Yesterday, I attended a hearing of the House Energy and Power subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee entitled “EPA Enforcement Priorities and Practices.” It really should have been called “The Crucifixion of Al Armendariz”. Except, Dr. Al wisely chose not to attend. This hearing has followed a basic narrative pushed by the House Majority best articulated by the subcommittee’s ranking member Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). Instead of calling it the Environmental Protection Agency, we should rename it the Every Problem in America agency. That’s because the House Majority loves to hold hearings where they blame the lagging job market, gas prices, and over dependence on foreign energy on the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and so on. The argument presumably goes: but for those pesky environmental protections, we’d have full employment and free gasoline.
Al Armendariz was, until very recently, the head of EPA Region 6 that includes major energy producing states like Texas and Oklahoma. He’s not a politician- more like a scientist, engineer, college professor type. But Dr. Al ruffled some feathers on December 7, 2010, when Region 6 issued an emergency order against Range Resources amid reports of possible water contamination from Range’s fracking operations. In March of this year, EPA and Range settled the case agreeing to lift the emergency order and continue with a testing and monitoring program. But by this point, Range, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Texas Railroad Commission (TX RRC) were furious that the federal government had so impugned Texas sovereignty. Their message: Don’t mess with Texas.
Why not? Range resources hires former military psy-ops teams to track and influence community members they call fracking “insurgents”. Range files slap suits against concerned citizens, subpoenaing personal and financial information as well as names and contact information on folks Range suspects are activists. Range has judges bragging about their industry-friendly rulings in their campaign materials. And so this is the lay of the land in Texas when, in May of 2010, Dr. Al visited with the community of DISH, Texas to discuss EPA’s long-standing enforcement strategy toward environmental violators. Illustrating the concept of deterrence, Dr. Al said the following:
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.
And so you make examples out of people who are in this case not compliant with the law. Find people who are not compliant with the law, and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them, and there is a deterrent effect there. And, companies that are smart see that, they don't want to play that game, and they decide at that point that it's time to clean up.
And, that won't happen unless you have somebody out there making examples of people. So you go out, you look at an industry, you find people violating the law, you go aggressively after them. And we do have some pretty effective enforcement tools. Compliance can get very high, very, very quickly.
That's what these companies respond to is both their public image but also financial pressure. So you put some financial pressure on a company, you get other people in that industry to clean up very quickly.
When the industry chose to target Dr. Armendariz, the indelicate comment about crucifixion resonated through the political echo chamber a lot louder than the comment about deterrence. When the story broke, Dr. Al began receiving death threats and chose to resign. Professor Joel Mintz from Nova Southeastern University law school testified at the hearing that deterrence has always been EPA’s main enforcement strategy. The purpose is to prioritize the biggest polluters with the biggest problems because EPA simply lacks the resources to prosecute every violator. Career bureaucrats make enforcement decisions not political appointees. And the Obama Administration’s EPA has issued fewer enforcement orders than his predecessor during a similar period of time.
Al Armendariz deserved better. We are showing support for a great civic leader, scientist, teacher, and environmentalist by taking pictures of folks with an “I’m an Armendariz” sign. Please send your own pic to firstname.lastname@example.org and stand with EPA’s profile in courage.