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Exxon Would Like to be Excused

Back when I taught, at the beginning of the school year each year the school would hand professors a description of the incoming freshman class so the professors could understand what world their students were coming from. It usually read something like:

2007: This year’s incoming freshmen were born in 1989.

The top TV series for most of these students’ teen years was American Idol.

These students matured after the first big judgments against online file-sharing.

During these students’ freshman year of high school, the first legal gay marriages were performed in this country.

The Exxon Valdez disaster happened the year most of these freshmen were born.

I made up the whole list (though I think I’m close on most counts)–and my ignorance of current pop culture has been pretty well established. But my point was to contextualize the Exxon Valdez disaster which did, indeed, occur the year that most incoming college freshmen were born. It’s been 18 years, and the interim years have seen record-smashing profits for Exxon, not to mention two wars to ensure our access to oil in the Middle East.

But Exxon is still fighting the fines imposed on it for the disaster.

The Supreme Court today agreed to hear an appeal by Exxon Mobil Corp.that seeks to overturn $2.5 billion in punitive damages a federal courtordered the company to pay for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill offAlaska.

Stepping into the long-running dispute between the world’s largestpublicly traded oil company and more than 30,000 class-actionplaintiffs, the court separately rejected the plaintiffs’ appeal toreinstate the trial jury’s original award of $5 billion in punitivedamages. The 1994 award ultimately was cut in half during an appealsprocess that reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit,which issued its ruling in December.

Exxon Mobil argues that the $2.5 billion punitive award violatesfederal maritime law, and the Supreme Court agreed to take the case tosettle that question. The justices declined to consider an argumentthat the award was so large that it violates the Constitution.

Now, setting aside the legal merits (or not) of Exxon’s appeal (and note, Alito recused himself, so at least it’ll be a relatively fair 4-4 fight), consider what this means for the externalities of business behavior and the environment. Exxon’s negligence devastated the environment in Valdez for some time. But the only costs Exxon thinks it should pay are clean-up costs. And eighteen years after it caused that damage, our society (the same one funding wars that benefit Exxon) still haven’t gotten the fine imposed on Exxon for its negligence.


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Marcy Wheeler aka Emptywheel is an American journalist whose reporting specializes in security and civil liberties.