Shortchanging New Jersey by Billions

The oil giant, one of the most profitable energy companies in the world, had already been found liable. The only question that remained was, how much would it have to pay?

Now we know, and the result is a disgrace.

The story began in 2004, when I authorized the complaint against Exxon for decades of damage done to the natural resources surrounding the company’s Bayway and Bayonne operations on Arthur Kill and Newark Bay, which are at the heart of the New York Harbor estuary.

The lawsuit was part of a broader initiative, started a year earlier, to ensure that New Jersey taxpayers would be compensated, and natural resources restored, where major polluters had caused damage. Numerous Fortune 100 companies came to the table, including Chevron, DuPont and Honeywell, and resolved their liability promptly, often through innovative watershed protection projects.

Not Exxon. The company’s challenge to its liability was rejected in 2007. But despite the loss, Exxon kept on fighting for nearly eight more years.

When Mr. Christie became governor in 2010, I hoped that as a former prosecutor he would understand how important the case was to environmental law enforcement. I believed that as a lawyer he would understand how unfair it would be to the companies that quickly settled their liability on fair terms if Exxon were to be treated more favorably.

Having conferred with Mr. Christie on past spill cases while he was the United States attorney for New Jersey, I felt he would take seriously the Department of Environmental Protection’s role as a trustee and steward of the state’s natural resources. I was encouraged when his administration continued to pursue the case, and was further encouraged when his attorney general and outside counsel took the case to trial last year.

In the courtroom, New Jersey’s experts testified that Exxon was responsible for $8.9 billion in damages to the state’s natural resources, primarily through the destruction of creeks, wetlands and aquatic life. Exxon swung away at the state’s case during trial but never landed a punch, as I saw firsthand as one of the witnesses called by Exxon to testify. The presiding judge — an admired expert in environmental law who had been recalled from retirement for the trial — had been expected to issue his decision soon.

But sometime during the judge’s deliberations, the Christie administration asked him to defer his ruling.

One would think that Mr. Christie would have kept his immediate political staff at a distance from these negotiations

While he was chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2014, the group received $500,000 from Exxon and more from company employees. While this was not Exxon’s first contribution to the group, this donation was made at a time when the New Jersey trial was pending.

If nothing else, the optics, as they say in politics, look bad. Had the governor or his staff stayed away from the case, they would have avoided the obvious and unseemly inference that the settlement had something to do with the contribution.

All settlements involve compromise, of course. But Governor Christie left billions on the table, if the testimony of the state’s own experts is to be believed. This would be true even if the judge, who must still approve the settlement, were to reduce the experts’ figure by 50 percent or more.

The administration has so far refused to release the text of the agreement. One worry is whether it also releases Exxon from liability at other polluted New Jersey sites that were not part of the case and where damage has not been assessed. If so, the value to Exxon of the deal could exceed the $8.9 billion by several hundreds of millions of dollars.

While Mr. Christie’s eye has been on the presidency, his staff has traded away an opportunity to recover billions of dollars to restore natural resources damaged or destroyed by Exxon.

In the process, the administration has squandered the opportunity to distinguish the governor’s tenure with an unsurpassed environmental and law enforcement legacy.

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Bradley M. Campbell, an attorney and former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, was also administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s mid-Atlantic region from 1999 to 2001.

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