Report: States Vary Sharply in their Commitment to Environmental Enforcement

March 23, 2021

Image of oil coming out from a large ship in the oceanWashington, DC —There are striking differences in the way state regulatory agencies enforce laws meant to protect the environment, reveals a new report based on an unprecedented compilation of data from 104 government bodies.

Some states have carried out thousands of enforcement actions over the past two decades, while others have done fewer than one hundred. Surprisingly, Texas, which has a reputation for being anti-regulation, turned out to have the largest caseload, followed by Pennsylvania, California and New Jersey. The states with the smallest number of cases include Arkansas, Kansas, Nevada and Oklahoma.

The compilation, which spans 2000 to early 2021, found state agencies and attorneys general across the country have brought a total of 52,000 environmental enforcement actions and collected $21 billion in fines and settlements in cases with penalties of $5,000 or more.

These findings are contained in The Other Environmental Regulators: How States Unevenly Enforce Pollution Laws, a new report produced by the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First based on data collected through website scraping and 90 open records requests. The information has also been incorporated into Violation Tracker, a wide-ranging database on corporate crime and misconduct. The report and a link to the database, which is free to use, can be found here.

“Some states exhibit little interest in enforcement efforts, while others pile on the penalties for violators of pollution laws,” said Good Jobs First Research Director Philip Mattera, who leads the work on Violation Tracker and is the primary author of the report. “There is a world of difference between the efforts of Texas and Oklahoma, for example, even though they both have large amounts of oil and gas activity, the industry that accounts for the largest share of state environmental penalties.”

Mattera added: “The sharp disparities go far beyond what would be expected from differences in relative levels of business activity. This is especially problematic given that states have been delegated authority by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to share in the enforcement of federal laws such as the Clean Air Act.”

Other findings of the report include the following:

  • Mississippi ranks first in total environmental penalties at $1.5 billion, mainly because of a single settlement with BP stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It is followed by California ($1.1 billion), New Jersey ($993 million), North Carolina ($959 million), Minnesota ($895 million) and Texas ($810 million).

  • More than half of the $21 billion collected by the states came via lawsuits brought by groups of attorneys general targeting individual large corporations such as BP, Volkswagen, and American Electric Power.

  • The oil and gas industry accounts for far more in penalties that any other sector of the economy, with $8.2 billion in fines and settlements since 2000. Utilities and other power generation firms rank second among industries with a total of $6 billion. The motor vehicles sector comes in third with $1.2 billion.

  • The industry amounts reflect the result massive penalty totals for various mega-corporations in those sectors. The most penalized company is BP at $6.6 billion, followed by American Electric Power ($4.7 billion), Volkswagen ($1 billion), and Duke Energy ($895 million).

  • The worst repeat offender is Exxon Mobil, with 272 cases, more than that of any other parent company. It is followed by pipeline company Energy Transfer (172), chemical producer LyondellBasell Industries (168), coal company James C. Justice Companies (155), petroleum producer Valero Energy (152), and the diversified Koch Industries (150).

  • Exxon Mobil has paid penalties in 24 different states, as has Berkshire Hathaway through its numerous subsidiaries. They are surpassed only by the waste management company Clean Harbors Inc., which has paid penalties in 37 states.

Along with divergences in enforcement activity, states vary greatly in the extent to which they disclose data about those cases. Numerous states do not provide comprehensive case data on their agency websites. Most of these provided the information in response to open records requests from Good Jobs First, but two state agencies failed to provide either form of disclosure: the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

Just as the EPA posts data (through ECHO ) on the enforcement actions it carries out on its own, so should the state agencies partnering with EPA be fully transparent about their activities. That would mean not just responding favorably to open records requests for comprehensive data but also posting their enforcement data on the web, ideally in a standardized format.

“Accessibility is an essential part of meaningful transparency,” Mattera added. “It should not be necessary to file 90 open records requests to discover how a key government function is being carried out.”

Good Jobs First, based in Washington, DC, is a non-profit, non-partisan resource center promoting accountability in economic development. Its Corporate Research Project provides research resources for organizations and individuals concerned about all forms of corporate accountability.