The Trump administration has reached a deal worth more than $300 million with Exxon Mobil Corp. to settle claims that eight of its plants released unacceptable amounts of air pollutants.
The bulk of the settlement value — $300 million — is the estimated cost of upgrades to the chemical and plastics plants in Texas and Louisiana.
Exxon is also paying $2.5 million in civil penalties to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state agencies, and spending $1 million to plant trees in a city near one plant.
The EPA and the Justice Department announced the settlement Tuesday, along with a settlement with Colorado-based PDC Energy Inc. to resolve claims that its natural gas condensate facilities in the Denver area exceeded legal emissions limits. That agreement is worth more than $22 million.
“Enforcement actions such as the two we’re announcing today are important steps to bring companies into compliance, introducing better technology and providing deterrence to other companies through the imposition of civil penalties,” Jeff Wood, the acting head of the environment division at the Justice Department, told reporters.
“These actions help to ensure a level playing field where all industry members are held to the same legal standard and no company can gain an economic advantage over its competitors by short-changing environmental compliance.”
The settlements come amid accusations from environmentalists and Democrats that the Trump administration is going soft on enforcing the law against polluters. Administration officials argued that the Exxon and PDC settlements demonstrate the opposite.
“We will be enforcing environmental laws in this administration. That’s not just my message, that’s the message straight from the top of the organization. This administration is absolutely committed to the enforcement of the law, with prudence and with excellence,” said Patrick Traylor, the deputy head of the EPA’s law enforcement office.
“These two settlements are good examples of that commitment.”
Nonetheless, the officials made it clear that they care about the vitality of the companies.
“These two companies, in the pursuit of their businesses, didn’t comply with some of our environmental laws. But these companies have cooperated with us, and are resolving these violations, and these settlements bring these companies back into compliance,” said Wood, who represented companies and associations in pollution matters as a Balch & Bingham attorney before being named to the Justice post.
“So now they can continue their work of driving economic growth, in compliance with environmental laws.”
Federal and Louisiana officials had been working on the Exxon case for years.
They alleged that at eight plants manufacturing plastics or chemicals that are used to make plastics, the oil giant improperly modified or incorrectly used flaring systems, which burn air pollutants before they are emitted.
The changes mandated in the settlement will decrease volatile organic compound emissions by 7,000 tons a year and hazardous air pollutants by 1,500 tons a year, the government estimated.
Exxon did not respond to a request for comment. Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTillerson eliminates key State Department sanctions office: report Overnight Defense: McCain sees ‘progress’ after Niger briefing | Second US military team was near ambush | Pentagon begins pulling back ships from Puerto Rico Tillerson: ‘Reign of the Assad family is coming to an end’ in Syria MORE worked for the company for four decades before moving to the Trump administration, most recently as its CEO.
PDC’s case involved emissions from storage tanks the company used to store liquid condensates from natural gas drilling. The government alleged that PDC didn’t do enough to reduce emissions like methane and nitrogen oxides, contributing to poor air quality in the Denver area.
“The work the settlement requires will result in significant reductions in the emissions of harmful pollutants,” Wood said.
PDC welcomed the settlement in a statement.
“We have put a plan in place that will continue to reduce PDC’s air emissions in Colorado’s [Denver-Julesburg] Basin and reflects our strong commitment to protecting Colorado’s environment,” Bart Brookman, PDC’s president, said in a statement.