When President Obama appointed SMU prof Al Armendariz to the EPA regional post in Dallas back in 2009, it was to the sound of collective groaning from the energy industry and Republican politicos. Only months before, he'd authored a study citing oil and gas production as a major source of air pollution in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And now he was supposed to regulate them?
Ever since, everyone from the industry right on down to the chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Railroad Commission of Texas and Gov. Rick Perry has looked for an excuse to call for his head.
Then came the video above, which should be set to a soundtrack of knives sharpening.
The video surfaced Wednesday on U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe's YouTube channel. In it, Armendariz recounts a vivid metaphor he once used in a talk with his enforcement team.
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.
Whitehouse spokesman Jay Carney noted the comment was "an inaccurate way to describe the work the EPA does," and added that Armendariz has since apologized.
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In a Forbes opinion piece, writer Christopher Helman says Armendariz has already stormed the metaphorical Turkish town and nailed one of its inhabitants to a cross. That inhabitant: Fort Worth-based Range Resources. The crime is a flaming water well out in the middle of nowhere, and the tale is the subject of this week's cover story.
Some thirty minutes from Weatherford, out in rural Parker County, Steve Lipsky's water well just wasn't pumping right. Turned out, his well was suffused with natural gas -- so much of it, in fact, that a service tech attached a PVC pipe to it and lit the gas escaping along with the water.
The Railroad Commission got involved and, before long, so did the EPA. After conducting some testing, for the first time in the history of Texas oil and gas, the EPA issued an endangerment order to Range Resources, accusing the company of contaminating Lipsky's water with two nearby gas wells whose horizontal wellbores ran beneath his property.
The EPA threw that book at Range. But several years later, we're still no closer to understanding just what happened deep underground. Did Range contaminate Lipsky's well? Or was Range wrongly accused? Read the story, "Fire in the Hole," and decide for yourself.