ExxonMobil Lawsuit Battle: The State vs. Harris County

Over the last decade, Texas Republicans have shown a pattern of disregard for public safety and the rights of local governments, notably in terms of environmental protections. We now face contaminated water and air, incalculable injuries, and even fatalities due to the GOP’s indifference.The State repeatedly chips away at local governments’ ability to hold polluters accountable for negligent behavior. This has become increasingly evident in recent State-filed lawsuits against polluters in the Harris County area, specifically in county and State-filed lawsuits against ExxonMobil.

Within a span of five months, the Baytown ExxonMobil power plant had two severe, life-threatening explosions. The first released contaminants into the surrounding area for nearly 8 days following the explosion. The second left 37 people injured. The power plant has also been violating pollution laws since 2013. Harris County immediately took action and filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, stating the company violated the Texas Clean Air Act. Days later, the State filed the same lawsuit. 

In a hearing this Friday (1/17), the State will present the case that Harris County’s lawsuit is in violation of the Texas Water Code.

Beyond taking away local governments’ right to file environmental lawsuits that affect their communities, a State-filed lawsuit against ExxonMobil has two very large implications. First, the case will be heard in Austin rather than Harris County. Second, any money from civil penalties will go directly into the State’s general revenue rather than being split between the State and Harris County. 

The fight over the ExxonMobil case is one of many attempts by Attorney General Paxton to stomp out local control. Over the past few sessions, the State voted to limit the amount of civil penalties a county may collect from a lawsuit, forced local governments to notify the State when a lawsuit is filed and allow the State to take over the lawsuit, and barred counties from hiring outside parties. These actions have all been taken under the guise of ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity.’ However, these policies enable the State, and Attorney General Paxton, to control the lawsuits and ultimately let polluters off easy.