Toxic Avenger: In the War Between the Feds and Texas, EPA Chief Al Armendariz has Science on His Side. Is That Enough?

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There's a mob of environmentalists in the middle of the room before lunch, and it's not for the vegan seaweed salad.

It's a cool Friday in February, just minutes before this year's State of the Air conference, hosted by the clean-air advocate Air Alliance Houston, in a community center in the group's hometown. Buried in the scrum of suits is Dr. Al Armendariz, in a brown suit and a blue tie, schmoozing and passing business cards around, breaking his thoughtful gaze now and then with a wide, enthusiastic grin.

A little over a year ago Armendariz left his professorship at Southern Methodist University to lead the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Dallas. In so doing, he brought hope to hope-starved generations of Texas greens, folks who'd spent years confronting skeptical Texas legislators, watch-dogging regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, growing accustomed to the sense the state was selling its environmental policy down a hazy, toxic river. Never did they think they'd see so much authority rest with someone they trusted.

In their corner now was a man who'd scrapped over pollution controls with legislators, confirmed that natural gas drilling was a huge contributor to smog in North Texas when nobody else could, and risen, almost miraculously, through their ranks to a place of federal authority to stand tough against Texas' most powerful global warming skeptics and industry pals.

Earlier this year, Texas Monthly named him one of their "25 Most Powerful Texans" and the Houston Chronicle called him "the most feared environmentalist in the state." Just before today's talk from the guy these environmentalists still affectionately call "Dr. Al," activist Allison Silva—who heads a group fighting a proposed coke-fired coal power plant in Corpus Christi—echoes a common sentiment about Armendariz for the crowd: "He's a rock star in my book."

Once he's up at the podium, alone with his slide show, he doesn't make for much of a rock star. His speech is measured. Each sentence starts off slowly until the whole thing is precisely formed in his head, and he can rush through the end of his thought.

Here's the man critics call a slick, power-grabbing bureaucrat, the guy trying to drive business out of the state, stammering and nervously rubbing his hands together. Here's that rock star, kicking off his PowerPoint with a nine-line legal disclaimer.

Here's the most feared environmentalist in Texas, telling a story about when he was just a kid in El Paso, surrounded by the arsenic-laced cloud of the Asarco copper smelter, one of the lucky ones among generations of children who, many studies later showed, were poisoned by the plant.

"You could taste the air," he recalls for the crowd. "Your throat would tingle with all the metals that were put into the air."

Armendariz has relatives who worked at the plant, and in the past, when speaking about his childhood, he's recalled how a few of them developed cancer and asthma after years of exposure, and the frustrating uncertainty about whether the smelter was to blame.

Today, though, he keeps it light for the crowd, recalling how his family moved around the country, back in the days when air quality rules were looser all around, first to Los Angeles when he was in first grade, and then to Houston for a year in the late 1970s before moving back to El Paso, where he graduated from high school.

"I tease my dad, we were doing the Clean Air Act tour," Armendariz says—the most he hams it up all afternoon.

That "cocktail of exposure to air pollution" he describes stuck with him through his wild and wandering college years—his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his master's and doctorate in environmental engineering, and a couple of gigs that followed, at MIT's Center for Global Change Science and Radian Corp. in North Carolina's Research Triangle.

In 2002, he returned to Texas to join the faculty at SMU's Lyle School of Engineering. He moved into a house in Lake Highlands, where he now lives with his wife, Cynthia, a second-grade teacher in Irving, and their two boys. He drives a Ford Taurus that can run on ethanol. "I always buy American cars," he's quick to point out.

When he moved to Dallas, Asarco's smelter in his hometown had been shuttered for three years. In 2002, though, the company began talking with TCEQ about reopening the facility, without even updating its permits. As Armendariz jokes with the crowd today, that's when he first considered applying to work at the EPA. "My plan was to try to be the regional administrator, shut down the Asarco smelter, quit and go back to SMU."

