From 2003 to 2008, Shell Oil Company’s Deer Park, TX, oil refinery and chemical plant complex emitted over five million pounds of unauthorized air pollution into neighborhoods that already suffered from some of the worst air quality in the country. On behalf of Environment Texas and Sierra Club, NELC sued Shell and two of its affiliates in January 2008, the first citizen suit to specifically target emissions resulting from so-called “upset” events such as equipment breakdowns, malfunctions, and operator errors.

Nearly a full year of negotiations between Shell, the environmental groups, and the U.S. EPA resulted in a precedent-setting consent decree. The settlement established a “hard cap” on excess air emissions, regardless of cause, forcing Shell to focus on plant-wide pollution prevention. In time, this approach proved that supposedly “unforeseeable” upset events could, in fact, be prevented: Shell succeeded in reducing emissions from upset events by well over 80% within three years. The company was also required to institute comprehensive air emissions monitoring, and to implement specific plant upgrades to improve equipment reliability and operator training. In addition, Shell paid a $5.8 million penalty – then the largest penalty imposed in a Texas citizen suit – to fund various environmental projects in Harris County, including replacement of dirty diesel engines in area school buses with low-emission engines. 

This lawsuit provided a model that has been used to hold the fossil fuel industry more fully accountable for its environmental and public health impacts.