Trump Administration’s Settlement with Exxon Mobil Appears to Require Less in Pollution Controls than Advertised

Community Groups Question Value of Clean Air Act Settlement for Eight Chemical Plants in LA and TX

Washington, D.C. – The Trump Administration’s recent settlement with Exxon Mobil to resolve Clean Air Act violations at chemical plants appears to require less cleanup than advertised and even weaken pollution reduction requirements at some facilities, based on a review of the fine print.

The consent decree, promoted by the Trump Administration as an example of its commitment to environmental law enforcement, covers flares at eight of Exxon Mobil’s plants in Texas and Louisiana, including the massive Baytown Chemical plant east of Houston.

“This settlement follows the current administration’s pattern of leniency toward polluters and highlights its disregard for public health,” said Bakeyah Nelson, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston. “Exxon Mobil is a historic repeat violator of the Clean Air Act and was among the worst emitters during Hurricane Harvey.”

The Environmental Integrity Project recently sent an analysis of the Oct. 31 settlement in comments to the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Public Citizen’s Texas Office, and the Sierra Club’s Lonestar Chapter.

The groups are asking the Justice Department to provide a more complete explanation of what the consent decree requires, given the following concerns:

  • Improvements already completed: The settlement, on page 9, claims that, “implementing the consent decree requirements are [sic] expected to cost approximately $300 million.” But most of the flare gas recovery systems (the most expensive component) the consent decree requires appear to have already been installed to meet the mandates of exiting permits.
  • Weakens existing requirements: The current permits at several of Exxon Mobil’s plants require that flares destroy (burn) 99 percent of some of the air pollutants (volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and other hazardous gases). The new agreement requires flares to achieve a combustion efficiency of 98 percent, which would destroy significantly less pollution than these current permits already require.  Also, certain gas types (e.g., gas added to raise flare temperature) do not have to meet the permit’s combustion efficiency requirements.
  • Small penalties for large amount of pollution: The settlement includes a $2.5 million penalty for Exxon Mobil, but that is a relatively small amount compared to the size of the company and the 6,000 tons of dangerous air pollutants (VOC’s) that the company illegally released every year. These pollutants include carcinogens and contribute to smog, which can trigger asthma and heart attacks. At a minimum, EPA should clarify how much new investment in pollution controls the company is actually making in return for this nominal penalty.

“The administration held up this settlement to demonstrate it is serious about protecting the environment, but how much of this is just hot air?” asked Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA.  “For several of Exxon’s plants, the settlement’s emission limits for flares look weaker than the company’s current permits require, while allowing any reductions in flare pollution to offset the emission increases from new projects.”

An examination of the consent decree by the Environmental Integrity Project raises several questions, including about how much of the $300 million in pollution control projects touted as part of the agreement are actually new.

If the Trump Administration’s numbers on the Exxon Mobil plants air pollution releases are correct, it means that Exxon’s chemical emitted 6,000 tons of illegal VOC pollution annually in past years that were never reported.  To put that number in context, Exxon Mobil reported releasing about a thousand tons of VOC’s from these flares in 2015.

In response to these potentially staggering levels of illegal pollution, the Trump Administration is proposing to let Exxon Mobil off the hook with a negligible fine and an obligation to install controls that the company – for the most part – committed to using well before the consent decree was signed.

“The corrective actions imposed on Exxon Mobil – installation of flare gas recovery systems and operation and maintenance procedures designed to increase flare efficiency – have been available for years and already should be undertaken by any well-operated facility,” said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office.

The settlement affects Exxon Mobil’s Baytown Chemical Plant, Baytown Olefins Plant, Beaumont Chemical Plant, Beaumont Polyethylene Plant, and Mont Belvieu Plastics Plant in Texas; and its Baton Rouge Chemical Plant, Baton Rouge Plastics Plant, and Baton Rouge Polyolefins Plant in Louisiana.

Anne Rolfes, Founding Director, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said the big picture is that the Trump Administration is going easy on a major source of pollution that is harming the community.

“Come and walk the streets of the neighborhood across the street from Exxon in Baton Rouge and you will see it for yourself: the health and development of small children is being sacrificed for Exxon. These kids are trying to ride bikes outside, to play hide and seek, and instead they encounter chemical clouds from an illegal polluter.”

A review of federal and state records reveals that Exxon Mobil installed much of the pollution control equipment referenced in the settlement long before the deal was reached in order to comply with preexisting permit requirements or to avoid stricter requirements for recent plant expansions.

Flue Gas Recovery Systems:  The settlement requires pollution control equipment called flare gas recovery systems at four of Exxon Mobil’s plants, with the capacity (combined) to recycle for reuse up to 17 million cubic feet of gas per day that would otherwise be burned off in flares.  But the flare gas recovery systems at three of the four – Baton Rouge Chemical, Baytown Chemical, and Baytown Olefins – are required to begin operating as soon as the settlement is approved by a federal court, which could come before the end of the year.   It would be impossible to meet that deadline unless Exxon Mobil had applied for and received permits for these compressors, and had purchased, installed, and tested these units well before the settlement was announced.

Also, the existing permits for these plants suggest that these units are already up and running.   For example, the permit for the Baton Rouge Chemical Plant issued more than six years ago – on October 13, 2011 – also includes a flare gas recovery system, suggesting it was already installed or required.

The Trump administration used 2012 – not 2017 – as the starting point for estimating the emission reductions that will be realized after “full implementation of the consent decree’s compliance requirements.” That backdating suggests much of the work to achieve those reductions occurred before the decree was lodged in court on October 31, 2017.

Combustion Efficiency:  The settlement requires Exxon Mobil’s flare to achieve a “combustion efficiency” of 98 percent, which would destroy about 98.25 percent of volatile organic compounds in flares gas (based on guidance from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality).  But existing permits for several plants require or assume that certain flares destroy 99 percent of some or all VOC’s in flare gas.

For example, the permit for the Mont Belvieu Plastics Plant requires 99 percent destruction of all organics sent to one of its flares (the “HDPE” unit), while the permit limits for Primary and Secondary flares at Baytown Olefins assume elimination of 99 percent of ethylene, propane, and propylene.  The settlement’s combustion efficiency standard would allow emissions more than 50 percent higher than these permit conditions allow.

New Source Review: Finally, Clean Air Act “New Source Review” rules impose strict permitting and pollution control requirements for new projects that are expected to significantly increase a plant’s emissions.  The settlement allows Exxon Mobil to offset emission increases from such projects (and avoid these New Source Review Requirements) by subtracting the flaring emissions it is required to eliminate under the settlement.  The Clean Air Act does not generally allow companies to avoid permitting and pollution controls that apply to new projects by eliminating illegal emissions from other units.  EIP’s comments to the Justice Department ask EPA to clarify the scope of this exemption.

For a copy of the critique that EIP and allies submitted to the Department of Justice on Dec. 7, click here.  For supporting documents, click here.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 15-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.

Media Contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, or (202) 888-2703