Coming to the end of this series, I’m struck by how much Exxon learned — and how little the rest of us did — from the worst spill in our nation’s history.
Yesterday I noted that one reason the Exxon Valdez story is still important 20 years later is that the disaster itself could easily happen again. However, another reason for the ongoing relevance of the lessons learned in Prince William Sound over the past two decades is that Exxon can convince the media and politicians that black is white. They did in Alaska, and they continue to do so all over the world.
The tamping down of information began immediately after the spill on March 24, 1989. Fishermen such as John Platt were paid by Exxon to help in the clean up efforts, but before they were hired they had to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
“I could not say or do anything that would be detrimental to Exxon,” Platt recalled. “In other words, it was hush money.”
Platt said he didn’t talk to anyone at the time about the clean up process, for fear of losing the only job he could be sure of in that moment. He said he knew one man who did lose his temporary clean up job because he talked to the press.
The story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was a complex and unprecedented one, and reporters who flocked to Alaska to cover the story for far away national outlets were easily confused. Riki Ott, an Alaskan marine biologist and fisherwoman, was called in at the scene and saw firsthand how Exxon whitewashed the story for the media and the American public. She documents in her 2008 book the lies Exxon told about everything from the amount of oil spilled to the success of clean up efforts.
But the lies didn’t stop in 1989. Exxon continually brought its own scientists to conduct studies on Prince William Sound, with their most recent, undated “report” appearing to be from 2005. The company’s scientists repeatedly reported no long-term damage, despite the fact that everyone else — from government to private to nonprofit experts — disagreed with their assertions.
The company caused untold death and destruction, and denied responsibility at every turn. Even their failed clean up efforts ended in misery. Clean up workers are still sick from the dangerous chemicals Exxon used to burnish its image (the efforts failed to actually restore Prince William Sound, but succeeded in forcing the oil and toxic materials underground, where the public couldn’t see it). Some workers are suffering from respiratory and neurological disorders to this day. Others have died from restoration-related illnesses.
Still, the story never seems to stick. Exxon is still the world’s largest publicly-traded international oil company and continues to make record profits year after year. Platt calls Exxon “the Teflon corporation,” and is frustrated by the amount of influence the company exudes.
“It’s a sad, sad comment” on society, Platt said. “[Exxon is] basically setting policy, molding our judicial system — I don‘t know. It‘s almost gotten to the point — it makes me scratch my head — they as a corporation have more rights than that of the individual.”
There are many reasons for the ascendance of Exxon in the American political sphere: money, corruption, the doctrine of corporate personhood.
But also, Exxon has mastered the art of playing people off of each other. They did that in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster, handing out jobs to select Alaskans to help clean up. Alyeska, the alliance of oil corporations — including Exxon — that was formed to push the building of the Alaska pipeline in the early 1970s, co-opted community leaders and organizations that were once advocates for North Slope Alaskans, ostensibly paying these groups to study the disaster and restore the Sound.
One tactic that seems carbon copied from Big Oil’s experience in Prince William Sound is the latest push for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and for offshore drilling. When Alyeska ran into opposition to the pipeline from fishermen, Native Americans and environmental groups, they relied on current events and public opinion to get what they wanted.
The courts had rejected both the flimsy Environmental Impact Statement the U.S. Interior Department wrote for the pipeline and the fact that Alyeska’s leases weren’t in order, so the pipeline’s only hope was an act of Congress. The panic of the 1973-1974 gas shortage made it easier for lawmakers to justify voting to overturn appellate court rulings, the Mineral Leasing Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, just so Alyeska could get its way and Americans could have access to cheap gas. Even so, the vote came to a tie in the Senate, requiring then-Vice President Spiro Agnew’s vote to get the bill onto President Richard Nixon’s desk.
For those who lived through this contentious fight against the pipeline, current events have a deja vu feel. Platt went so far as to suspect market manipulation of gas prices last summer when politicians lobbied to open up more areas to oil drilling and create a gas tax holiday.
