THE BLOG
07/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unearthed: News of the Week the Mainstream Media Forgot to Report

Supreme Court Slashes Exxon Valdez Judgment

The Supreme Court slashed a $2.5 billion punitive damages award for the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster to just $500 million. An Alaskan jury originally awarded $5 billion in 1994 in punitive damages for the fishermen, Native Americans and residents of Prince William Sound whose lives were devastated by the 11 million gallon oil spill which spoiled 1,200 miles of Alaskan coastline. Exxon Mobil waged a protracted, 14-year legal battle to appeal that award; in 2006 a federal appeals court cut the amount in half to $2.5 billion. Exxon appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to completely reject punitive damages because the company claims it spent $3.4 billion in fines, penalties and cleanup costs related to the accident.

In the court's 5-3 decision (Justice Samuel Alito was recused since he owns over $100,000 in Exxon stock) Justice David Souter wrote that the Exxon Valdez spill was "profitless" for the company and that the penalty should be "reasonably predictable" in its severity.

Of the 33,000 plaintiffs who were originally eligible to share in the jury award handed down in 1994, 20 percent have died over the course of Exxon's 14-year appeal.
Surviving plaintiffs will collect an average of about $15,000 a person in punitive damages, one-tenth what they were awarded under the original $5 billion judgment.

Oil still oozes from the beaches in Prince William Sound, continuing to impact the ecosystem which was devastated by the spill that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals. Exxon Mobil's first-quarter 2008 profits were $10.9 billion. The company's 2007 profit was $40.6 billion.

White House Blocks EPA Draft On Global Warming Emissions

The White House is working to block the Environmental Protection Agency from publishing a document which outlines how the government could regulate global warming emissions under the Clean Air Act while benefiting the economy. The document is based on a multi-year, multimillion-dollar study by EPA and its findings could ultimately serve as a legal roadmap for regulating U.S. global warming emissions.

That is, until it faced review by the White House's Office of Management and Budget. Bush's OMB is demanding that EPA delete sections of the document that outline how greenhouse gas emissions could be regulated, delete any references asserting that emissions endanger public welfare, and delete an analysis of the benefits to the economy of regulating greenhouse gases here and abroad.

The OMB instead wants the document to suggest that the Clean Air Act is ineffective and that greenhouse gases should be regulated under new legislation. The draft is effectively being held hostage until EPA makes OMB's changes, since the White House must approve a final draft before EPA can release the document publicly.

The draft EPA document confirms that fuel efficiency could be improved to well above 35 miles per gallon by 2020; CO2 emissions could easily be regulated through the government-permit process and through a cap-and-trade system similar to existing programs for acid rain and mercury; and that overall, the regulations would be beneficial to the U.S. economy.

"The net benefit to society could be in excess of $2 trillion," according to the draft document.

Polar Scientists Predict Possibility of Open Water at North Pole This Summer

Polar scientists predict that Arctic sea ice could break up and leave a large patch of open water at the North Pole this summer for the first time in human history. Satellite data from recent weeks indicates that the rate of melting is faster than last year, when the Arctic experienced an all-time record loss of summer sea ice.

"From the viewpoint of science, the North Pole is just another point on the globe, but symbolically it is hugely important. There is supposed to be ice at the North Pole, not open water," said Mark Serreze of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado. Dr Serreze predicts that "it's even-odds whether the North Pole melts out" this summer.

Ice scientists are quick to point out the difficulty in predicting exactly how much of the ice will melt this summer, but note that the presence of large amounts of thinner ice formed over a single year is more vulnerable to melting than the normally thick ice formed over many years at the Pole. Global warming has increased average temperatures far more at the polar regions than elsewhere, and the loss of sea ice leads to more dark, open ocean which absorbs more heat and could raise polar temperatures even higher.

BLM Halts Solar Projects Citing Need for Environmental Review

The Bureau of Land Management declared a moratorium on new solar power projects on public land until it studies their potential environmental impact, a process that could take two years and cripple the booming solar industry. Faced with a surge in the number of proposed solar power plants as demand for alternative energy accelerates daily, BLM says it will spend up to two years conducting an extensive study to determine how the solar plants might affect the environment of 119 million acres of public land the bureau oversees in the West, most of which is ideally suited for solar energy.

"It doesn't make any sense," said Holly Gordon, vice president of Ausra, a California-based solar thermal energy company. "The Bureau of Land Management land has some of the best solar resources in the world. This could completely stunt the growth of the industry."

The moratorium, combined with the uncertain future of federal solar investment tax credits set to expire at the end of the year because Congress has failed to renew them, could stifle solar industry growth and prevent or delay the creation of thousands of jobs in the process. During 2006-2007, when the tax credit was solidly in place and the BLM was calling for projects to be approved in a "timely manner," the solar installation boom generated 6,000 new jobs and injected $2 billion into the U.S. economy.

Due to BLM's decision to shelve new proposals until they finish the study, small solar energy businesses may be forced to turn to more expensive private land for development, adding another barrier to the rapid deployment of viable alternative energy sources.

U.S. Mayors Resolve to Avoid Burning Dirty Tar Sands Oil

The U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution this week discouraging the use of high carbon fuels such as tar sands, liquid coal, and oil shale.