If only things had been that simple. In the year-plus since Armendariz took over EPA's Region 6—a six-state slice of the country he jokes includes "Texas and the states that border it"—the unassuming engineer has been cast as the enemy in Governor Rick Perry's war on Washington, as the long meddling arm of President Obama's job-killing federal government, as a tree-hugging arch-nemesis to business and states' rights interests.

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.

"We were trying to find an academic in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who could do a real analysis," recalls Jim Marston, EDF's regional director for Texas. "We knew he cared about air issues too; we knew he was good at crunching numbers."

Adding up emissions from lots of little sources in the gas production chain—engine exhaust from gas compressors, vents from condensate tanks where the gas is separated at the surface, leaks from valves and pipe connections, and more—Armendariz figured just how much the operations polluted, in terms of smog-forming substances like nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds, greenhouse gases and other toxins like benzene. They published the study in February 2009.

"I actually was skeptical that there was going to be a lot of emissions there," Marston says. "It was a big, big number. We were kinda shocked."

That number—165 tons of smog-forming compounds per day (TPD) from a five-county area around Fort Worth—is impressive next to the benchmark Armendariz compares it to in the report: All the car and truck traffic in that area including Fort Worth "was 121 TPD, indicating that the oil and gas sector likely has greater emissions than motor vehicles in these counties."

The gas drilling study is what made Armendariz a star—that, and his role in the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland. In Dallas alone, anti-drilling activists have circulated copies of the study and the film to the city council while its members consider whether to permit gas drilling on city land. (The council's put off its vote until October, to allow for a study of possible health risks.)

Gasland covers director Josh Fox's cross-country road trip to gas drilling hot spots, from his home in Pennsylvania, west to Wyoming and back—including a stop in Texas where, waiting for Fox in his cluttered lab at SMU with a blue lab coat and a few days' stubble, is Armendariz.

Fox says Armendariz became a "Wizard of Oz" figure at the end of his road movie, one of the characters "who had the information, who understood a deeper reality than we could get just from talking to people."

In the film, Armendariz points out the cluster of gas drilling sites dotted on a map of the Fort Worth area, and explains why it's so tough to regulate emissions when each dot comes with a handful of separate tanks, compressors and drill rigs that all contribute to the pollution. "Each of those little sources is exempted from the Clean Air Act," he says.

"TCEQ had no idea how many gas wells were being put in and were in the ground around the city of Fort Worth," Armendariz tells Fox, before offering a warning for places where the industry's spreading next. "We've learned our lesson: You've got to stay on top of this. You've got to look at the issues as it's happening," he says. "Or it's just a big mess."

"It was kind of astounding that no one had done this before, that no one had added it up, and that the state wasn't adding it up," Fox says, and "It wasn't like I'm in some wacko lab in San Francisco. I'm at SMU, with a PhD who used to work for the natural gas industry."

In June, TCEQ announced the results of its own in-house study testing the veracity of Armendariz's numbers. Its results were roughly similar—gas production contributed as much pollution as auto traffic in that five-county area. "I was impressed that the TCEQ, who wanted to say he was wrong, weren't able to," Marston says. "And they've got some pretty creative scientists."

But unlike Armendariz, TCEQ didn't believe these findings warranted any regulatory changes, because all the oil and gas production pollution was spread across rural areas, not packed in around cities like car exhaust.

After it came out, Armendariz's study became as good as scripture for people around Fort Worth who'd been desperate to confirm something was up with their air, who'd grown frustrated that TCEQ and the RRC—which had a way of referring complaints about gas drilling back and forth to each other—weren't doing more to help.

Deborah Rogers, who runs a goat dairy in north Fort Worth, says she'd been concerned when she learned in 2009 that Chesapeake Energy was putting in 12 wells on the land next to hers—one pad site up against her property line—because she'd read about pastures where gas drilling nearby had caused problems for the cattle.

After the wells were in, Rogers decided to pay for some baseline testing of the air around her house. But the day they came out to test, one of the Chesapeake wells started flaring—burning up gas vented out the top—and the results of the test shocked her: benzene, toluene, sulfur compounds and other chemicals were all well represented.

