WACO, TX–The trend among grassroots environmental groups to file “citizen suits” against oil companies for pollution is continuing in a federal court in Texas today. The Sierra Club is the most recent group to pursue legal action, and alleges that Luminant Generation Company released more emissions into the air than allowed by law. The groups claim the suits are a result of inaction from the federal government, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A judge in Waco will hear the group’s arguments today.
According to the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, the EPA is not doing an adequate job enforcing state and federal pollution laws. Environmental lawyer Matthew Morrison said, “Historically, there has been an uptick in citizen suit filings when there is something of a slowdown in enforcement.” He said citizen suits will become more frequent if the EPA does not start cracking down on oil companies.
Director of Environmental Texas, Luke Metzger, said, “Going through the courts is our best option. It’s kind of our last option.” Environmental Texas filed a suit against ExxonMobil that is currently ongoing in Houston.
In most cases, groups reach a settlement before citizen suits go to trial. But in the next few months, Texas judges will hear three lawsuits that are set to go to trial. Thomas McGarity, an environmental law professor at the University of Texas, Austin, said, “I’m really surprised to hear that.” He pointed out that most oil companies choose to settle because “it’s usually so obvious that they’ve been violating the law, and they don’t want to take the hit.”
Oil and gas companies have defended themselves by claiming that excess pollution is allowed to be emitted during maintenance, start-up, and shutdown events. But environmental groups are demanding high fines, as much as $37,500 for each day that companies such as ExxonMobil or Luminant have excess emissions.
The EPA has complained in the past that the oil industry uses “planned” start-ups and shutdowns in order to justify breaches. The federal agency has proposed that only “unplanned” incidents could be used for grounds to emit in excess. Morrison said, “At some point, the agency will say, ‘You know what, buddy? That’s not a malfunction. If you’re having them that frequently, it’s probably unfair for you to keep calling them that, and we’re going to come after you.'”
Until the EPA makes a final decision on the proposal, citizen suits will continue to be utilized by environmental groups like the Sierra Club. Such groups have become increasingly aggressive in their efforts.
This pattern of contentious behavior, along with President Obama’s pledge to act without Congress on environmental matters, signifies an increasing struggle for American oil and gas companies.
Last year, the Sierra Club approved the use of “civil disobedience” to oppose the Keystone Pipeline. Breitbart News reported that other groups have also engaged in civil disobedience as a tactic, including arson-based ecoterrorism. Sierra Club President Allison Chin said, “Allowing the production, transport, export and burning of the dirtiest oil on Earth now would be a giant leap backwards in that progress. The Board is answering the urgency of this threat with our decision to engage, for one time, in civil disobedience.”
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