THE BLOG
01/26/2006 06:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

America's Biggest Deadbeat

Yes, that would also be the world's richest corporation -- ExxonMobil. Sixteen years ago, the Exxon Valdez tanker split open in Prince William Sound and caused America's worst oil spill. Exxon immediately rushed to the people of Prince William Sound and promised that it would "make them whole." Exxon may have done a poor job of hiring its tanker skippers, but it did a great PR job of making promises after the disaster.

Of course, the corporate giant had lawyers even slicker than the oil it had spilled. After a long trial, a federal jury ordered Exxon to pay of $5 billion to 32,000 plaintiffs. Thanks to its lawyers, though, Exxon has been able to pursue endless appeals in the years since that ruling. The case is now stuck in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals with an oral hearing set for tomorrow. Meanwhile, 2,000 of the original plaintiffs have died since the first court ruling. It's hard to "make someone whole" after their life has ended (and their relatives have no standing in the case and cannot benefit if and when Exxon finally pays up).

While Exxon has ducked behind the courts and legal foot dragging, the economy of Cordova, Alaska, has not recovered. Fishermen tell us that, at the time of the spill, the salmon and herring markets were the strongest in the history of Cordova's fishing industry. The fishing-support industries were strong too. The year before the spill, for example, Phil Lian's commercial-fishing equipment shop had more than $2 million in sales. That figure plummeted to $32,000 in the season after the spill. But although the salmon stocks have since recovered, the world market for salmon is depressed and Cordova's fishing-support industries still struggle to survive.

You would think that one multi-billion dollar debt stalled in the "accounts payable" column for sixteen years might have given Exxon a sufficient financial cushion to at least pay its other debts (not to mention the record profits that are set to be announced Monday, and which it's predicted will top a truly staggering $32 billion). But no, ExxonMobil is determined to make the Guinness Book of Records for scofflaws.

The company seems to be avoiding paying its debts to taypayers not just in Alaska, but across the map. In 2003, an Alabama jury ruled that Exxon had cheated on royalties from gas wells on state lands -- depriving one of the poorest state governments in the country. The jury awarded $11.9 billion in punitive damages, which a judge later reduced to $3.5 billion. Exxon stiffed that bill as well, taking the case into the seemingly endless appeals loop. If the Exxon-Valdex case is any precedent, Alabama kindergartners will graduate from high school before their school districts get back the textbook money they were deprived of.

The Bush administration, of course, is eager to help ExxonMobil cover its tracks. It has scaled back on audits of oil and gas royalties. It has fired auditors who had the gall to actually catch oil and gas companies cheating. And it has rewritten the rules to make it easier for companies to reduce the royalties they pay. As a result, oil and gas companies routinely report lower value for the oil and gas they pump from public lands for purposes of calculating royalties, and a much higher value to their shareholders. (In ExxonMobil's case its phony price for royalties is about 25 percent lower than what it reported to its shareholders in its SEC filings.) Asked about this discrepancy, a Department of the Interior spokeswomen said, "I can't answer because I don't know. We don't look at SEC filings. We don't have enough staff to do all of that. If we were to do that, then we would have to have more staff and more budget. You know, there is such a thing as budget constraint, and it's been real tough, let me tell you."

Indeed it has been. A government that is too corrupt to collect its own royalties, and oil and gas companies too shameless to pay what they owe. ExxonMobil isn't even going to tell us how much it actually is paying because, it says, it is not required to.

But while the Bush administration is helping to sweep this sad tale under the rug, Sierra Club Chronicles, the Club's TV series, is telling the story of damage done by the Exxon-Valdez oil spill to the people and communities in Prince William Sound -- and their fight to force the oil giant to pay its debts and keep its promises. The program, "The Day the Water Died," produced by executive producer Robert Greenwald in association with Sierra Club Productions, debuts next Thursday, February 9th, 8:30 eastern time on LinkTV. To learn more about this episode and the entire series, please visit us at www.sierraclubtv.org.