Rogers took the results to the TCEQ. "They told me I was the first person who had any data like that in North Texas near a gas drilling site," she recalls. But because the numbers were from just one site, on just one day, she says TCEQ told her there was nothing the commission could do. And the EPA told her its hands were tied because any enforcement action had to come from the state.

Rogers says she got a nosebleed while the well went on flaring, and on the fifth day of the flare, six of her chicks and a pair of young goats were found dead—likely from asphyxiation, her vet told her.

Armendariz, she recalls, "was the only person who had done any kind of work on air emissions in the Barnett Shale." "I think he was very brave because he was one of the early ones too. We were all kind of lone voices in the wilderness."

Rogers arranged for Armendariz to test her air and turn the results over to UNT Health Science researchers to study what the results could mean for people breathing the air. She canvassed business friends in Fort Worth to help pay for the follow-up study, which turned up benzene and sulfur compounds.

"I used to be the most apolitical person you ever met, and now I'm a raging activist about this," Rogers says, but she recognizes it's a tough situation to understand until it happens to you. "If you're going to look at this, you've got to look at it in a cold hard scientific way. I don't see how you can say that there isn't a problem anymore. There's just too much data out there."

In fall 2009, TCEQ entered a new era of brash fed-scoffing, joining the upper ranks of Perry's states' rights PR machine, with the promotion of TCEQ Commissioner Bryan Shaw to chairman.

Larry Soward, a former commissioner whose six-year term ended at the same time, says he's noticed the shift since then. "It really rumbled below the surface until—well, until the end of my term," Soward says. "I think what you've seen in the last two to three years is a much more visible and vocal commission...consistent with the governor's increased vocalness over the federal government intruding in the state."

As the EPA laid the groundwork for greenhouse gas regulations in every state—a move that Perry, the climate-change skeptic, has fought every step of the way—Shaw, an associate professor in Texas A&M's Biological and Agricultural Engineering department, testified, according to the minutes of his confirmation hearing, that he "does not believe the science is conclusive regarding human contributions to global warming."

A Sunset Commission review of the agency last year—one that environmental groups said had turned soft on the agency—called out TCEQ for lacking punitive follow-ups to enforcement orders or taking a long-term look at a polluter's historical compliance.

"It's unfortunate. The agency, for the most part, is a very scientific organization," Soward says, but the rhetoric from the top of the agency echoes down the chain of command. "I could get staff to agree with me privately on particular issues and policies, but when the majority of the commissioners took a different position, staff wasn't about to stick their heads out of the foxholes and get shot at," Soward says. "It sets the parameters in which the staff can operate."

With the EPA squared off against Texas—the only state in the country that refused to start regulating greenhouse gases—the stage was set for a showdown over Texas' air.

While ranks formed in Austin to fight the feds' efforts, the EPA was missing a local leader in Dallas, without a regional chief since January 2009 when the last administrator, Bush-appointed Richard Greene—a former mayor of Arlington—stepped down.

Armendariz says the job had already been in his sights for a year—since TCEQ commissioners voted unanimously to approve Asarco's permits to reopen its smelter in El Paso. "That was really at that point the motivating factor for me to find out what it would take to be regional administrator," he says.

Weeks before he got the appointment, the EPA threatened to invalidate Asarco's TCEQ-approved permits, and the company backed off reopening the smelter. They started talking about paying for site cleanup instead. Yet, Armendariz still pursued the job.

Schermbeck says when Armendariz first floated the idea past him, "I said, if you do that, I'll support you, thinking he didn't stand a chance in hell."

Typically, the regional administrator job would go to a politician like Greene. Schermbeck says he expected former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller to be a prime candidate, but says she wasn't interested. "[Armendariz] was not a member of the Democratic Party at all—that's what people don't understand who don't know him. He is not a party hack at all," Schermbeck says. "He really had no constituency other than us."

Not long after Obama appointed Lisa Jackson to the EPA's top job, she came to Dallas' EPA office to talk about the looming possibility that Texas would resist regulating greenhouse gases. Jackson, an engineer, made an off-hand request for suggestions to fill the open administrator job, Schermbeck recalls, "and I pulled out Al's résumé and a packet of stories about him and said, 'This guy right here.'"

