Al Armendariz had been administrator of U.S. EPA's Region 6 for six months when he went to a council meeting in Dish, Texas, a small town where pipelines carrying natural gas converge and compressor stations hum.
The date was May 10, 2010, and Armendariz tried to reassure the people of Dish that EPA would protect them from the toxic chemicals that the town's residents suspect are being released into their air and water as drillers tap into the Barnett Shale.
In remarks that have now been quoted on the floor of the U.S. Senate and reprinted in newspapers across the country, the former Southern Methodist University professor likened his task of enforcing environmental laws to the crucifixions once done by Roman conquerors, saying he would "make examples out of people who are not complying with the law."
Armendariz apologized last week after Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and a favorite of the oil industry, started distributing a recording of the speech. But it did not defuse the furor, and Armendariz resigned yesterday.
The drillers' critics, who had hailed Armendariz for his willingness to go after the industry, were left wondering whether EPA will keep pressing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on the effects of the shale gas boom in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Sharon Wilson, a local activist with Earthworks, said she has heard no word from Region 6 since the controversy.
"Crickets. Nothing at all," she said during an interview. And even though some activists think Armendariz used an unfortunate metaphor, they stand behind the sentiment of what he said.
"The industry is incapable of operating in a responsible manner. I think if they could do it, they would be doing it, because there's so much pressure," Wilson said. "The more they expand, the more opposition they create and the louder the cry for regulation will become."
EPA scrambled to put Sam Coleman, a Louisiana native who led EPA's response to Hurricane Katrina, in charge of Region 6, which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and 66 American Indian tribes. Armendariz's former deputy in the Dallas office, Larry Starfield, recently came to Washington to become the second-in-command at EPA's national compliance office.
A number of major disagreements remain.
EPA has ordered more than 100 of Texas' largest industrial plants to get new air pollution permits, saying the Clean Air Act does not allow a system that Texas claims is more cost-effective but which health groups have described as difficult to enforce. A lawsuit challenging that decision is awaiting a decision in federal court.
And the boom in the Barnett Shale will divide people no matter who is in charge at Region 6, said a source familiar with the negotiations between the Obama administration's EPA and the TCEQ.
"Oil and gas drilling has always occurred out in the boonies: in the Permian Basin and, to some extent, in the Eagle Ford," said the source, who has criticized EPA in the past and wished to remain anonymous to be able to speak freely. "In the Barnett Shale you're right there, a few hundred feet from somebody's porch. There are tough issues."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has used EPA as the poster child for his claim that the federal government does not respect the needs of the states. Yesterday, his appointees at the TCEQ came out swinging with a statement that Armendariz's mistake was that he "slipped and unveiled the EPA's questionable and draconian enforcement philosophy."
"We are under no illusions that this will change the direction of the EPA," the state agency said.
Coleman will need to decide how hard to push back on those claims and arguments during a tough election-year environment.
"He's very tough -- he used to be head of enforcement," the anonymous source said. "But he has a good temperament for getting everybody in the room, saying, '/here's where we want to go,' and recognizing that there are at least two sides to every story."
Hiring him "can only help," the source added.
'They have not heard the last of him'
Armendariz grew up in central El Paso, where his grandfather, great-uncles and great-grandfather worked at an Asarco LLC smelter. Before it closed down in 1999, the smelter contaminated his neighborhood for decades with lead and arsenic. Even before the health effects became known and EPA started an enforcement case, residents knew something was wrong.
"We knew the air was bad. We could taste it," Armendariz said during a 2010 interview at his headquarters in downtown Dallas. "You're not supposed to be able to taste air, but we could" (Greenwire, Aug. 10, 2010).
With those formative years as his motivation, Armendariz has a reputation of making bold critiques in a calm, measured voice. Oil and gas companies felt particularly targeted by the former professor, who before coming to EPA had worked with the Environmental Defense Fund on a widely discussed study of the effect that Barnett Shale drilling was having on Dallas' air quality.
As the administrator of Region 6, he brought an action against the drilling company Range Resources over accusations that it contaminated drinking water near the Barnett Shale, but EPA dropped the case at the end of March (E&ENews PM, March 30).
"The federal government is sometimes the last line of defense between citizens and corporations who are more interested in making money than in protecting communities," he said in 2010. "There are other communities out there that are dealing with their own Asarcos. I've seen some now, having been regional administrator, and I want to help."
Few people were in attendance to see Armendariz speak at the Dish meeting two years ago. Still, some people in Texas were not surprised when the video surfaced last week. The remarks spread by word of mouth, taken by critics as a sign of his aggressive handling of the oil and gas industry.
Richard Greene, a former mayor of Arlington, Texas, who was administrator of Region 6 under President George W. Bush, mentioned the video to Greenwire in 2010, calling it an example of the "threatening tone of EPA political appointees" under President Obama.
Greene, who now teaches environmental planning as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said in an email at the time that the disputes over Clean Air Act rules for large industrial plants and Texas' regulation of shale gas drilling would not be solved if people handled them the way Armendariz did.
"If that approach to finding solutions is how this is going to take place," Greene wrote, "there's very little chance that [a] resolution will be achieved during the tenure of this administration -- even into a second term."
Wilson said she is confident that Armendariz will keep pushing Texas companies on their pollution.
"They have just unfettered from government bureaucracy a brilliant scientist who cares about public health," she said. "I don't know what he's going to do at this point, but I am absolutely confident they have not heard the last of him."