Al Armendariz of EPA was right about environmental law enforcement

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The resignation of Al Armendariz as a regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator is a loss for the people of Texas and surrounding states. A two-year-old video showing him making some unfortunately phrased remarks while explaining his philosophy of regulatory enforcement gave corporate polluters and right-wing politicians a chance to do a smear job on him and continue their demagogic witch hunt against EPA.  Having worked in state government in Texas for nine years and having observed the relationship between regulated entities and state agencies, I believe the essential point Armendariz was making about enforcement of environmental laws was on the right track.  Check it out for yourself.

What does this mean for how vigorously EPA will enforce its rules designed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases?  Time will tell.

The New York Times reported today (E.P.A. Official in Texas Quits Over ‘Crucify’ Video):

WASHINGTON — The top Environmental Protection Agency official in Texas has resigned over a two-year-old video circulated by Congressional Republicans of a speech in which he declared that the agency should hit polluters with its full powers, citing the Roman practice of crucifying enemies as a deterrent.

Al Armendariz, who oversaw federal environmental enforcement in five states, offered his resignation on Sunday in a letter to Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator, saying he regretted his comments and did not want to jeopardize the agency’s mission. … Ms. Jackson accepted his resignation on Monday morning. It had become clear in recent days that Republicans intended to continue to use Dr. Armendariz’s comments as ammunition in their continuing conflict with the Obama administration over environmental regulation. …

Senator James M. Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has waged a vigorous campaign against what he calls the overzealous E.P.A. regulation under Mr. Obama, brought attention to the video posted on YouTube, of Dr. Armendariz speaking to local business and government leaders in 2010.

In the video, Dr. Armendariz discussed his approach to enforcing regulations on hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas extraction, acknowledging that his language might be “a little crude” but saying that it captured the deterrent effect he was seeking. …

Environmental advocates said that Dr. Armendariz’s departure was a loss for Texas. “The only people who will celebrate this resignation are the polluters who continue to foul Texas air and the politicians who serve those special interests,” said Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club.

Check out the video.  It includes this, with reference to EPA’s responsibility for compliance monitoring and enforcement on the environmental laws for which the agency is responsible:

“I’ve got five states, and we’re limited in where we can go and what we can do. … Oil and gas is a priority; we spend a fair amount of time looking at oil and gas. … [My regulatory philosophy is] … you make examples out of people who are 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.  Companies that are smart see that … And they decide at that point that it’s time to clean up.  But that won’t happen unless you have somebody out there making examples of people.  You look at an industry, you find someone violating the law, and you go aggressively after them.  And we do have some effective enforcement.  The fines can get very high very quickly, and that’s what these companies respond to.  It’s both with public and with financial pressure.  You put some financial pressure on a company, you get other companies in that industry to clean up real quickly.  So that’s our general philosophy.”

I would argue that this is basically a good approach.  It is especially appropriate when there is a large number of regulated entities, in industries that exercise considerable political clout at both the federal and state levels.  It is especially appropriate when political and budgetary pressures ensure that there are never enough resources for a regulatory agency to do compliance monitoring and enforcement as thoroughly as called for in its statutory mandate.  It is especially appropriate when attempting to correct for decades of anti-regulatory ‘free market’ fervor, in which noncompliance with environmental regulations is widespread and typically done with impunity or with light penalties – even when a company or a public entity has been cited with a large number of noncompliance violations.

I worked in state government in Texas for nine years before moving to Washington, DC.  I observed a governing culture in which state agencies were typically captured by the business interests they were charged with regulating.  Industries were almost allowed to be self-regulating.  Compliance monitoring was minimal, funding for regulatory enforcement was minimal, and there was a culture of partnership between state government and regulated entities.  There was no arms-length relationship between the regulator and the regulated, as should be the case.  Rather, when violations of the law were found, regulators would say they were ‘working with’ the violators to bring them into compliance. It was cronyism, it was not in the public interest, it was government essentially as middle management in a business-dominated system.  I don’t follow closely the working of the Rick Perry regime in Texas these days, but I expect it is similar to what I witnessed years ago.

Businesses would oppose even the most seemingly straightforward requirements.  The only alternative approach I saw that had any potential promise, within political limits, was the one articulated by Al Armendariz.  That is: when there is a large number of regulated entities, spread over a large area, difficult to monitor closely and keep track of, able to violate environmental regulations regularly with a low probability of getting caught – and when the regulated entities are used to getting off without any significant penalty or bad publicity – perhaps the only way to re-shape the pattern is to single out a few serious violators and throw the book at them.  The prospect of a large and high-profile penalty may be the best deterrent for inducing a widespread shaping-up effect.

And, of course, credible whistleblowers coming forward with information about illegality and wrongdoing, whether on the corporate or the government side, can provide an essential service to the public interest – and even the possibility that an internal whistleblower will call attention to environmental violations, or threats to worker and public safety and health, can also potentially have a deterrent effect.

I can’t speak to the details of how EPA Region VI actually operates on environmental enforcement, but the Washington Post reported:

Environmental Integrity Project associate director Ilan Levin … said he did not view the regional office as aggressive in its prosecution of polluters.

“Region VI has a long history of being weak on enforcement,” Levin said in a phone interview, adding that it has often deferred to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on questions of air pollution. “That hasn’t changed under Armendariz. Despite his best intentions, EPA hasn’t done much to improve theTexasair program.”

The Environmental Integrity Project is a credible organization, headed by an award-winning former director of EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement, who resigned from EPA in 2002 to protest the Bush Administration’s undermining of environmental law enforcement.  Their comment adds to my view that the Armendariz flap is a smear-job controversy spun up as part of an anti-EPA witch hunt that has little, if anything, to do with Armendariz and his remarks, except to misrepresent their essential point.

Politico reported:

Rep. Mike Burgess (R-Texas) … 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…”

In contrast to the relationship with Armendariz, oil and gas industry and the state agencies “have a good working relationship,” said Debbie 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.”

I’d say those quotes exemplify the problem I noted above.  The corporate interests and associated elected officials want to keep things at the state level and keep the federales away from Texas, where a cozy relationship can be maintained between polluters and regulators.

Texas environmentalists spelled it out for Politico:

“Armendariz was crucified for doing the job he was supposed to,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, 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.”

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2 Responses to Al Armendariz of EPA was right about environmental law enforcement

  1. bobarl says:

    Armendariz being forced to resign from EPA is just one of many stumbling blocks politicians like Inhofe are creating to insure that they deny the country and the world any hope of tackling the problems that will be caused by a changing climate. These politicians should be blamed in the future for all of the deaths and property damage that will be caused by the weather disasters occurring because of higher amounts of greenhouse gas in our atmosphere.

  2. Forest says:

    Perhaps some environmental entrepreneur will find a way to set up a fracking operation a few hundred yards from the rural homes of these polluters. What would their reaction be to potential ground water contamination, noxious fumes, noise & light pollution, sour gas, or clear cutting near their mansions? Would they care? Or do they all live in high rise condos in big cities and have never seen a wild piece of land and don't care to. If only they could be held accountable after their final days. The "oops, sorry" will never happen from these people.

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