“The same tactic was employed in putting the Alyeska terminus in,” he said. “They shirked their responsibility when it comes to what they did to us, and who’s to say they‘re not going to do it again?”
The fact of the matter is oil companies such as Exxon don’t need fuel emergencies or price manipulation to get lawmakers on their side. Their clout is plenty healthy with or without disaster on the horizon.
Oil companies have had close ties with Alaska ever since it became the 49th state. Take, for example, the VECO Corporation, an oil pipeline construction and service company based in Alaska that was chiefly in charge of orchestrating the clean up of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Though VECO is no longer based in Alaska after being sold to a Colorado-based company in 2007, the extent of its impact on the affairs of the state becomes clearer with each new corruption charge.
In the Anchorage Daily News’ round-up of investigations into corruption in Alaska, of the 14 people listed as “tried and convicted,” “pleaded guilty,” “charged and awaiting trial” and “connected with the investigations,” 11 are directly connected with VECO. The company has been called “a player” and “a mucky force” in Alaska politics.
In the Exxon spill, Alaskans affected by the disaster soon lost their trust in state government. The state quickly settled with Exxon for environmental damages, after which the company tried to claim that they had paid enough to the state to fulfill any further damage claims by residents.
“The state basically took off any pressure Exxon had for negotiating on a deal with us,” Platt said as a fisherman still awaiting his settlement.
Exxon’s strategy, according to Ott, was to get the claims into federal court, where the company felt they had a better chance of winning. But with the pro-business appointments to the Supreme Court from President George W. Bush, Exxon was set. Platt’s disgust extends to the federal government and judiciary as well.
“Exxon was able to drag it out long enough to the point where the composition of the Supreme Court” changed in their favor, Platt said. The 32,000 plaintiffs in the class action against Exxon, including Platt, have had their collective punitive damages cut from $5 billion to $507 million. They are expecting to hear from the Supreme Court soon on whether Exxon will be forced to add interest to the plaintiffs’ payment.
Exxon’s ties to our former President Oilman are well known, but some of the sneakier stuff the company got away with during the Bush Administration is collected here by Robert Kennedy.
To be fair, Exxon has its tentacles in all three branches of the federal government. SourceWatch.org notes that Exxon is one of the largest energy company contributors to Congressional campaigns (You can see how much oil money your representatives have gotten using Oil Change International’s Follow the Oil Money Web site).
Exxon found that the disinformation campaign worked so well in the Prince William Sound that there was no reason not to launch others. The Union of Concerned Scientists released a study in 2007 that found Exxon had spent almost $16 million over a seven-year period funding pseudo-scientific groups to disseminate false information challenging the existence and cause of global warming.
“When one looks closely, Exxon Mobil’s underhanded strategy is as clear and indisputable as the scientific research it’s meant to discredit,” said Seth Shulman, an investigative journalist who wrote the report. “The paper trail shows that, to serve its corporate interests, Exxon Mobil has built a vast echo chamber of seemingly independent groups with the express purpose of spreading disinformation about global warming.”
To be fair, European think tanks that denounce global warming have also received Exxon funding. And why not? Oil is a global business, and Exxon learned way back in 1989 that foreign scientists sound more credible to the American public. That was why they trucked in paid scientists from Great Britain to assuage American fears after the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Exxon’s funding of “trinket tanks” and pseudo scientists goes full-circle when the information they generate is used by politicians to defend policies that favor oil companies. Ever wonder where Sarah Palin got that junk science about polar bears? You guessed it: Exxon. And what is a major barrier to expanding Arctic oil exploration? Endangered species such as the polar bear.
An important point for lawmakers to realize here is the strong possibility of guilt by association. As Dune Lankard, a fisherman, Alaska Native and conservationist from Prince William Sound put it after the Exxon settlement was further reduced last year: “From here on out we will never ever trust the oil industry, government or the courts.”
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS