The Short, Unhappy Career of EPA’s Al Armendariz


If you’re a Republican politician in Texas or in the oil and gas industry, you’re probably rejoicing at the news that regional EPA administrator Al Armendariz has resigned his post. You’ve got your scalp. Armendariz can now join a growing list of Obama appointees who’ve been taken down by conservative activists. Hello, Shirley Sherrod and Van Jones!

But if you’re a citizen choking on bad air, freaking out about fracking or upset with Texas’ lax environmental enforcement, you might be bummed. When Armendariz was appointed by the Obama administration in late 2009, it was a cause for celebration among environmentalists. Dr. Al was one of their own, a scientist and SMU professor who wasn’t afraid to take on fossil fuel interests.

 I was there at his green fete-ing in February 2010 by Texas environmentalists. The mood: jubilant.

“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.”

Armendariz got the appointment. He just couldn’t keep it. From the get-go, he was a target of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Railroad Commission, Gov. Rick Perry, the oil and gas industries, the big utility companies, et al. TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw congratulated Armendariz on his appointment by derisively calling him an “environmental activist.” It went downhill from there.

Last year, the regional EPA office rocked the fracking industry by issuing a rare emergency order to Range Resources, accusing the company of contaminating a rural North Texas water well with dangerous amounts of methane. But after a protracted court battle, EPA withdrew the emergency order in March, inducing an orgy of gloating among industry and its regulatory friends. Railroad Commissioner David Porter accused the EPA of “fear mongering, gross negligence and severe mishandling of this case.” He added: “I hope to see drastic changes made in the way the regional office conducts business in the future – starting with the termination of Al Armandariz [sic].”

Ignored was the fact that Range and EPA had settled the case on terms neither wholly favorable nor unfavorable to either side. The Range Resources saga is complicated; the best account is found in this recent Dallas Observer article.

What did Armendariz in, however, was a two-year-old video — circulated by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and then flogged endlessly in the right-wing echo chamber — describing his enforcement policy with an ill-advised analogy. As usual with these things, the full quote was edited down to the most egregious bits. Here is the full quote:

The Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.

And so you make examples out of people who are in this case not compliant with the law. Find people who are not compliant with the law, and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them, and there is a deterrent effect there. And, companies that are smart see that, they don’t want to play that game, and they decide at that point that it’s time to clean up.

And, that won’t happen unless you have somebody out there making examples of people. So you go out, you look at an industry, you find people violating the law, you go aggressively after them. And we do have some pretty effective enforcement tools. Compliance can get very high, very, very quickly.

That’s what these companies respond to is both their public image but also financial pressure. So you put some financial pressure on a company, you get other people in that industry to clean up very quickly.

As I tweeted last week, the “crucifixion” analogy was grotesque and inappropriate but the point was hardly radical. Armendariz was describing a perfectly mainstream view of environmental enforcement: Cracking down on companies that break the law in order to deter other bad actors from doing the same. It’s also worth pointing out that Armendariz was speaking to a group of citizens in Dish, Texas, a tiny North Texas town overrun by fracking. These citizens had sought, and welcomed, the EPA’s assistance. Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe, a veteran reporter with the Denton Record-Chronicle, was at that meeting. She writes:

Unlike many other situations where I have heard gasps or watched eyeballs roll, or had someone come up after a public meeting to talk to me, no offense was taken that night. People of Dish were pretty beaten down. Armendariz was responding to them on a personal level.

Of course, none of that matters now. Armendariz is just another casualty of a pissing match between the state of Texas and the Obama administration.