The administration of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is asking the state Supreme Court not to hear an appeal of the controversial $225 million environmental settlement with Exxon Mobil.
In a brief filed with the court, the Murphy administration said there was no legitimate reason to disturb the settlement.
The settlement is being opposed by numerous environmental groups, who argue that the energy giant was given a sweetheart deal by the Christie administration at a time when former Gov. Chris Christie was running for his nomination as president.
The opponents of the settlement say retired Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan should not have approved of the settlement agreement in 2015, which eventually was affirmed by the Appellate Division.
“The judge who presided over the bench trial of the parties’ complex claims and defenses examined and ultimately approved the settlement as fair, reasonable, in the public interest and consistent with state statutory policy,” said Deputy Attorney General Richard Engel in the state’s brief.
The Sierra Club, one of the chief opponents of the settlement, issued a statement in response to the state’s brief.
The state is ”signing off on the biggest sell-out on a pollution case in state history. While he was running, the governor opposed the settlement. Now his administration is supporting this dirty deal where the taxpayers of New Jersey [are] only getting pennies on the dollars. We challenged this settlement because polluters need to clean up their mess and pay for the damages they’ve done. If we’re not awarded certification, the settlement will stand, and Exxon will get away with the biggest government subsidy in state history,” the environmental group said.
Murphy’s office and the Attorney General’s Office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Last year, Appellate Division Judge Carmen Messano, joined by Judges Amy O’Connor and Francis Vernoia, said in a published decision that there was no reason to vacate the settlement agreement. The panel largely agreed with Hogan, but found that the environmental groups had standing to appeal the judge’s approval of the settlement. Still, the panel ultimately affirmed Hogan’s approval of the deal. It also rejected the challengers’ contention that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection lacked authority to release Exxon Mobil from claims lodged under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or the Superfund.
The $225 million figure was reached to compensate the state for damages caused at the refinery facility in Bayonne and the Bayway Refinery in Linden, as well as at all of its service stations and several other facilities in the state.
The deal, struck in 2015, had been harshly criticized by Democrats and environmental activists as being too low, but lawyers for the Christie administration noted that the settlement agreement does not cover claims against Exxon Mobil for alleged natural resource damages to the Arthur Kill, Newark Bay and other waterways.
The settlement agreement came after 11 years of litigation, and was delayed pending a public comment period and subject to a review by Hogan, who approved it, along with some $44 million in attorney fees, in August 2015.
“After giving considerable time and thought to its task, the court finds that the proposed consent judgment is fair, reasonable, in the public interest, and consistent with the goals of the Spill Compensation and Control Act,” Hogan said at the time.
At one point in the litigation, during the administration of Gov. Jon Corzine, there had been some speculation that Exxon Mobil could be ordered to pay up to $8.9 billion in damages. But during a hearing before Hogan, lawyers representing both sides indicated that that was never a real possibility. The state’s lead attorney, Allan Kanner of Kanner & Whiteley in New Orleans, told the court then that anything significantly above $225 million would be unreasonable in trying to reach a compromise. The Philadelphia Inquirer previously reported that Hogan was told in court that Exxon Mobil had rejected settlement offers of $325 million, $350 million and $400 million.
“Although far smaller than the estimated $8.9 billion in damages, Exxon’s payment represents a reasonable compromise given the substantial litigation risk the DEP faced at trial and would face on appeal,” Hogan said in 2015.