In a recent decision by a federal judge, ExxonMobil has been ordered to pay almost $20 million in penalties for releasing more pollution than is legally allowed from a facility located near Houston, Texas.
Two private groups were responsible for the original lawsuit that was filed in 2010, and those groups were Environment Texas and The Sierra Club. The suit alleged that over 8 million pounds of pollutants more than the legal limit were released during a five-year period by the complex in Baytown. There are clean air permits along with state and federal regulations that must be met, and the suit alleged that those regulations were not followed by the energy giant. The site of the complex is roughly 25 miles from Houston, and it holds a plastics plant, a refinery, an olefins plant, and a chemical plant. The total area of the facility is over 3,400 acres.
The lawsuit went before Judge David Hittner in 2014, and the case was originally ruled in favor of the fuel company. According to the judge, the emissions that were released by ExxonMobil during the allotted time frame were not severe enough to warrant any action in a legal sense. At the time of the ruling, the judge gave no penalties to ExxonMobil. However, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in 2016, and they sent the case back to Judge Hittner for penalty assessment based on the measurable violations to pollution regulations.
Hittner issued his new judgement in April of 2017, and it ordered ExxonMobil to pay $21.3 million in damages. The judgement also dictated that ExxonMobil pay for the plaintiff’s attorney fees. The judge subtracted about $1.4 million from the total fine since ExxonMobil was already issued a fine in that amount from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which brought the new figure to $19.9 million in fines.
Part of the ruling and the incredibly large fine was due to the fact that the judge agreed with the plaintiff’s estimation that roughly $14.2 million was saved by ExxonMobil as a direct result of their failure to meet environmental regulations.
According to the director of Environment Texas, Luke Metzger, the fine placed on ExxonMobil could be the largest in American history that was the result of a citizen suit. The Clean Air Act includes language that allows private citizens to directly sue the federal government when emission standards are broken by private corporations. The purpose of that provision is to give citizens the ability to fight victimization by large businesses that don’t operate in the best interests of the public, especially when government officials that are supposed to enforce those regulations fail to do so.
ExxonMobil vehemently disagrees with the decision and has already threatened to appeal the decision. They released a statement that basically said they don’t feel penalties are necessary because they have always complied with government regulations to the best of their abilities. Ironically, they fail to mention the more than $14 million they saved by avoiding those regulations and how that money could have been used to better deal with their emissions.
Other major oil companies have experienced similar situations in Texas where the regulators seem to be lax in terms of enforcement, leaving the prerogative to private citizens in the state. Shell and Chevron both settled out of court for millions of dollars, but ExxonMobil sought to avoid any penalty by agreeing to a trial. In many cases, large oil companies like ExxonMobil make a simple argument regarding their emissions, which is called affirmative defense. That essentially means that they believe their extraneous emissions were caused by unavoidable issues with the facility that produced it. ExxonMobil was unable to claim this defense because their situation did not meet the requirements for such an argument.
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