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Environment Texas Citizens Lobby v. ExxonMobil Corp.

ELR Citation: 46 ELR 20100
Nos. 15-20030, (5th Cir., 05/27/2016)

The Fifth Circuit vacated and remanded a lower court decision that imposed no penalties against an oil company for alleged CAA permit violations at its industrial complex in Baytown, Texas. An environmental group filed a CAA citizen suit against the company, alleging violations that occurred thousands of times over a nearly eight-year period, but the lower court largely dismissed the claims and declined to issue any relief. On appeal, the court held that the lower court erred in finding a total of only 94 actionable permit violations, and in determining that the group failed to prove that most violations of specific limits were repeated or ongoing. But despite the lower court's reasoning to the contrary, emission limits for specific pollutants from specific emission points should constitute permit emission standards or limitations that may be violated repeatedly under the CAA citizen suit provision, regardless of whether the numerical values of the limits have been changed through amendments or renewals. The lower court also erred in requiring "corroboration" for violations that, in a different portion of the same order, it explicitly found to be undisputed. As such, the lower court erred in its analysis of the company's liability. In addition, the lower court erred in in declining to impose any penalties. The lower court's judgment on penalties went beyond merely concluding that no penalty was warranted for the violations it found actionable. Rather, it determined that even if every alleged violation were actionable, it would not impose a penalty. Here, the lower court abused its discretion when it weighed less lengthy/less serious violations against more lengthy/more serious violations in its assessment of the CAA penalty factors. It also erred in failing to consider certain evidence of the company's economic benefit from noncompliance. The appeals court therefore vacated the lower court's judgment and remanded for assessment of penalties based on the violations that are properly considered "actionable" in light of the appellate court's opinion.