Exxon-Mobil Corporation, the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Denver to killing 85 migratory birds in five states during the past five years by exposing them to hydrocarbons, the Justice Department said Thursday.
The company has entered into a plea agreement with the government calling for guilty pleas to five charges of violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and was ordered to pay $400,000 in fines and $200,000 in community service payments. The fines will be deposited into the federally-administered North American Wetlands Conservation Fund.
The Associated Press reported the $600,000 in fines is what Exxon-Mobil generates in revenue about every 20 minutes based on the company’s $8.6 billion earnings for the first half of 2009.
The charges stem from the deaths of approximately 85 protected birds, including waterfowl, hawks and owls, at Exxon-Mobil drilling and production facilities in Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas between 2004 and 2009.The fines amount to about $7,000 per bird killed.
According to the charges and other information presented in court, most of the birds died after exposure to hydrocarbons in uncovered natural gas well reserve pits and waste water storage facilities at Exxon-Mobil sites in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Migratory birds often land on open wastewater ponds at oil and gas facilities and become coated with, or ingest, fatal amounts of hydrocarbons discharged into the water during drilling or production operations.
Such killings can be prevented by scrubbing the water of contaminants before discharge, removing the ponds, placing an obstruction such as netting or plastic “bird balls” over the water to prevent contact, or installing commercially-manufactured electronic hazing devices which detect incoming flights of migratory birds and deploy noise and lights to scare them away from the area. Exxon-Mobil’s environmental compliance plan will employ these techniques, tailored to each facility, to prevent future mortality.
Exxon-Mobil has agreed to implement an environmental compliance plan over the next three years aimed at preventing bird deaths on the company’s facilities in the affected states. According to papers filed in court, the company has already spent over $2.5 million to begin implementation of the plan.
The community service payments will be made to a non-profit waterfowl rehabilitation foundation in Colorado and the congressionally-chartered National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, designated for waterfowl preservation work in each of the affected states. During a three-year probationary period, Exxon-Mobil must also implement an “environmental compliance plan” designed to keep birds from coming into contact with oily waters at its facilities in the five affected states.
“The environmental compliance plan that Exxon-Mobil has agreed to in this multi-district plea agreement is an important step in protecting migratory birds in these five states,” said John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
“We are all responsible for protecting our wildlife, even the largest of corporations,” said Colorado U.S. Attorney David M. Gaouette. “An important part of this case is the implementation of an environmental compliance plan that will help prevent future migratory bird deaths.”
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, enacted in 1918, implements this country’s commitments under avian protection treaties with Great Britain (for Canada), Mexico, Japan and Russia. The Act creates a misdemeanor criminal sanction for the unpermitted taking of listed species by any means and in any manner regardless of fault.
The maximum penalty for a corporate taking under the MBTA is $15,000, or twice the gross gain or loss resulting from the offense, and five years probation. The birds killed in the five cases include ducks, grebes, ibis, passerines, shorebirds, owls, martin and a hawk. None of these species is listed as endangered or threatened under federal law.