Before the notice was issued, the top official in Texas for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alerted health advocates that an emergency order was being issued against gas-driller Range Resources Corp.
“We’re about to make a lot of news,” Al Armendariz, who resigned yesterday as administrator for EPA Region 6 in Dallas, wrote in the 2010 e-mail. “Thank you all for your continued support and friendship.”
For critics, the advance word is just one example of a cozy relationship with environmentalists, ties they say led Armendariz to be an adversary to the oil and gas industry and a symbol of what lobbyists say is a hostile administration.
Before he took over in 2009, a study he wrote said drilling is the major cause of air pollution in Dallas, a finding disputed by industry and state regulators. He had a cameo in the anti-hydraulic fracturing movie “Gasland” and was promoted to President Barack Obama by environmentalists, who said the civil engineering professor from Southern Methodist University would be tough on polluters.
He quit yesterday after comments from a 2010 video surfaced in which he linked regulation and crucifixion.
“He was a target from day one,” Sharon Wilson, organizer in Allen, Texas, for Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project who blogs at Bluedaze, said in an interview. Wilson, a recipient of Armendariz’s 2010 e-mail, added: “He was doing the best job anybody possibly could in Texas, given the political jujitsu he had to operate under.”
Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe quoted from the video in a speech on the Senate floor last week and called it emblematic of an EPA agenda hostile to energy.
“I’m disappointed that he wasn’t able to make the transition” from “environmental activist to environmental regulator,” Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, said in an interview. “As a regulator, you need to weigh both sides.”
In the videotaped remarks from a meeting in Dish, Texas, Armendariz told staff members enforcing environmental laws to follow the example of the Romans, who would subdue Turkish towns by crucifying the first five people they ran across. “And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years,” he said.
Armendariz, who apologized for the comments, said he tried to use the same approach to get companies to obey environmental laws: “You make examples out of people who are not complying with the law,” he said.
‘It’s About Policy’
“This whole issue isn’t about semantics, it’s about policy,” Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers in Washington, said in an interview. He “got caught on camera telling the truth.”
Representative Joe Barton of Texas and five other Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who had criticized Armendariz said in a statement that they remained concerned his comments “reflect the agency’s overall enforcement philosophy.”
Armendariz didn’t return a telephone message left on a number listed in public telephone records. An e-mail sent to his EPA address bounced back. He wasn’t available for an interview, said David Bloomgren, a spokesman for EPA.
Industry groups say Armendariz was confrontational when handling complaints about water contamination from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In December 2010, Armendariz’s office ordered Range Resources to fix leaks in Parker County, Texas. A local resident said he could ignite gas coming from his well, and EPA said it found benzene, a carcinogen, in drinking water.
The EPA dropped a lawsuit against Range on March 30, saying it wanted to “shift the agency’s focus” away from litigation.
“Armendariz issued a baseless order against a company, bragged to his activist friends about it, and was later forced to admit he had no case,” Simon Lomax, research director at the gas-drilling trade group Energy in Depth in Washington, said in an e-mail. Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, didn’t return a telephone message.
Supporters said Armendariz and the EPA are doing just what they should: protecting local residents dealing with contamination and health risks.
“He’s a measured scientist, and he’s advocated solutions for the industry that doesn’t cost them anything,” Josh Fox, the director of “Gasland,” said in an interview. The movie is critical of fracking, in which water, sand and chemicals are shot into the ground to break apart rock and free trapped gas. “You’ve got a huge, huge problem in Texas, and he’s pursued it, rightfully so.”
Armendariz also led the push to tighten the way chemical and oil refineries were permitted, by measuring pollution at its source rather than rating an entire plant’s emissions.
That drew the enmity of companies that faced what effectively amounted to tougher standards, said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Public Citizen’s Texas office.
“He got crucified for following the law, and doing what any enforcement officer should do, which was to choose the big violators and make an example out of them,” Smith said.
An official from Koch Industries Inc., a Wichita, Kansas-based company that operates chemical and refining companies, said in an e-mail that the company was able to reach agreement on new air permits for facilities in the region.
“We worked cooperatively and productively with the EPA and Mr. Armendariz concerning air permitting issues under the Clean Air Act in Texas in 2010,” said Melissa Cohlmia, a spokeswoman for Koch Companies Public Sector LLC. “We were able to resolve those issues in a mutually satisfactory manner.”
Some industry official took issue with Armendariz even before he joined the EPA. The study he helped write for the Environmental Defense Fund in January 2009, said that drilling the Barnett Shale was responsible for more smog in Dallas and Fort Worth area than motor vehicles.
Gas drillers and the state say prevailing winds and measurement errors mean those results are wrong. Environmental Defense, a green group that is often supportive of gas drilling, said the results have withstood the scrutiny.
“He is an excellent scientist, and his study has stood up,” Jim Marston, head of the Texas office for Environmental Defense, said in an interview. “But he was not a political guy, and this was a group of people looking to pounce, and sadly he gave them an opening.”