"We don't want to spend taxpayer dollars on fuels that make global warming worse," said Mayor Kitty Piercy, of Eugene, Oregon, who submitted the resolution.

The mayors' resolution discourages participating U.S. cities from purchasing oil derived from the tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada, noting that "... the production of tar sands oil from Canada emits approximately three times the carbon dioxide pollution per barrel as does conventional oil production and significantly damages Canada's Boreal forest ecosystem - the world's largest carbon storehouse ..."

The process of extracting oil from tar sands also uses more water and requires larger amounts of energy than conventional oil extraction.

"Not only will we give preference to clean, renewable energy sources, we are standing our ground when it comes to synthetic petroleum-based fuels that exacerbate global warming," said Mayor Marty Blum of Santa Barbara, California.

More than 850 mayors are signatories to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their respective cities in the absence of federal leadership under the Bush administration.

Bush Signs $162B War Spending Bill for Iraq, Afghanistan
President Bush signed a $162 billion war spending bill this week, bringing the amount Congress has provided for the Iraq war since it began in 2003 to more than $650 billion and in Afghanistan to nearly $200 billion.

Those figures don't represent the total amount spent by the military, however, since a new Congressional Research Service report shows the U.S. government has spent about $700 billion on "military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans' health care for the three operations initiated since the 9/11 attacks." Roughly 75% of that money has been devoted to the war in Iraq, CRS estimates.

Afghanistan Civilian Death Toll Rises Sharply

The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan in the first half of 2008 climbed by almost two-thirds compared with last year, according to the United Nations. Nearly 700 civilians have died, demonstrating the instability and violence afflicting the country, which is struggling to deliver emergency aid to civilians. Sixty percent of the casualties were caused by insurgents, while government or foreign troops killed 255 people, the UN said. The causes of 21 other deaths were unclear.

U.S. Officials Advised Iraqi Oil Ministry on No-Bid Contracts

The State Department led a team of American advisers who played an integral role in setting up no-bid contracts for five major Western oil companies to develop Iraq's largest oil fields. Despite earlier claims to the contrary, the Bush Administration had direct involvement in the negotiations to open Iraq's oil to commercial development, sending U.S. government lawyers and private-sector consultants to Iraq with contract templates and detailed suggestions on how the deals should be drafted. Sources familiar with the proceedings confirmed that representatives of the State, Commerce, Energy and Interior Departments have all aided the Iraqi Oil Ministry on how best to commercialize Iraq's oil deposits.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed on Fox News earlier this month that "The United States government has stayed out of the matter of awarding the Iraq oil contracts. It's a private sector matter."

The no-bid contracts were widely anticipated to be awarded Monday to Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, Total and Chevron, but the Iraqi Oil Ministry balked at the last minute. The Ministry revealed that the Western oil companies demanded to receive a share in the profits from future oil development, rather than cash payments for services rendered which the Iraqi government prefers.

The confirmation of Bush administration meddling in Iraq's oil dealings leaves little question that the real intent of the invasion of Iraq was to earn American companies a piece of Iraq's oil endowment.

"We pretend it is not a centerpiece of our motivation, yet we keep confirming that it is," said Frederick D. Barton, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Despite the fact that other countries provided free advice and services in the past few years to help the Iraqi Oil Ministry prepare to ramp up production, only Western companies have received the bigger oil contracts so far.

Scalia Continues to Blame Al Gore for the 2000 Election Debacle

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told the Telegraph (UK) that Al Gore should have conceded the 2000 election without legal action. Scalia played an integral part in stopping the Florida recount, joining four other justices who ruled the recount method impractical and handed the presidency to George W. Bush. Scalia said, "if you don't like it, don't blame it on me. I didn't bring it into the courts. Mr Gore brought it into the courts. So if you don't like the courts getting involved talk to Mr Gore."

"So I have no regrets about taking the case and I think our decision in the case was absolutely right. But if you ask me 'Am I sorry it all happened?' Of course I am sorry it happened there was no way that we were going to come out of it smelling like a rose. I mean, one side or the other was going to feel that was a politicized decision but that goes with the territory."

KBR Accused of Knowingly Exposing U.S. Troops to Highly Toxic Chemical in Iraq

Defense contractor KBR is accused of knowingly exposing U.S. troops to sodium dichromate, a potentially lethal, carcinogenic chemical. KBR failed to warn 250 U.S. soldiers assigned to guard a crucial part of Iraq's oil infrastructure that the chemical was present all over the site. Witnesses, including a former KBR employee responsible for health and safety at the site, testified at a Capitol Hill hearing this week that many of the exposed soldiers were "bleeding from the nose, spitting blood," and getting sick while guarding the plant.

Scientific studies show that even short-term exposure to sodium dichromate - the same chemical that poisoned residents in Hinkley, CA made famous in the movie "Erin Brockovich" - can cause cancer and harm the liver and immune system, among other impacts.

Witnesses at the hearing testified that KBR supervisors initially told the soldiers that sodium dichromate was a "mild irritant," but finally acknowledged that the chemical was a potentially deadly substance and moved to clean up the site once soldiers starting getting ill.

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