Gas Industry Wins! Environment Loses.
The resignation of Al Armendariz, the EPA’s regional administrator in Dallas, capped a dramatic few weeks in which one of President Barack Obama’s leading environmental crusaders saw some of his most important initiatives crash.
During that period, a federal judge in San Antonio slammed the Environmental Protection Agency for one of its standoffs with Texas over clean-air rules, saying the EPA had virtually manufactured law to fit its policy stance.
At the same time, a groundwater-contamination case in Parker County — one on which Armendariz had staked his and the EPA’s credibility — fell apart. Range Resources, the natural gas company the EPA had fingered, was left with more than a year of legal expenses but no apparent responsibility for the gas in a family’s drinking-water well.
Yet it was apparently a few words in a 2-year-old talk to staffers that ended the term of the highest-profile federal official in Texas.
Armendariz, who has been on leave as an environmental engineering professor at Southern Methodist University, announced his resignation from the EPA on Monday, days after a video from 2010 surfaced in which he spoke of “crucifying” oil and gas companies that break the law.
Referring to how the Romans once conquered villages, he said, “They’d find the first five guys they saw, and they’d crucify them.”
“Find people who are not complying with the law, and you hit them as hard as you can and make examples of them,” he said.
Armendariz apologized for his language, and friends said his critics used the words out of context, but the video empowered industries and Republican officials who already had targeted him. They called for Obama to suspend or fire him.
Armendariz, who declined to answer questions Monday, wrote in a letter to friends that neither EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson nor the White House had forced him out. But the lukewarm defenses that his superiors offered since the video became public left little doubt that his future with the administration was shaky.
In his letter, Armendariz said he decided to leave to keep himself from being a distraction to the EPA’s work. His acting replacement, EPA career employee Sam Coleman, will probably hold the job until after the inauguration in January of either Obama or likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Armendariz referred repeatedly to his efforts to turn the EPA from an unapproachable monolith to an advocate for those with little voice in Washington or Austin
It turned him into a revered figure in polluted communities, such as the El Paso neighborhood where he grew up, but also made many enemies among industries and Texas officials, setting up the events that led to his resignation.
“I have been honored to serve as your regional administrator for EPA’s Region 6 office the last two and a half years,” Armendariz wrote. “I never once forgot that the reason I was appointed was to serve you, to act as your voice, and to work day and night to better protect the environment and your safety.”
He praised Jackson and Obama and closed by crediting communities facing environmental problems with having altered the EPA’s mission from business-as-usual to enthusiastic defense of public health — a reversal not all environmentalists say they’ve seen nationwide, but many say they saw in Texas.
Armendariz’s highest-profile critic, Gov. Rick Perry, who made stopping the EPA a cornerstone of his failed 2012 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, agreed the EPA had undergone a significant shift toward environmental activism under Obama. Perry’s press secretary, Allison Young, called Monday for a shift back.
“While Al Armendariz’s resignation means there will be one fewer activist at the EPA, his philosophy unfortunately permeates through the entire agency, starting at the top with the Obama administration,” she said. “We urge the administration to replace him with someone who will work to protect our natural resources in a way that bolsters the economy, rather than vilifying our nation’s energy producers and imposing job-killing, high-cost mandates that are passed on to consumers.”
Opinion was divided
Armendariz, a presidential appointee who since 2009 had overseen the EPA in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Louisiana and Arkansas, had been a rarity among agency officials: wildly popular with environmentalists, who often had expressed disappointment with a series of predecessors they considered weak at best in dealing with Texas’ powerful, entrenched industries and their political allies.
Those same industries — oil and gas producers and refiners, coal-burning electric companies and manufacturers — and their backers saw a different presence in the EPA’s high-rise headquarters in downtown Dallas: a zealot so determined to bash polluters that he was willing to let his ideology overrule science and the law.
Environmentalists met with Jackson in Dallas in 2009, weeks after she had taken office, and lobbied against safer choices for the regional job.
They backed Armendariz, who had made headlines with air pollution studies that labeled federal and state efforts to clean up North Texas’ skies as inadequate.
Within months of getting the job, Armendariz challenged Texas’ clean-air rules, emphasized the protection of minority communities with heavy burdens of pollution and pressed tougher enforcement.
On Monday, several who had lobbied the EPA chief for Armendariz called his departure less than three years later a major blow.
Jim Schermbeck of the North Texas clean-air group Downwinders at Risk, said it wasn’t a good day “for the people who need him on the ground in communities across Region 6.”
Ken Kramer, longtime executive director of the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter, called Armendariz’s departure a step backward for meaningful environmental enforcement.
“He brought a breath of fresh air — literally and figuratively — to Texas in his vigorous enforcement of the federal Clean Air Act,” he said.
On the other side, the Republican head of the Texas agency that oversees oil and gas production said Armendariz had cost the state jobs and economic progress by mounting a radical assault on industries.
“Mr. Armendariz’s resignation is only the first step toward reforming the EPA’s misguided policies,” said Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission.
He called for a “full investigation of Mr. Armendariz’s actions during his tenure as administrator to determine how many times he crossed the line and harmed our economy and our energy future by pursuing his extreme political agenda instead of science and fact.”
Railroad Commission member David Porter, who had called for Armendariz’s resignation over his failed attempt to hold Range Resources responsible for aquifer contamination in Parker County, said Obama had a chance to heal the relationship between Texas and the EPA.
“My sincere hope is that the Obama administration will appoint as a replacement a professional who is able to work with the Railroad Commission to preserve our state’s natural resources and environmental treasures while responsibly promoting development for the continued economic vitality of all Texans,” Porter said.