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'Crucify' Comment Sends EPA Regional Chief Packing

Al Armendariz, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Dallas office, resigned last Monday following public outcry over his remarks supporting a "crucify them" approach to enforcement of the oil and natural gas industry.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, he said he "regret[ted] comments I made several years ago that do not in any way reflect my work as regional administrator," and "do not represent the work you have overseen as EPA administrator. While I feel there is much work that remains to be done for the people of this country in the region that I serve, after a great deal of thought and careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that my continued service will distract you and the agency from its important work." His resignation was effective last Monday.

In accepting his resignation, Jackson said, "I respect the difficult decision he made and his wish to avoid distracting from the important work of the agency. We are all grateful for Dr. Armendariz's service to EPA and to our nation."

In a video that was made in 2010 but which only surfaced in late April, Armendariz said his enforcement approach "was kind of like how 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."

As a result of Armendariz's comments, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said they planned to investigate EPA's enforcement approach to oil and natural gas companies. Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), which has often butted heads with the EPA, welcomed Armendariz's resignation and called for an investigation as well.

"Armendariz's resignation is only the first step toward reforming the EPA's misguided policies. I will not allow the Obama administration to use this resignation to shift the focus away from the EPA's abuses. We must have a full investigation of Mr. Armendariz's actions during his tenure as administrator to determine how many times he crossed the line and harmed our economy and our energy future by pursuing his extreme political agenda instead of science and fact," Smitherman said. The scope of the investigation should include his actions taken in all EPA Region Six states, including Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, he noted.

RRC Commissioner David Porter called on the Obama administration to appoint as a replacement a "professional who is able to work with the Railroad Commission to preserve our state's natural resources and environmental treasures while responsibly promoting development for the continued economic vitality of all Texans."

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) brought the controversial video to light at the end of April, according to the House committee. The Obama administration has distance itself from Armendariz's remarks.

"While you [Armendariz] have apologized for these comments, there is genuine concern that your comments reflect the agency's overall enforcement philosophy," wrote the committee Republicans, led by Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan and Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, in a April 27 letter to Armendariz. They cited the agency's recent enforcement action brought against Range Resources as a "concrete example" of the "crucify them" strategy. Consequently the committee needs to "examine how enforcement policies are being developed and implemented in your region."

EPA in late March was forced to withdraw an "imminent and substantial endangerment order" that it had issued in December 2010 against Range after it was determined that the producer was not responsible for the contamination of water wells in the Texas Barnett Shale (see NGI, April 2).

In its investigation of alleged problems in the Barnett Shale the agency faced off with the RRC. Unlike the EPA, RRC found that methane in the water wells had come from a gas-bearing formation other than the one targeted by Range.

The American Energy Alliance (AEA), an oil and gas advocacy group, said it doesn't believe there will be any change in the enforcement approach of EPA, despite the exit of Armendariz. "Like a shamed Roman soldier who dishonored Caesar in battle, EPA Administrator Al Armendariz fell on his own sword today, hoping that professional suicide would save the EPA and the Obama White House from more political fallout," said AEA Senior Vice President Daniel Kish. "But there is no indication that the regulatory crucifixions that Al Armendariz's proposed will stop, despite damage-control efforts being coordinated from the Obama campaign and the White House."

The committee indicated -- before the announcement of Armendariz's resignation -- that it would hold a hearing into EPA's enforcement practices. It was not immediately known if the hearing would still take place. "We're still assessing how [the] news will affect our plans for a hearing on EPA's enforcement practices, but it's clear that there are serious ongoing concerns about those practices and we have responsibility to conduct oversight," said a Republican committee spokeswoman.

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