Fines of energy companies continue to be the rage among the news media. Perhaps it is the hangover of the huge bonanza of press coverage following the BP PLC (NYSE: BP) Deepwater Horizon disaster. Or perhaps it is the view of big oil as the world’s greatest polluter. For some reason, the fascination has shifted to a $1.7 million fine that may be levied by the federal government against Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM), the world’s largest oil company. The sum likely would not cover the fuel costs of Exxon’s private jet fleet for the year.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) wants to fine Exxon for flood risks the company should have known about ahead of the spill of 1,500 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River in 2011. This kind of damage to such a pristine river is worthy of note, but it was probably one of the most modest environmental disasters of 2011, particularly compared to dozens of other incidents of environmental trouble caused by major oil companies in the United States or elsewhere around the world. Little has been said about permanent damage to the river, perhaps because there was none.
Exxon has 30 days to appeal the proposed fine. It is hard to see the disadvantages of doing so. DOT on the other hand will need to fight to make sure the fine is imposed. Its position as a protector of the environment is at stake, no matter how small the infraction is, particularly when it involves a huge company.
Somewhere around the country, DOT likely found another company this year that had violated one or more of its regulations, and the proposed fine for that may have been $1 million or more. The event did not make the papers nor get attention on the Internet. DOT needs to leverage its regulatory activity where and when it gets the most benefit. Exxon, by the nature of its size and the general suspicion of big oil companies, neatly fits that bill.