Judge orders Exxon to pay $20M in air emissions suit

(Mayra Beltran / Houston Chronicle)

A federal judge in Houston has ordered Exxon Mobil to pay a nearly $20 million civil penalty for releasing 10 million pounds of pollutants into the air from its Baytown refining and chemical complex from 2005 to 2013.

In a Wednesday ruling, U.S. District Judge David Hittner said evidence showed the Texas oil company’s emissions had put it in violation of the Clean Air Act 16,386 times.

The environmental groups Sierra Club and Environment Texas Citizen Lobby filed suit against Exxon in 2010, but the district court ruled in the company’s favor four years later. Last year, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Hittner’s original decision and ordered him to reconsider various aspects of the case.

In a 101-page ruling, Hittner accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that Exxon collected more than $14.2 million in so-called economic benefits by delaying actions that would have curbed the emissions.

“This penalty should send a message that it doesn’t pay to illegally pollute,” said David Nicholas, a Massachusetts attorney who represented the plaintiff.

Exxon’s Baytown complex, which includes a chemical plant, olefins plant and refining operations, employs some 7,000 people about 25 miles east of Houston.

At the time of the suit, Exxon had already paid $1.4 million in fines to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Harris Country. But the Clean Air Act has a provision that allows citizens to file lawsuit against companies they believe are in violation of federal environmental laws, especially if the government is not enforcing the law.

Unless Exxon appeals the decision and wins another courtroom battle, it will pay the $19.95 million civil penalty to the U.S. Treasury Department. Exxon Mobil said it’s considering legal options, including appealing the ruling.

“We disagree with the court’s decision and the award of any penalty,” Exxon spokesman Todd Spitler said in an emailed statement. “As the court expressed in its decision, Exxon Mobil’s full compliance history and good faith efforts to comply weigh against assessing any penalty.”

Philip Hilder, principal of Houston law firm Hilder & Associates, who helped represent the plaintiffs, said he believes it’s the largest judgment of civil penalties returned under a Clean Air Act citizen suit.

“We’re thrilled with the ruling and excited Exxon is finally being held accountable for thousands of violations,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. “We’re glad they’ll face significant penalties and hope that’ll serve as a warning to other companies.”

Since 2010, Exxon Mobil has lowered its emissions at its massive Baytown complex, which has been in operation since 1920 on more than 3,000 acres along the Houston Ship Channel.

Still, Exxon Mobil is nearing completion of a multibillion-dollar petrochemical expansion at Baytown, although the company is supposed to stay within existing emissions caps. Metzger said his group and others will keep a close watch on emissions levels next year after the expansion is finished.

“There’s still work to be done,” he said.

The Baytown complex is the largest facility of its kind in the world, with the capacity to process more than 550,000 barrels of oil a day and produce 13 billion pounds of petrochemical products a year.