Is Ken Paxton an Environmental Champion?

Ken Paxton

Courtesy of The Texas Observer and Patrick Michels.

On the hot day of July 31, Baytown residents were ordered to “shelter-in-place” inside their homes - stay indoors, turn off their air conditioning, and shut their doors and windows - after a frightening fire erupted from an explosion at a neighboring ExxonMobil Olefins Chemical plant. The City of Baytown issued a shelter-in-place order to protect people from breathing in the massive amounts of toxic pollution that were released into the air. Several school districts were affected by the shelter-in-place order. 

ExxonMobil’s Olefins Chemical plant is not small. It is among the largest industrial sites for air pollution, not only ranking in the Top Ten among Houston’s nearly 300 plants, but in Texas among the largest 2,000 industrial sites. Baytown is home to multiple large plants next to ExxonMobil’s complex.

An on-site worker told the Houston Chronicle that when the fire erupted, a small crew was trapped inside the plant when they hit a fenced-in corner: the gates were locked. But the fire was already spreading out behind them, so there was no returning. Eventually, they managed to escape by getting over the fence by climbing a piece of pipe.

Thirty-seven people were injured in the fire. Two injured workers are suing ExxonMobil for their several burns and injuries. One of these workers was injured when attempting to flee the explosion. Thankfully, no one was fatally hurt. 

This isn’t the first time a fire or explosion has happened at this plant - not even the first time this year - and it likely won’t be the last either. ExxonMobil Baytown has a long history of fires and accidents at the Baytown complex consisting of two chemical and petrochemical plants and a large oil refinery. The complex covers 3,400 acres and is the largest of its kind in the U.S.

It seems to be only a matter of time before injuries become more serious at the Baytown ExxonMobil plant. This was the fourth major industrial fire that Baytown has experienced since January, according to Harris County’s Judge Lina Hidalgo - two of which were from ExxonMobil, and there’s still three and a half months left of the year. 

ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery had a fire just this past March, which emitted several toxins in the air - including toxic smoke particles, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and carcinogenic benzene - for eight straight days. Before this event, the Intercontinental Terminals Co. (ITC) gigantic tank farm with over 200 storage tanks in Deer Park burned for an additional three days, emitting an “unknown amount of toxins.”

These egregious nearly back-to-back incidents spurred the Harris County Commissioners Court to authorize the county attorney’s office to launch environmental legal cases against ExxonMobil and also sued ITC.

Harris County seems to have had enough with ExxonMobil’s frequent fires and routine pollution events that threaten their communities and put the public’s health at risk. Harris County sued Exxon in May for violating the Clean Air Act for irresponsibly emitting gratuitous amounts of pollution in the March fire. They decided to sue again on August 1, just one day after the Baytown fire that injured 37 people, making the same allegations that Exxon illegally emitted unauthorized pollution during the incident. 

In defense of their communities against this huge, unapologetic serial-polluter, Harris County has been aggressive in filing suits against ExxonMobil and other environmental transgressors. Yet the Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, a known friend-of-the-fossil-fuels, filed a nearly identical suit on August 6 in Travis County State District Court, not in Harris County State District Court, against ExxonMobil on behalf of the Texas Commision on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Some environmental advocates and local officials fear that either AG Paxton or ExxonMobil will try to consolidate the two suits in Travis County, which would ultimately supplant the suit filed by Harris County. This would take the legal autonomy out of local jurisdiction and into the hands of Paxton. 

At one time, the AG typically filed all environmental lawsuits in the same counties where plants were located within the local state district courts scattered among 254 counties, and clearly the AG has the authority to file in Harris County to support local efforts. Filing in Travis County State District could undermine efforts by Harris County officials to hold ExxonMobil accountable. 

Can we trust Paxton to actually take care of this?

It’s hard.

It might seem, superficially, like it’s a good thing that the AG wants to take on a big oil company. It might also seem a little out of character for an industry-loving politician like Paxton to assume the responsibility of suing ExxonMobil. Even recently, after Sierra Club and other groups threatened to sue Valero for over 600 violations at its Port Arthur refinery, the AG, also on behalf of the TCEQ, filed a lawsuit against a Valero refinery (on nearly identical grounds as Sierra Club alleged, and just days before the Sierra Club’s lawsuit was to be filed in federal court in Beaumont) in Port Arthur for over-polluting during Hurricane Harvey two years ago and covers five years of violations, just as the Sierra Club’s May 22, 2019 Notice Letter cited. This move seems responsible, if not simply an optimistic shift in priorities in the Texas government, right? 

Well, let’s just say Paxton’s record isn’t very convincing that he would actually handle either of these cases responsibly. In fact, he has been indicted since he took office as Attorney General, and still currently faces several felony charges. He has been accused, when he was campaigning for Attorney General, of soliciting donations without being registered with the state board - which is illegal. His felony charges include two first-degree counts of securities fraud and one third-degree count of failing to register as an investment advisor. His case is still open and active, yet he continues to represent Texas as our Attorney General. And that’s just his legal issues.

