Energy & Environment

Former EPA official avoids his own crucifixion

Former EPA official avoids his own crucifixion

An EPA official who resigned in disgrace after making controversial remarks that he would “crucify” energy companies avoided his own crucifixion Wednesday by cancelling his appearance before a panel of angry House lawmakers.

Al Armendariz, EPA’s region six administrator, was scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and power. His lawyer cancelled the appearance late Tuesday afternoon and said Armendariz was no longer willing to testify, prompting lawmakers to expand their initial inquiry to determine if the White House pressured the ex-official to drop out of the hearing.

“Why, several weeks after he had agreed to testify, did he retain counsel and withdraw?” asked Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) chairman of the full committee. “Did the Obama administration urge him not to appear?”

“I have in my hand copies of letters we intend to send today to the EPA and to Dr. Armendariz to ask those questions,” Upton said. “Congress and the American people deserve answers about this administration’s policies and practices, and we intend to get them. But even without Dr. Armendariz here today, we are going to scrutinize the agency’s actions by hearing directly from those on the receiving end of their enforcement.”

The contentious comments about the EPA’s enforcement tactics were made by Armendariz in 2010, but were not widely known until Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) revealed a video taken of the speech in April prompting Armendariz’s resignation.

“I was in a meeting once and I gave an analogy to my staff about my philosophy of enforcement, and I think it was probably a little crude and maybe not appropriate for the meeting but I’ll go ahead and tell you what I said,” Armendariz said.

“It 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’d 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,” Armendariz said.

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), subcommittee chairman, said the panel has not decided whether to take formal action against Armendariz, but “we do intend to explore the reasons” behind his sudden cancellation.

“We have very strong feelings about Mr. Armendariz. There’s no question he has poisoned the well in enforcement of EPA laws in region six,” Whitfield said.

“That is not the type of attitude we need from public employees. Many of us believe the EPA is out of control, they are more interested in being an adversary,” Whitfield said.

Rep. John Sullivan, (R-Okla.), said the EPA needs to examine the hostility shown by some of its top officials tasked with regulating the oil, gas and coal industry.

“The American people deserve an honest explanation for these comments,” Sullivan said. “This type of regulatory bullying and abuse underscores the problems we face with the EPA enforcement culture. This blatant political bias is unacceptable behavior.”

Some Democrats on the panel agreed that Armendariz’s comments were indefensible. Rep. Gene Green of Texas called the remarks “disappointing and disrespectful” and a “troubling trend of hostility towards the oil and gas industry.”

Rep. Henry Waxman of California said it was inappropriate and a “poor analogy,” but accused Republicans of exaggerating the remarks to launch an “absurd attack” on the EPA.

Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the panel, criticized Republicans for “showing off” in front of television cameras and “focusing on some stupid statement.”

“They’re trying to embarrass the Obama administration,” Rush said. “I think we are the ones who should be embarrassed.”

Rush also criticized Republicans for probing further whether the White House was behind Armendariz’s sudden refusal to cooperate with the committee.

“There is no basis for this allegation, or request for inquiry. To me, this is witch hunting. It’s kind of insane to me to try to determine if the White House… told witnesses not to show up at a hearing,” Rush said.

Other witnesses who appeared before the panel testified about conflicts with Armendariz’s enforcement efforts, including one incident where the ex EPA official blamed water pollution on a natural gas company. The case was dropped after a year, but the company was forced to spend $4 million defending itself.

Allen Short, general manager of the Modesto Irrigation District in California’s Central Valley, said the EPA is requiring them to implement a plan to reduce regional haze that is expected to cost $800 million – far above the EPA’s estimated cost of $345 million.

“It would remove only slightly more haze and the improvement would be virtually imperceptible to the human eye,” Short said. “It’s a visibility issue, not a health issue.”

Robert Sullivan Jr., chairman of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, said Armendariz spoke to his group in 2010 and showed his bias against fossil fuel.

“He sent a clear and direct signal to us that he was the new sheriff in town and that he intended to initiate an attack on oil and natural gas producers within region six,” Sullivan said. “Our general impression of Mr. Armendariz was of a highly motivated and committed environmental activist who opposed fossil fuels.”

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