By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In the last year's battle, the EPA has invalidated Texas-issued emissions permits, begun drafting a study of gas drilling operations and started regulating greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide for the first time. Along the way, they've drawn legal challenges from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott—over the EPA's invalidation of Texas' Flexible Permitting Program (which let companies clump emissions from multiple sources into a single cap) and its mandate to regulate greenhouse gases—and from gas drillers targeted by the agency who say the state, through the RRC, ought to regulate them. Wrapped in a states' rights argument, Texas' approach has been lauded by Republicans in Congress where some members have suggested doing away with the EPA altogether.
Despite the political warfare raging around him, Armendariz tries to stay out of the headlines, confident that with science on his side, he can remain above the fray. Whether this smacks of naiveté from a political novice or diplomacy from a seasoned academic, the stakes for the environmental and business climate of the state couldn't be higher.
Whether Armendariz is a regulatory rock star or a job-killing giant, his emergence out of the lab and into the political fray begins in October 2005, with a rare settlement between industry and clean-air groups. The North Texas air quality advocacy group Downwinders At Risk had just agreed to drop its opposition to Holcim Cement's expansion of its plant in Midlothian—the old "Cement Capitol of Texas" south of Dallas—so long as the company agreed to emissions controls and to spend $2.25 million on other pollution-cutting projects outside the plant. Holcim also agreed to pay for a scientist—chosen by Downwinders—to monitor its operation.
The group got about 15 applications for the job, recalls chairman Jim Schermbeck, but the one from SMU stood out. "You look at his résumé, and God—graduated from MIT, he's got all the credentials," Schermbeck remembers. "The problem was he had never been involved with anything like this before."
Armendariz had experience in air monitoring from industry, but not with cement kilns. Nevertheless, Schermbeck says, the Downwinders board went with Armendariz hoping he might prove to be someone they could work with in the future. "The discussion revolved around trying to grow local talent," Schermbeck says.
In the end, "It wasn't much of a jump," says Becky Bornhorst, another Downwinders chair. "The plant people liked him, they were very open with him; he could go out any time."
After a few months, Schermbeck says Armendariz began talking about all the pollution controls he thought were missing from the cement kiln. "I knew that if he picked up on that right away, that he was our guy," Schermbeck says. "We started leaning on him more." Armendariz joined Downwinders' support for a bill in the 2007 Texas Legislature that would pay for testing an emissions control technology called SCR at a Midothian cement kiln.
Armendariz recalls his first time negotiating his way through the capitol in Austin that spring. "It was interesting to see how difficult it is for common citizens to get meaningful relief, compared to how easy it is for special interests," Armendariz says, looking back. "I've decided that part of my job is to make sure that those people who don't have lobbyists have someone looking out for them."
Of all the possible introductions to Texas politics, there may be none less dignified than to step in front of the House Committee on Environmental Regulation to support new environmental regulations. Armendariz did that in mid-May, where the committee's chair Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, first grilled Armendariz over his name—"Armendiz," then "Armendariaz"—and then waltzed him down a tangent about how much Bonnen's car might pollute if it had been made before 1985.
The bill made it through the Texas Senate, but died in the House at the end of the session. "He got his eyes opened a lot, and I think he got the bug then," Schermbeck recalls. "It was like there was something in him that was waiting to have the right fertilizer applied, and all of a sudden it started to grow."
Meanwhile, all around Midlothian, on the land above the Barnett Shale rock formation surrounding Fort Worth, the natural gas exploration boom was on. With thousands of new permit applications every year, the number of drilling rigs was skyrocketing, driven by new hydraulic fracturing technology that let drillers draw out pockets of gas tucked in places they couldn't reach before. Along the way, the industry sold natural gas as a domestic clean-energy cure-all, a solution to foreign entanglements over oil and one that burns twice as clean as coal.
While the horror stories about flaming water taps, chronic asthma and nosebleeds were just beginning to trickle out from families that lived near drilling sites, it was clear the industry was growing fast—faster than TCEQ could enlist additional regulators to watch it. The commission admitted it didn't even have a firm count on the number of production wells operating in North Texas.
Meanwhile, the Austin office of the Environmental Defense Fund, a nationwide environmental group that studies climate change, was searching for a scientist to take a hard look at emissions from those oil and gas drilling operations, and found Armendariz.