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Mar 15, 2022
Environment Texas Citizen Lobby v. ExxonMobil reaffirms the age-old adage that Everything is Bigger in Texas. The facts drip with superlatives. Baytown, Texas is home to Exxon’s prized facility, the “largest petroleum and petrochemical complex in the nation.” The plaintiffs—environmental groups suing on behalf of Baytown residents—alleged Exxon committed over 16,000 violations of the Clean Air Act (CAA). The District Court for the Southern District of Texas ordered Exxon to pay the “largest civil penalty ever imposed in an environmental citizen suit.” Yet, the unprecedented victory was short-lived. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the order, instructing the lower court on remand to analyze whether the plaintiffs had standing for each of the 16,000 violations. Demonstrating that claims, or groups of CAA violations, met the requirements for standing was not enough; citizen-suit plaintiffs must demonstrate that each alleged violation met the requirements of Article III.
The Fifth Circuit’s violation-by-violation approach creates ambiguity over whether cumulative environmental harm can confer standing to citizen suit plaintiffs. One reading of the Fifth Circuit’s approach is that the granular, violation-by-violation standing inquiry prevents a wide-ranging analysis of aggregate harm. However, this In Brief provides an alternative reading of the Fifth Circuit’s holding. By emphasizing that any discrete violation of the CAA may contribute to an injury, citizens can continue to vindicate their statutory rights while deterring emissions that have cumulative consequences for human