The Justice Department reached multimillion-dollar settlements in three major lawsuits against US oil and gas companies Thursday that it says will reduce air pollution and planet-warming gas emissions in a dozen states and Indian Country.
The settlements aim to resolve claims that several large companies were using faulty equipment to manufacture and refine natural gas, failed to control leaks and allowed hazardous air pollution to seep into the atmosphere in violation of the Clean Air Act standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Each settlement is still subject to approval by a federal judge and will undergo a 30-day public comment period.
As part of the settlements, the companies will spend approximately $16 million combined on repairs, upgrades and other ways to fix the problems, according to the department. The details of the settlements were shared first with CNN.
The agreements are a major move in the Justice Department’s effort to prioritize mitigation efforts as part of environmental lawsuits related to the climate crisis – and signal a willingness to target large fossil fuel companies.
The department has undertaken an environmental justice effort to involve communities impacted by the climate crisis in understanding how company practices are contributing to the harmful personal effects of climate change.
Nearly 36% of Americans live in areas with unhealthy air quality, according to the American Lung Association, and low-income communities and communities of color face disproportionate risks from pollution and the impacts of the climate crisis, scientists and health experts have reported.
“Having these Clean Air Act rules on the books, having state leak detection rules on the books, and actually enforcing this is sending a message to this entire industry that this matters, and we need you to be paying attention to these leaks,” Kate Konschnik, the principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in an interview with CNN Thursday.
“We expect you to do what is necessary to protect human health and the environment,” Konschnik said.
When fully implemented, according to the Justice Department, the three settlements have the potential to reduce ozone-producing air pollution by an estimated 953 tons per year and planet-warming pollution – including methane – by 50,633 tons per year.
“Air quality for communities in 12 states and Indian Country will be measurably improved over the long term as a result of these three settlements,” Todd Kim, the assistant attorney general in the department’s environment division, said in a statement Thursday. Kim said that the settlements show the department’s “commitment to reduce harmful air pollution – including emissions that exacerbate climate change – and provide environmental justice for those disproportionately impacted.”
The prevalence of faulty equipment is not new: scientists have raised concerns over what they say are inadequate government measures to detect methane leaks from fossil fuel pipes, wells and compressors. Scientists have encouraged the EPA to leverage new technology to get a fuller picture of how much of this potent greenhouse gas is escaping into the atmosphere and hold companies accountable for the leaks.
As part of all three agreements, the gas companies committed to implementing plans to address the leaks, installing new equipment that leak less and performing independent audits.
In one of the cases, the Justice Department alleged that several companies – The Williams Companies, Inc., seven Williams entities, and Harvest Four Corners LLC – were failing to control the amount of pollution emitted into the atmosphere.
The second case addresses allegations that a gas company in Colorado, WES DJ Gathering LLC, contributed to poor air quality because they too failed to control the amount of harmful pollution in several gas processing plants and compressor stations in the Denver area.
A third complaint launched similar allegations against MPLX LP, a company that handles crude oil. The department alleged that MPLX was failing to control the amount of pollution in seven gas processing plants and three compressor stations, again in large part due to outdated equipment.
MPLX committed to plugging and remediating four abandoned wells in North Dakota, while WDJG agreed to replace equipment with new, environmentally friendly machines and permanently retire some equipment from the early 1980s.
For its part, Harvest agreed to install technology to monitor equipment at the Ignacio Gas Plant on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation to ensure it is working properly and have agreed to implement stringent new requirements if it is not.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect the locations impacted by the settlement and the percentage of Americans living in areas with unhealthy air quality.