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Obama’s Gift to Texas Greens

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The New York Times has a story out today on how environmentalists are souring on Barack Obama.

The early optimism of environmental advocates that the policies of former President George W. Bush would be quickly swept away and replaced by a bright green future under Mr. Obama is for many environmentalists giving way to resignation, and in some cases, anger.

[…]

Environmental advocates largely remained silent late last year as Mr. Obama all but abandoned his quest for sweeping climate change legislation and began to reach out to Republicans to enact less ambitious clean energy measures.

But the grumbling of the greens has grown louder in recent weeks as Mr. Obama has embraced nuclear power, offshore oil drilling and “clean coal” as keystones of his energy policy. And some environmentalists have expressed concern that the president may be sacrificing too much to placate Republicans and the well-financed energy lobbies.

But none of that anger and disappointment was present last night at a gathering of environmentalists in Austin. The occasion was a reception for Al Armendariz, the new regional EPA administrator, whose appointment by EPA head Lisa Jackson in November thrilled Texas greens, a group that infrequently has reason to celebrate.

“Some people thought it couldn’t be done,” effused Robin Schneider, director of Texas Campaign for the Environment. “That there was no way that someone without industry backing, that wouldn’t pass muster with the pro-refinery crowd in DC, would get this appointment.”

Long-time activist Tom “Smitty” Smith described Armendariz as a “dream candidate”: a scientist with no political baggage, who has worked closely with clean air advocates.

“No way we ever thought he would be appointed but because we wished and hoped, worked and organized we were able to bring his candidacy to the attention of the [EPA],” Smith said.

Perhaps aware of his supporters’ very high expectations, Armendariz asked the crowd for their patience.

“It took almost 20 years to dig us into this hole and it’s gonna take us a little while – not 20 years – but it’s going to take a us a little while to dig ourselves out,” Armendariz said.

At the same time, he promised that the details of a reformed state air permitting program – a top priority for many in Texas – would be revealed soon.

“The way the air programs have been run in the state of Texas for the last 15 years is gonna end and it’s gonna end really soon,” Armendariz said to the loudest applause of the night.

Later, I interviewed the regional administrator for a few minutes. I asked him how he responds to the charge – from the chairman of TCEQ – that he’s a (gasp!) “environmental activist.”

“I am an environmentalist; I’ve been an environmentalist for many years; and it’s something that I’m very proud of,” he said.

That may not mean much in, say, Vermont but for a top regulator to proudly embrace the ‘e’ word in the Lone Star State is elating.

Time will tell if Armendariz can live up to very high expectations.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.