After Exxon damaged more than 1,500 acres of wetlands in northern New Jersey, the state filed a major lawsuit against the oil giant. Over the course of several years, the case seemed to be going pretty well for New Jersey -- Exxon's culpability was effectively already decided. The only remaining question was how much Exxon would pay in damages.
The state had a specific price tag in mind: $8.9 billion. Of that total, $2.6 billion would help restore the damaged areas and $6.3 billion would cover compensatory damages.
But on the eve of a court judgment, the Christie administration had an announcement: they'd agreed to settle the case. Exxon would pay New Jersey $250 million
-- about 3% of the $8.9 billion originally sought -- and most of that money would go towards closing the governor's budget shortfall, rather than environmental repair.
The Asbury Park Press reports
today that some state lawmakers "intend to intervene," struggling to understand why the Christie administration would agree to such a settlement.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Sen. Raymond Lesniak said they'll file a motion to intervene in the lawsuit because the reported settlement amounts to just 3 cents for every dollar of the estimated damages. "The agreement would sell us short by failing to make up for the harm to natural resources and the threat to the public's health," Sweeney said. "It would let Exxon off the hook when they have already been held responsible."
The same article added that ExxonMobil "contributed $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association last year," when it was chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). (The paper may be understating
the oil company's generosity towards the Christie-led RGA.)
Democrats in the state Senate aren't the only ones with questions about Christie's deal with Exxon -- two state Assembly leaders announced this morning that hearings into the settlement have been scheduled for March 19.
The editorial board of the Newark Star-Ledger
, meanwhile, is urging the Christie administration to "come clean
" on the Exxon deal.
Timing, indeed, was a factor in this: Christie put a provision in this year's budget that allows him to divert huge sums from settlement of environmental cases into the general fund, to help him balance his books. That provision expires at the end of June, so Christie may be settling on the cheap to get this done fast. The jaw-dropping aspect to this settlement, however, is that the court had already applied retroactive liability for damages under the Spill Act. The only thing to determine was price: The state determined it would take $2.6 billion to clean the sites, and requested another $6.3 billion in compensatory costs. Consider the argument again: In November briefs, the state justified the cost by calling the damage "staggering" and "unprecedented." In February, it settles for three cents on the dollar?
In case you're wondering if the concerns are too late to matter, they're not. Exxon and the Christie administration have apparently reached a settlement, but a state Superior Court judge will still have to approve the settlement.
What's more, the Asbury Park Press article added, before the settlement even gets to a judge for approval, "the notice of the consent judgment will have to be published April 6 in the New Jersey Register, then undergo a 30-day public comment period before the Department of Environmental Protection could approve it."
It can be tough to keep track of each of the various controversies
surrounding the Christie administration, but there can be little doubt that this story raises some important questions that deserve some answers.