Exxon Mobil hasn't paid up, but maybe this guy can spot them

Posted: Friday, April 09, 2004

Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

A guy who makes $16,000 a year gets liquored up on his four-wheeler and shoots the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. He gets 16 years in prison and, this week, is ordered to pay $17 million for causing a 285,000-gallon leak on the tundra. That's an expensive drunk.

Fifteen years ago a fella gets drunk - or at least says he had three vodkas and left the controls to someone else - and the Exxon Valdez runs onto Bligh Reef and spills 11 million gallons in Prince William Sound. He gets 1,000 hours of litter patrol along Alaska's highways and parks. Exxon spends more than $3 billion on the cleanup and state and federal lawsuits, then spends a decade and a half fighting a bigger award to fishermen and others harmed by the disaster. Also an expensive drunk.

The incidents are quite different. Elsewhere in America, the public response was opposite for the two. In 1989, news and footage of the Exxon Valdez met with horror and pledges to use public transportation. In 2001, the pipeline shooting met with mock redneck accents and hilarity. In the end, though, the result is the same. Recklessness created a costly ecological mess that'll be paid off on a cold day in ... in a long time.

Locking a guy away for 16 years and charging him $17 million for acting like an idiot is pretty harsh. I'm sure that bullet hole caused a hemorrhage for the oil companies, and I'm not going to publicly condone getting drunk and destroying property. But come on. What kind of chance does a guy have to reform and start over if he's got that kind of debt when he's released? An Alaska student loan is quite enough to ruin most of us, and some who fall behind have their permanent fund dividends withheld each year. That seems an appropriate way of handling this. If he's going to mess with our oil, let's take our oil money back from him.

But that's why we have courts, right? To set penalties. And I suppose he was a felon waving a gun around and, according to a jury, pointing it at his brother. And, according to the judge, now he'll have to pay up if he ever wins the lottery.

Which brings us to Exxon, now Exxon Mobil Corp. When will their ship come in?

In January, after yet another appeal by the company, a U.S. District Court judge again ordered damages to 32,000 fishermen, Alaska Natives, property owners, municipalities and business owners totaling nearly $7 billion - $2.25 billion of it in interest. Exxon Mobil again said it would appeal, based on a 2003 Supreme Court decision on damages in a Utah traffic accident. Exxon attorneys argued the damage to plaintiffs was purely economic and that the award should be roughly equal to the cost, say, $25 million.

The plaintiffs argued that the actual cost was $500 million and that the company's conduct in sticking with a tanker captain with a known alcohol problem deserves damages of $5 billion. The judge agreed.

So, $25 million, $5 billion, whatever: Get on with it. Like Gov. Murkowski told The Associated Press at the latest ruling, "It would be helpful if the two parties would consider discussing a settlement, so that any award that might come from the lawsuit could have an application during the lifetime of the thousands of plaintiffs." It would be helpful if it happened in any of our lifetimes.

And then there's our pipeline shooter, evidently with a lot of time to think about his crimes and, if we're lucky, make $17 million by publishing "Drunk in the Far North" from prison.

Sixteen years to payback. Sounds about right.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.

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