Al Armendariz, Ousted EPA Chief, Stood Up Congress Yesterday, But the Show Went On

Former EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz was the designated whipping boy at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing this week, though it proceeded in absentia. Armendariz totally blew it off, to the supreme indignation of Chairman Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, and the assembled GOP congressmen.

Maybe Armendariz decided against submitting to this partisan posturing on the advice of an attorney. Maybe he gleefully watched the live stream on his laptop as they impotently raged and blustered. Either way, in what may be his last public gesture as the departed chief, his absence sent a wordless message to the subcommittee: I'm a private citizen now, and I'm done takin' licks.

Armendariz resigned his post at the end of April after Sen. James Inhofe's office released a video of him analogizing Roman crucifixion and the deterrent effect of enforcement on potential violators back in 2010. The analogy was appropriate if macabre, but It also might as well have come gift-wrapped with a bow and a card: To Republicans, Don't spend it all in one place. Love and kisses, Al.

Crucifixion, however, became a far more apropos analogy for the way the GOP seized on the comment and transformed Armendariz into a proxy, a bogeyman even, for the allegedly anti-fossil fuel agenda of the Obama administration -- whose actual oil and gas regulation enforcement record had thus far given the GOP and the energy industry little to work with.

The high-profile case of alleged drinking water contamination in Parker County became inextricably linked to the narrative forming around Armendariz. His office was convinced that the Railroad Commission of Texas had no plans to address the alleged contamination of Steve Lipsky's water well in Parker County with gas and unsafe levels of benzene by the fracking operations of Fort Worth-based Range Resources, so it issued the first endangerment order in the history of Texas oil and gas. Naturally, this humiliated the Railroad Commission, which announced its own hearing the very next day. Following a proceeding where only Range witnesses proffered testimony (think of a criminal trial where the prosecutor doesn't really prosecute), the commission found in favor of the company. As was noted in a recent cover story, Range's CEO had been a director in then-commission chair Elizabeth Ames Jones' father's oil company. Her husband was also a director. Still, she insists there was no conflict of interest.

In March, after more than a year of litigation in federal court to force Range to comply, the EPA withdrew its endangerment order and inked an agreement in which the company would carry out testing of the surrounding water wells for another year. To some, it looked as though EPA got the concessions it wanted and chose to end pointless litigation. To state regulators and politicos, it was a tacit admission of wrongdoing.

Nevertheless, in a certain light it could be written as the origin story of an environmental vigilante bent on plugging Texas' oil and gas wells. That was the story peddled at Wednesday's hearing by the Republican committee members, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Chair Bryan Shaw, Railroad Commission Chair Barry Smitherman and a few others.

"I had planned to praise Armendariz since he agreed to testify since he resigned, but canceling is disrespectful to our committee," said Rep. Gene Green of Baytown. "EPA officials should not use negative language against the oil industry without cause. If you take his comments, they were a troubling trend of hostility against oil and gas production in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico."

"Under this administration, the routine has become extreme," said Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan. "(Armendariz's) words provide a window into a pervasive mindset...It was his comments that embodied the hostile enforcement action of this administration."

Upton darkly speculated aloud about reasons why Armendariz was a no-show. "We'd like to know why. Did the EPA interfere with this witness?"

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Oil and Gas Industry) said, "I am disappointed but not surprised that former regional administrator Armendariz chose not to testify before this subcommittee. In the case of Region 6, he was not a fair umpire. He had a preconceived mindset. He perceived himself as more of an executioner than a fair umpire. ...Armendariz came into office saying he wanted to eliminate hydraulic fracturing."

Armendariz actually never said that, but this was simply one in a fusillade of unsubstantiated claims that Obama has attempted to hamstring the industry. In fact, an AP analysis found that the agency went after producers more often under the previous administration. The number of enforcement actions last year dropped 61 percent since 2002, even as oil production has reached its highest level since 2003.

But, you know, details details. They only matter if you're actually interested in the truth.