The boy who cried “government overreach”

You don’t have to do a deep-dive Google search to find out that Paxton has a negative relationship with environmental regulations and protections. While he’s very recently filed lawsuits against polluters, he has a much richer portfolio of lawsuits and complaints against the federal EPA, especially during Obama’s administration. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of his grievances against the EPA.

  1. In 2016, Paxton called Obama’s Clean Power Plan “blatant overreach,” ''unfair,” and a “violation of the federal law.” During the time of this proposed plan, several states were working with stakeholders to find avenues to implement the CPP. But Texas stated that they were not going to work towards compliance. Obama’s CPP would have required states to meet individual carbon targets to contribute to the overall goal of reducing nationwide carbon dioxide emissions by 32% by 2030. 

  1. Paxton sued the EPA in 2015 for tightening laws on ground-level ozone, a highly toxic gas that causes respiratory issues. The new standard went from 75 parts per billion to 70; many public health advocates and environmental groups thought this rule actually wasn’t strong enough. Paxton claimed that the EPA ruling wasn’t based on scientific data and that the new regulation would harm the economy.

  1. In another lawsuit in 2016, Paxton sued the EPA for regulations that aimed to cut methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas that is a significant contributor to climate change. The new regulation was aimed to control “methane leaks downstream from production sites, including equipment that compresses and transports natural gas.” Natural gas systems are shown to be one of the highest emitters of methane in the U.S. Paxton called this new rule, of course, government overreach. These regulations are currently under threat of being rolled back by the Trump EPA’s Andrew Wheeler. 

  1. Paxton continued to sue the EPA even after Obama’s presidency. Paxton sued the EPA in 2017 for a federal rule that regulated coal mining near waterways. In his last month in office, Obama finalized the “Stream Protection Rule” that aimed to protect “6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests.” Paxton’s contention? Government overreach. Trump later repealed the Stream Protection Rule. 

  1. Paxton also contested EPA’s determination that Bexar County, home to San Antonio, no longer met federal standards for ozone. In 2018, he asked a federal court to review the agency’s decision. Despite Paxton’s challenge, the city of San Antonio itself funded research that showed that lowering ozone levels below 70 parts per billion (a standard that Paxton sued the EPA over) could lead to 24 fewer respiratory related deaths per year. Paxton also called this determination overreach.

  2. Paxton had challenged the EPA, on behalf of the TCEQ, for designating three areas in Texas, including the area around Luminant’s Martin Lake coal-fired power plant in North Texas as an SO2 nonattainment area under the Clean Air Act. The Martin Lake coal plant is the single largest emitter of SO2 in the nation, and its emissions have doubled since 2016. While Texas is required to put together a plan to reduce these emissions, the current EPA is siding with Paxton and Luminant and against science and facts, and has proposed to rollback Martin Lake’s designation so the plant can keep over-polluting. The Sierra Club is fighting back against the proposed rollback and plans to challenge Trump’s EPA in court to require the EPA take the proper steps to clean up the pollution from the Martin Lake power plant.

With Paxton’s track record against pollution standards, it makes you wonder what could have possibly motivated him to sue Houston’s biggest polluters. He proudly fought against environmental protections and regulations of chemical and fossil fuel companies.

It’s natural to be suspicious of Ken Paxton because he could have ulterior motives for filing these suits. It’s possible that he’s suing large fossil fuel corporations, which he historically and empirically favors, so they don’t receive harsher punishments than they could face otherwise for actions that deserve strict penalties. As the plaintiff, he might be satisfied with minimal or minor action against ExxonMobil (a slap on the wrist, so to speak). After all, fines and penalties could be written into the cost of business for Big Oil. 

It’s bizarre that Paxton has decided just now, after several years of being AG and many pollution incidents throughout Texas, to sue big polluters, and twice in one year. He is being awfully selective about what legal action to take on behalf of the environment and public health in Texas. He’s had many opportunities before this to take action and help protect Texans from pollution and force other companies to clean up their act over the years, but hasn’t. 

He challenged Martin Lake’s nonattainment designation, rather than taking steps to protect Texans and the environment by reducing the dangerous amount of SO2 pollution spewing from Luminant’s coal plant. Residents that live in Northeast Texas are being smothered with unsafe exposure to SO2 around Martin Lake and there is significant evidence to show that this air is unsafe.  

He hasn’t taken any action against Trump’s EPA for their most recent proposal to rollback Obama-era methane regulations, which would have a huge negative effect on Texas since we’re a major energy state. Energy companies are going to pollute more at the expense of our climate and health.

He hasn’t contested the TCEQ’s proposal to the EPA to allow chemical companies to emit more ethylene-oxide, a toxic and explosive carcinogen that has been linked to numerous health problems across the country. 

He spoke against cities’ decisions to implement municipal plastic bag bans and has voiced no interest or endorsement of city climate action plans. In fact, he has called climate change a “matter of opinion.

With all this in mind, could Ken Paxton suddenly become an environmentalist or a public health advocate? Are these recent lawsuits a sign of a turning point for him in his career? It seems unlikely. Until these lawsuits are over, or until Paxton takes more protective stances on protecting public health and our natural environment, his actions remain dubious.