Support for Armendariz gathered steam around the state's green activists, and when Armendariz got the nod in November 2009, "It was elation," Schermbeck says.

Folks from EDF and Public Citizen came up from Austin to join Downwinders and other Dallas-Fort Worth air quality groups for a party at J. Gilligan's, a brick-and-wood-paneled Irish bar in Arlington. With green balloons up around the neon beer signs, they gave Armendariz a send-off into the wilds of federal policy making. That night Downwinders gave Armendariz its "Agitator of the Year" award: a full-sized washing machine agitator painted gold.

"The route to this office for him was so circuitous and so unusual," Schermbeck says, "people just really don't appreciate how rare getting somebody like him is."

A little more than a year since that party, the EPA has followed through on its threats to rule Texas' flexible air permits illegal and to regulate greenhouse gases. Smaller enforcement actions and an upcoming study on hydraulic fracturing's potential impact on water supplies have been further opportunities to raise hackles in Austin.

After the EPA's decision on Texas' flexible permitting program in June, Perry issued a statement calling it an "irresponsible and heavy-handed action," saying it would destroy a program that successfully cleaned the air and fostered business growth. The agency, he said, had been "blinded by its activist agenda."

"When politicians say things that are clearly erroneous and deserve a response, we will go on the record. But I don't see a tremendous amount of value in daily having a back and forth argument," Armendariz says. "I have too many important things to do and a limited period of time.

"When I started the job, I wasn't thinking at the time that we would necessarily be doing any of the greenhouse gas permitting for any of the states," Armendariz says—but last summer, he says, Texas officials made it clear they'd be putting up a fight.

A letter from Abbott and TCEQ Chairman Shaw to Armendariz and Jackson at the EPA spelled out Texas' take on greenhouse gas regulation last August, calling them "regulations that are plainly contrary to United States law," and saying the EPA's move was a threat "to usurp state enforcement authority and to federalize the permitting program of any state that fails to pledge their fealty to the Environmental Protection Agency."

Since then, Perry and his appointees at the TCEQ and RRC have made an organized sport of EPA-bashing, with all the nuances of a good drinking game.

In an e-mail reply to the Observer, a TCEQ spokesman says the EPA hasn't proved its decisions will do anything to improve air quality: "Environmental regulations must have some environmental benefit, and not just expand the power of the federal government," he writes. As for Armendariz himself, the TCEQ says "he has been very effective in ensuring that the majority of our differences are resolved in the courts."

On December 30, Abbott filed a legal challenge to the EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases in Texas, saying the agency was "unlawfully commandeering Texas' environmental enforcement program."

That adversarial approach to the EPA has been echoed lately in Congress, where Republican-led committees have brought in Abbott to praise his legal battle while grilling Jackson on the agency's decision—even mocking the concern over carbon dioxide, breathing heavily and suggesting that's what pollution looks like to the EPA. Texas congressmen like Joe Barton, John Carter and Ted Poe have come out strongly in efforts to explicitly remove carbon dioxide from the scope of the Clean Air Act.

Meanwhile, many of the environmentalists who'd been at Armendariz's send-off in Arlington say they haven't spoken much with him in his new job. Marston, at the Texas EDF office, says he recognizes the irony in it, but partly because of ethics rules, "we never meet with him."

In the past, Armendariz hadn't shied away from calling himself an "activist" in the press, but he avoids the word today. "Activist is a very undefined and loose term. I very much am an environmentalist," he says. "Really how I see myself is really day-to-day as a law enforcement official."

While Armendariz has a new role today, Schermbeck is confident Armendariz is still the same guy. "He's got an inquisitive mind. He's curious," Schermbeck says. "I don't know how many engineers you've ever known, but Al's an engineer. He's better dressed lately, I have to give him that. He's not wearing plaid ties with plaid shirts anymore."

"He's the most affable fellow you've ever met....That's a good personality to have when you're right in the middle of the crossfire between Washington and Austin," Schermbeck continues. "When you actually see him, it's very hard to match the rhetoric they're spewing out of Austin with this guy."

