Politico Pro: 'Crucify' official resignation doesn't quiet critics
April 30, 2012
Posted by Katie Brown Katie_Brown@epw.senate.gov
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'Crucify' official resignation doesn't quiet critics
By Darren Samuelsohn and Erica Martinson
4/30/12 4:46 PM EDT
President Barack Obama's critics won't rest with the resignation of Al Armendariz, the EPA regional chief ousted Sunday after a two-year old video surfaced last week of him pledging to "crucify" lawbreaking oil and gas companies.
From Austin to D.C., Republicans and energy industry officials amplified their calls for an investigation into EPA's enforcement record in the energy rich five-state region that Armendariz oversaw.
"This isn't just one person, this is an entire, agency-wide philosophy," said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "He stepped down, but unfortunately the agency is still there and that whole mindset is still there."
Scalp in hand after first drawing public attention to Armendariz's remarks, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Monday that he planned to continue using his perch as top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee to probe EPA's work policing oil and gas companies.
"We will get to the bottom of this," Inhofe said, adding that he would monitor Obama's next appointment to the Dallas-based job "very closely."
Armendariz resigned effective Monday. "While I feel there is much work that remains to be done for the people of this country in the region that I serve ... I have come to the conclusion that my continued service will distract you and the agency from its important work," he said in an April 29 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Sam Coleman, who played a key role in EPA's response to Hurricane Katrina, will serve as acting administrator of Region 6.
Armendariz could still testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.).
"There are a lot of things he did in his official capacity" that Republicans want to investigate, Scalise said, adding: "Was he getting orders from above to carry out these attacks on business?"
Scalise says several business officials in Region 6 have told him they've been slighted by Armendariz's office with trumped up charges and negative comments in the press, only to have the charges withdrawn.
Companies are left with their "reputations damaged and ultimately it turned out they didn't do anything wrong," Scalise said. "EPA doesn't go back and issue an apology; they just move on to the next company."
Armendariz's critics often cite EPA's 2010 emergency stop-drilling order against natural gas drilling company Range Resources, which the agency dropped last month. EPA issued the order after residents near the company's Parker County, Texas, site said their water had been contaminated and was bubbling or flammable.
Rep. Mike Burgess (R-Texas), whose district was the scene of that 2010 video, said Armendariz "went out of his way to alienate the state agencies," and "always seemed to be at cross purposes than what people are doing at the state agencies," never showing "even a willingness to work at a more basic level."
In contrast to the relationship with Armendariz, oil and gas industry and the state agencies "have a good working relationship," said Deb Hastings, vice president of environmental affairs at the Texas Oil and Gas Association. "We work on issues together. If there's an enforcement issue that they need to deal with, we're supportive."
Texas Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman said Armendariz's resignation could kill some of the attention Republicans have brought to the oil and gas industry's plight. "One way to sweep it under the rug would be a dismissal, and that's exactly what they've done," he said.
But Smitherman, the state's lead regulator for the oil and gas industry, said he's not letting go. While he wanted EPA to suspend Armendariz without pay while Congress or another outside body conducted an investigation into the EPA regional chief's enforcement record, he said he's still pushing his counterparts from neighboring states to make the case for more external review of the federal agency.
Over the weekend, Smitherman said he spoke with his counterpart at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Dana Murphy, and he's still trying to connect with oil and gas regulators in Arkansas, Louisiana and New Mexico.
This isn't the first Obama environmental official to be forced out the door.
Van Jones, a green jobs adviser in the White House Council on Environmental Quality, became conservative cable news catnip in 2009 after he made controversial comments about congressional Republicans and his name appeared on a petition calling for hearings into whether the government was responsible in some way for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Jones resigned that September.
Here, the public debate over Armendariz's remarks, coming in the heat of Obama's reelection campaign, has also gotten intense. White House press secretary Jay Carney and Jackson distanced themselves from Armendariz's comments last week, while Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, called them "absolutely reprehensible."
"Can't say that I'm surprised - I didn't think he'd be able to last much longer politically," said Stephen Brown, vice president and legislative counsel for federal government affairs at Tesoro. "I think the White House probably smartly decided" that it was "going to create too much political baggage for them."
Texas environmentalists said Monday that his resignation didn't need to happen.
"Armendariz was crucified for doing the job he was supposed to," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, state director of the Texas chapter of Public Citizen. "Had he been going after drug pushers and illegal immigrants he would have been held up by the right. But because he was going after potent players, he was attacked with vitriol and forced to resign."
Jim Schermbeck, director of the Dallas-based group Downwinders at Risk, which hired Armendariz in 2005 to monitor air emissions from the cement industry, said the media had some fault in amplifying Armendariz's remarks. "I think you guys are part of the problem," he said in a brief interview.
"Words cannot convey the very deep sorrow, or the immense anger this resignation generates," the group said on its website. "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."