The April 29 resignation of Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Al Armendariz is a classic tale of business regulation colliding with the interests of oil and gas -- but with a contemporary twist. A YouTube video forced the EPA official’s resignation and provided a prop for Republicans to reiterate claims that Obama administration policies are weighing down domestic oil and gas production.
Armendariz, a former Southern Methodist University professor, was appointed by the president in November 2009 to lead environmental enforcement in the EPA’s Region 6. While speaking in the small town of Dish in northeast Texas in 2010, Armendariz made comments that would ultimately end his EPA career two years later.
If congressional Republicans had not discovered the YouTube video, Armendariz’s remarks would have, at least for the time being, remained entombed. He mostly likely would still be employed by the EPA.
Here’s what stirred the uproar: In the video, Armendariz compared the enforcement of environmental laws to Roman invaders crucifying some inhabitants of a civilization to send a clear message to those who were not chosen to die.
In describing his approach to enforcing hydraulic fracturing regulations, Armendariz said, “It is kind of like how the Romans used to conquer villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere and they’d find the first five guys they saw and they’d crucify them. Then that little 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 complying with the law. You find people who are not complying with the law and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them. There’s a deterrent effect there.”
In a time of video cameras, cell phones with video capabilities and broad access to the Internet, Armendariz failed to absorb a basic lesson of 21st century reality: Someone is always watching, and you have to live with your comments forever if you are recorded.
Armendariz’s faux pas, once discovered, was transformed into a political grenade. U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, a critic of the EPA and oil and gas regulation under Obama, linked to the Armendariz video on his YouTube channel on April 25.
"After his revelation that EPA's 'general philosophy' is to 'crucify' oil and gas companies, it was only right for Administrator Armendariz to resign -- but his resignation in no way solves the problem of President Obama and his EPA's crucifixion philosophy," Inhofe said in a news release. "In his letter to [EPA] Administrator [Lisa] Jackson, Armendariz again pointed to his ‘poor choice of words’ as the reason for his resignation, but Armendariz was just being honest. His choice of words revealed the truth about the war that the EPA has been waging on American energy producers under President Obama.”
Oklahoma is one of five states in the EPA’s Region 6, along with Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas.
Inhofe’s rhetoric was certainly not surprising during an election year. The video pried open the floodgates of anti-regulation commentary, and talk about investigating Armendariz’s role at the EPA followed.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who favors an investigation, further fanned the inferno: “Was he getting orders from above to carry out these attacks on business?” he queried in a story on Politico, a political journalism website.
Scalise said several business officials have told him they had been slighted by Armendariz’s office and have experienced trumped-up charges and negative comments in the media, only to have the charges later withdrawn. Companies, he said, have had their “reputations damaged, and ultimately it turned out they didn’t do anything wrong. EPA doesn’t go back and issue an apology; they just move on to the next company.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in a news release posted on his website, suggested that Armendariz’s approach to enforcement was a result of trickle-down politics. “Even with his resignation, an individual such as Armendariz doesn't get appointed to such a lofty position by mistake. While Armendariz's words landed him in hot water, the philosophy he expressed appears to be one that has affected the agency systemwide, and the roots of that philosophy start at the very top.”
However, the blanket of criticism did not extend to all corners of the state. The environmental group Downwinders At Risk, an organization that aims to reduce toxic air pollution in North Texas, lamented Armendariz’s resignation.
“Words cannot convey the very deep sorrow, or the immense anger this resignation generates. Sorrow that such a hard-working public servant will no longer be able to do the job he loved, and that we loved him doing. Anger that a handful of powerful polluters and their friends can so easily smear such a good person,” the website read.
Sam Coleman, who served as the EPA’s senior federal official in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, will serve as acting administrator of Region 6.