Sierra Club’s CAA Citizen Suit Against ExxonMobil Rejected by Houston District Court


Wednesday, U.S. District Judge David Hittner issued a long (82 pages) and complex ruling rejecting all of the claims for relief requested by Environment Texas Citizen Lobby, Inc. and Sierra Club from ExxonMobil Corporation, ExxonMobil Chemical Company and ExxonMobil Refining and Supply Company. In reaching its decision, the Court conducted a 13-day, non-jury trial in which the plaintiffs requested a declaratory judgment, penalties of $643,000,000 and the appointment of a Special Master to oversee Exxon’s compliance with the injunction that was requested with respect to the huge petrochemical complex operated by Exxon in Baytown, Texas.

The Court described the complex as having a “vast array of equipment, including roughly 10 thousand miles of pipe, 1 million valves, 2500 pumps, 146 compressors and 26 flares. It employs over 5000 people including a large environmental staff. The complex operates under Clean Air Act (CAA) permits issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and “taking all permit conditions together, the complex is regulated by over 120,000 permit conditions related to air quality, each of which is tracked ..for compliance purposes”. Consequently, the emissions emitted by the complex have been sharply reduced over time, and the TCEQ generally seems to view Exxon as making good faith efforts to comply with the requirements of the law.

It also noted that Exxon had earlier settled allegations of violations with the TCEQ and Harris County, amounting to $1.4 million. The Court reviewed the allegations and proof made by the plaintiffs in exhausting detail, and concluded that there were very few “actionable” violations established by the Sierra Club, and any penalties assessable under the CAA as a result of this lawsuit were more than offset by the penalties already paid by Exxon to the TCEQ and Harris County.

The Court found that the allegations made were not supported by the evidence (mostly compiled in spreadsheets submitted to the Court), their expert witnesses, and the testimonial evidence of a few residents living or who visit the area. He then evaluated his findings against the penalty factors provided in the CAA, and concluded that “the most reasonable estimate of Exxon’s economic benefit of noncompliance is $0”. The plaintiffs in this case sued a number of refineries in the Houston area, but Exxon chose not to settle, and mounted a very strong defense. Because of these findings, the Court declined to address the affirmative defenses mounted by Exxon.

This case no doubt benefited from the fact that Judge Hittner is an experienced and very highly regarded jurist. It will be interesting to see if an appeal is filed.