Located in the sleek downtown Fountain Place high-rise downtown, EPA's Dallas office is one of 10 regional offices in the country, with 850 people working here under Armendariz. The digs are simple, comfortable, spread out over a few floors, outfitted like a dentist's office waiting room.

In a conference room attached to his office, Armendariz describes the agency's work in Texas with a quiet confidence, a calm, friendly sort of approach backed by his rock-solid trust in science and his authority from the federal government. "I'm not surprised that EPA became part of the states' rights, federalism kind of debate, although I am surprised at the degree to which state officials have taken that argument," he says, "because I think they're on the losing side of history on this issue."

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.

"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.

Texas Railroad Commissioner and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Michael Williams piled on to the outcry, calling the EPA's move to step in over the RRC "Washington politics of the worst kind."

Given the opportunity to weigh in on Armendariz, industry groups that lobby for the companies he regulates hold back even less than officials in Texas. In a story for E&E News, an environmental and energy policy publication, the Texas Association of Business' Steve Minick offered a scathing opinion of Armendariz last August, saying that the administrator "destroys his credibility" when he suggests that industry in the state hasn't been effectively regulated under the TCEQ. "To say that industry has had its own way for decades is just absurd and naive," Minick told the paper.

In December the National Association of Manufacturers slammed the EPA's move to regulate Texas' greenhouse gas emissions in a missive under the headline "EPA's Overregulation Agenda Continues." In it, the group's vice president Jay Timmons says, "Americans need more jobs, but the EPA and this administration are moving forward with regulations that will crush economic growth."

Armendariz says he's not worried about what the trade groups have to say, that a lot of that hand-wringing is all about sowing conflict. "I think a lot of it is self-preservation. They're fomenting disagreements that, at the level at which we interact with the major employers in the state, simply don't exist."

In the end, what Armendariz is about is amassing a body of science that'll stand up to legal challenges for years to come—that's how he says he'll measure success in his job. "We're spending a lot of time and a lot of effort to make sure that everything we do has a rigorous scientific record," he says.

"This is a hundred-year effort, and we're just barely getting started. What we're trying to do now is set up a framework that will outlive us all."

Despite the hot tempers and headlines, environmentalists like Marston and Schermbeck say the EPA hasn't really done much that's too remarkable in the past year, that all the biggest news had been years in the making. Federal misgivings about the flexible permitting process—which makes it difficult to identify specific emissions from individual sources at a plant—go back even to George W. Bush's EPA, and the move to regulate carbon dioxide stems from a 2007 decision, Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said the Clean Air Act did, in fact, require the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases if it decided they posed a risk.

Schermbeck says that really, the EPA's approach to greenhouse gas emissions has been "weak-kneed," that the screaming about states' rights is all political theater from Perry and other career-minded state leaders. "It's an easy target, and they're the ones making it a big deal."

"Look, there are particular things you can point to they've done that are great, for instance the thing in Parker County with the well, taking on the Railroad Commission and the drilling company," Schermbeck says. "Al makes a difference in that situation."

While the appeals court in D.C. considers Texas' challenge to the EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases, and the Republican-led Congress pushes ahead with bills meant to keep carbon dioxide out of Clean Air Act regulations, industrial operations in Texas are already getting new permits.

Soward, the former TCEQ commissioner, says while the feds and the state slug it out in the press, it's all been a distraction from the real story that greenhouse gases are finally being regulated in this country, even in Texas, over Perry's objection. "I think it's gonna have a long-term positive impact," he says. "What we're already seeing in the conflict between Texas and the EPA is that industry is making changes."

Whether he delivers on everything the environmental community hoped for, or Congress dismantles the EPA in the next federal budget, for some folks it's just good knowing he's up there—ready to listen to complaints from the community.

"You can't quantify it, but the kind of glasnost—the change in atmosphere," Schermbeck says. "That's been the most important thing."

"I think for most of us, he represents hope. That may sound crazy, but we've been doing this for a long time," environmentalist Bornhorst says. "We just know that his heart's in the right place."

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