The response out of Austin has been "hyperpolitical, hyperpartisan and very disconnected from the science," he says. "We're not trying to regulate carbon dioxide because it exists. We're trying to regulate it because there's too much of it in the atmosphere."

While Perry and the TCEQ argue that Texas has made huge strides in its air quality since the state took over regulating industry in 1992, Armendariz says that's a smokescreen. It's not state standards, but tighter federal regulations for things like car exhaust that have been responsible for the improvement, he says.

Meanwhile, according to an Environmental Integrity Project report, Texas led the country in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in 2010—with more than the next two states combined. "It really is cleaning up a mess after it's already been made," Armendariz says.

Raised in the shadow of Asarco's El Paso copper smelter, former SMU professor Al Armendariz was a long shot to run the EPA's regional office in Dallas. Now he's staring down Republican leadership in Austin in a fight over Texas' air.
Mark Graham
Raised in the shadow of Asarco's El Paso copper smelter, former SMU professor Al Armendariz was a long shot to run the EPA's regional office in Dallas. Now he's staring down Republican leadership in Austin in a fight over Texas' air.
At an environmental conference in February, Armendariz explains why the EPA stepped in over Governor Rick Perry's authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Texas is the only state that refused to begin regulating greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide this year; its power plants give off far more carbon dioxide than those of any other state.
Patrick Michels
At an environmental conference in February, Armendariz explains why the EPA stepped in over Governor Rick Perry's authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Texas is the only state that refused to begin regulating greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide this year; its power plants give off far more carbon dioxide than those of any other state.

"It is bizarre, because we have large state agencies which work on a lot of issues with my staff, hand-in-hand, and we do a lot of work together," Armendariz continues, "and yet the political leadership of the state of Texas, and the people who are running these agencies will make statements about climate change and greenhouse gases which are completely ignorant of science, and completely ignorant of the facts, and show absolutely no awareness of just some of the basic principles of physics and chemistry. I sometimes wonder how those people can be managing such large, science-driven agencies.

And yet Armendariz seems to prefer negotiation to confrontation. "When I talk to the plant managers, the chemical engineers, the folks who work in industry, we don't get into debates over the science," he says. "I think they really quickly realized that I wanted to be partners in that effort, and not simply drag them into court."

Armendariz says about 125 flexible permits got thrown out last summer with the EPA's decision, 40 or so from very big companies like ConocoPhillips, Eneos and Chevron. He says his office could've laid down some "very heavy-handed enforcement actions" they'd fight about in court, and "at the end of a year or two, or three, of fighting and screaming and adversarial relationships, we could have forced them to get new permits."

"For the companies that come in to talk to us, I do think that they need to get over the immediate rhetoric," Armendariz says, running down the list of the usual knocks against him—that he's an "activist" chumming around with radical greens, or a showboater against industry thanks to his turn in Gasland. "They come in with the perspective that I'm going to be very difficult to work with, and have a very aggressive agenda that they're not going to be able to manage...but they come and start working with us, and I think they find us to be pretty reasonable and pretty straightforward."

Companies that still rely on the EPA for their permits now are careful to be upbeat when asked for their opinion of Armendariz's tenure. When Flint Hills Resources, a Corpus Christi refiner, found itself needing a replacement for its Texas-issued flex permit last year, "all parties took a proactive, constructive approach," says Jim Mahoney, executive vice president at Flint Hills' parent company Koch Industries, in a permitting process that's still under way.

In a January Dallas Business Journal story headlined "Greenhouse-gas battle proving costly to N. Tx.," Art Martinez, a director at Garland Power & Light, says he's been frustrated by the interruption in the permitting process. "It has taken so long to grant a permit for a small power plant that's been running for 50 years. There's been a lot of time and money spent on this," he told the journal.

Reached by phone a month later, though, spokeswoman Elizabeth Kimbrough sounds less concerned. "We're just sticking with the process and working with them on it," she says. "We've just been complying and submitting what we need to, and it's up to the TCEQ and the EPA."

One company that has opted to meet the EPA in court is Range Resources, a natural gas producer with operations in the Barnett Shale that prompted a federal suit from the Department of Justice after declining to follow an order from EPA to clean up its wells. After a pair of Parker County residents complained to Range officials and the RRC about methane-contaminated water—the infamous Gasland-style "flaming tap" from the well—they went to the EPA, which issued a 48-hour emergency order in December 2010 for the company to provide the residents clean drinking water and clean up its leaking wells.

Instead, the company has maintained the gas comes from an entirely different rock formation—above the Barnett Shale, where they'd been drilling—and thus couldn't have come from Range. A spokesman said they'd still been working with the Railroad Commission to examine the leaks, and that the EPA had jumped out ahead of the science.

Armendariz says the EPA's order was based on "a very rigorous set of data" that confirmed the methane was being produced by Range. Range officials told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Armendariz was showboating, and showed his bias when he went on TV to announce the order—a claim they've said was bolstered earlier this month, when an e-mail surfaced from Armendariz to a few activists, including Wilson and Schermbeck, letting them know about the "big news" coming up about Range. "Thank you both for helping to educate me on the public's perspective of these issues. And thank you all for your continued support and friendship," Armendariz writes.

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