ExxonMobil up to its old dirty tricks in New Jersey


ExxonMobil is arguably the world’s most powerful corporation, with annual revenues greater than many developing nations and a penchant for CIA-grade secrecy. It’s headquartered in a fortress-style building just outside of Dallas that some employees jokingly call “the Death Star.” But if you remember “Star Wars,” you know that even “the Death Star” had a tiny flaw, one that young Luke Skywalker could exploit — with dramatic consequences.

In other words, ExxonMobil can be beaten. I know this because I’ve done it myself, with a team of able tort lawyers. I tell the story of how it happened in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America. In my home state of Louisiana, Exxon had been shipping highly radioactive pipe from the oil production process to a yard in Harvey, La., not far from New Orleans. But there were zero safety warnings to the property owner or to the workers who handled the pipe every day, with no protective gear.

In that case, the now-merged ExxonMobil could have settled for a middling sum, but the firm’s lawyers arrogantly insisted on bringing their case before a jury. It was a bad idea on their part. In 2001, a jury awarded our client $1.057 billion (with a ‘b”) – a record for this kind of case — and after appeals the oil giant still had to write a check for more than $200 million.

This is why we have a tort system — to punish the bad corporate behavior that the politicians can’t punish…or won’t. In Louisiana, governors and their cronies they hired as regulators were routinely in the back pocket of Big Oil, and the handful who weren’t were typically crushed by the system. In fact, Exxon’s top local lobbyist met routinely behind closed doors with the governor and his aides during the same time its pipes were poisoning my client’s land near New Orleans. Again and again we’ve seen how the political system lacks the will to make oil companies like Exxon Mobil pay.

Consider New Jersey. For decades, Exxon’s massive Bayway refinery in Linden, N.J., a landmark for drivers along the New Jersey Turnpike, has been one of the most notorious sources of pollution along the East Coast. The workforce there has an abnormally high cancer rate, according to news reports, while the refinery has been cited more than 200 times for pollution violations since 2005, the year that state officials pledged stepped up their enforcement. The Bayway site has polluted the air — motorists on the Turnpike with open windows could long attest to that — but also the vital wetlands that surround the site.

In years of litigation that spanned the administration of four New Jersey governors from both political parties, courts found that ExxonMobil was liable for extensive damage and were settling in on a fair settlement, that appeared to be in the range of roughly $9 billion. Then, the current governor — and presidential hopeful — Chris Christie took a more hands-on role. Last week, the Christie administration revealed the terms of a stunning settlement with the world’s richest oil company that amounted to pennies on the dollar, just $250 million.

Critics were staggered. David Sirota, a top investigative reporter who’s been on the trail of corruption within the Christie administration for months now, found a number of troubling coincidences.

Reports Sirota:

Federal records show that the reduction, which represents a huge gift to ExxonMobil, follows a wave of campaign cash from the company to the Christie-run Republican Governors Association. 

Since Christie’s first run for governor in 2009, ExxonMobil has donated more than $1.9 million to the group, according to data compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine.com. That includes $79,000 during Christie’s 2009 campaign and $200,000 during his re-election campaign in 2013. It also includes $500,000 when he chaired the organization during the 2014 election cycle. 

ExxonMobil was one of the top contributors to the RGA during that election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

According to New Jersey state documents, ExxonMobil has employed the firm Public Strategies Impact as a lobbyist in Trenton. In October 2014, Gannett Newspapers reported that the same lobbying firm cemented “an exclusive strategic partnership” with Christie’s departing deputy chief of staff, Lou Goetting, who is listed on the firm’s website.

The website, which includes a laudatory comment from an ExxonMobil official, says the firm’s outreach to lawmakers can include “meeting with the Governor’s Chief of Staff and Deputy Chiefs of Staff, meeting with Cabinet Level Officials, meeting with key staff members in the Executive Branch (and) meeting with key department staff.” Public Strategies Impact gave the Republican Governor’s Association $80,000 since 2010, according to PoliticalMoneyLine data.

That’s not all, of course. It turns out that the first attorney general in the Christie administration, Paula Dow, had at one time worked as an attorney for Exxon. And there’s more: Christie had backed a change in 2014 that allows him to use the money from cases like the one against ExxonMobil not only for environmental restoration but to apply to the state budget. And the GOP governor is desperate to keep his budget balanced as he looks toward the White House. In other words, politics as usual, which is how ExxonMobil stays on top.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As a civil lawyer, I’ve worked outside of the bureaucratic system to get real justice for my clients who’ve been dumped on by Big Oil — but as a society we need to do more.  We need to pay closer attention and elect politicians who will actually keep their promises and hold large energy companies accountable, but even that may not be enough. Reducing our overall dependence on fossil fuels may be the only way to stop companies like ExxonMobil from gaming the system — in New Jersey, in Louisiana, and everywhere in between.

To read more about my legal fights against ExxonMobil, check out my book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

Read the coverage of the proposed $250 million New Jersey settlement with ExxonMobil in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/28/nyregion/exxon-mobil-settles-with-new-jersey-over-environmental-damage.html?_r=0

Check out David Sirota’s coverage of conflicts involving the Chris Christie administration and ExxonMobil: http://www.ibtimes.com/chris-christie-settles-exxonmobil-case-after-oil-giant-gave-rga-big-cash-1830752

Here’s more on the ExxonMobil conflicts from CommonDreams: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/03/02/chris-christie-backed-law-lets-him-divert-exxonmobil-settlement-environmental

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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