Sunrise Santa Cruz is back. The server was down almost all day Monday so I couldn’t post any pictures or play any tennis. I wanted to start off the week with something that would please the eyes and thighs so we’re heading down to Lighthouse Point on the morning of February 10. The colors in the clouds, the reflection on the sand, the sparkle on the water, the twinkle in my eye-this sunrise sonata had it all.
So let’s get to today’s top news item. Bubbling crude. Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea. On the night of March 23, 1989, the tanker the Exxon Valdez left the TransAtlantic pipeline terminal in Valdez, Alaska carrying more than 543 million gallons of crude oil bound for Long Beach, CA. It seemed like a routine run. Ships had safely transited through this area more than 8,700 times in the 12 years since oil began flowing through the pipeline.
But this evening, the 986 foot Exxon Valdez encountered icebergs in the shipping lanes. Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who later admitted to having a few drinks and a couple of shrimp cocktails that day, ordered a helmsman to go around the icebergs. After leaving instructions on when to steer the ship back into the shipping lanes, Hazelwood retired to his quarters to play Shoots and Ladders. Big mistake. The helmsman failed to make the turn back into the shipping lanes and ran aground on Bligh Reef, rupturing 8 of its 11 cargo tanks and spilling 11 millions gallons of crude oil into pristine Prince William Sound, causing the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Today, the Exxon Valdez disaster doesn’t even rank among the top 50 largest oil spills in the world although it still ranks as a great scrabble score. But it may have caused the most environmental damage than any other spill.
The initial cleanup took three years at the cost of over 2.1 billion. On September 16, 1994, a jury in federal court returned a $5 billion punitive damages against Exxon. An federal appeals court later cut the punitive damages in half. Exxon has appealed and according to the Anchorage Daily News in 1998, “Apparently, delay pays. Exxon is earning about $90,000 an hour, about 2 million a day or nearly 800 million a year on the same 5 billion as long as the case drags on and the money stays in its coffers. Exxon will have earned enough interest alone to pay the 5 billion plus the accrued interest.” As Dana “Church Lady” Carvey used to say, “Well, isn’t that special.”
Let’s fast forward to today. Last Wednesday the Supreme Court (yes, the same one that handed Bush the election over Gore)seemed inclined to reduce the 2.5 billion award of punitive damages to the victims of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Several justices indicated that they thought the amount approved by the federal appeal court was too high but found it fascinating that any company would have two x’s in it’s name. Overall, Exxon has paid 3.4 billion in fines, penalties, claims, expenses, cleanup costs and party favors from the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Stanford Law Professor Jeffrey Fisher said the nearly 33,000 commercial fisherman, Native Americans, local governments, landowners, businesses and grizzly bears have each received about $15,000 for “having their lives destroyed.” Fisher says that nothing on prior Supreme Court decisions should cause the justices to overturn the 2.5 billion award, which is about $75,000 for each plaintiff. A jury had earlier awarded $287 million to compensate for economic losses, which has been paid.
Exxon argues that the long standing maritime law and the Clean Water Act should bar any punitive damages, which are intended to punish behavior and deter a repeat. The company says it should not be held accountable for Hazelwood’s reckless behavior and that anybody who commands a ship carrying 543 million gallons of oil should be allowed to have a few drinks. The plaintiffs say the judgement, which represents 3 weeks of Exxon’s 2006 profit, is rational and proportionate. It takes in account of Exxon allowing Hazelwood to command the ship, despite knowing he had an ongoing drinking problem and cheated at solitaire, the plaintiffs contend.
Final word comes from Governor Sarah Palin, who says the punitive damage should be upheld as a deterrent to future environmental violations by companies operating in Alaska. “Deterrence is the optimum word. We don’t want this to ever happen again.” She says the Exxon strategy of fighting the case has had a “corrosive effect” on Alaskans. She pointed out that when the original award was handed down 14 years ago, it represented a year’s profit. Today, the oil giant, which made $40.6 billion last year, earns $5 billion every few weeks. “It has been justice delayed. We pray that it’s not justice denied.” The $2.5 billion award is now worth an estimated 4.8 billion today because of the interest that has accrued since the case was first decided. The court is expected to issue it’s ruling this spring, right after the hear arguments as to what side of his buttocks Roger Clemens supposedly had steroids shot into.
One more note on this subject. The spill opened the eyes of Congress to the potential disasters that aggressive oil and gas development policies can result in. Now 18 years later, the Bush administration’s drive for oil and gas development is reversing policies that were put into place after the spill. Give George W. credit, as the worst environmental president in our history he’s determined make sure no future leader can come close to his arrogance and incompetence. He is actually the biggest oil spill in our history.
So that’s our story about a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed. But then one day he was searching for some food and…ah, you know the rest. God, I miss Ellie Mae. For those of you who haven’t picked up on it quite yet, these are all “Beverly Hillbillies” references. And no, I don’t think my stream of conciousness has been affected by my TV watching. It’s just something I do when I can squeeze in a few moments to myself, maybe 40 hours a week. Believe me, it’s not easy and I would not recommend trying this at home. So enjoy the sky and think about the oil. One last thing. When I hear “pipeline”, I’m thinking the North Shore and Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay, not the frozen tundra of Alaska. I prefer the trade winds blowing across the South Pacific, not the Bering Sea. I’m fickle that way. Aloha.