readers write about subsidized gasoline and how to face higher prices.
America's own responsibility for high gasoline prices
Regarding your June 11 editorial, "A big culprit in high pump prices": You make a strong case for attributing high gas prices to China's and India's subsidies artificially keeping gas prices down. However, it's not necessary to reinforce "us versus them." It was US subsidies that got us into this addiction to oil in the first place.click here
Since subsidies and tax breaks are the culprit, shifting the flow of public revenue is the cure. Abolish subsidies. Charge polluters. And abolish taxes on earnings so people can profit from clean new technology.
Instead, tax the surplus value of oil and all natural resources, which is fair – nobody made nature – and would also make the old entrenched ways less profitable and less politically influential. That's how the market can ease our transition to a society running on energy alternatives.
There is some mainstream movement toward public recovery of natural resources. A New York Times editorial of June 23 reported that the current Congress is stirring itself. The recent spikes in prices for ores is putting pressure on public lands that some politicians wanted to keep more or less pristine; paying tourists like a scenery minus the toxic mining tailings.
If that's the price of conservation, OK. Better goods deeds for wrong reasons than vice versa. If the old bottom line can sustain life on Earth, let it happen.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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