WASHINGTON — The day after a controversial EPA administrator decided not to appear before a congressional committee, House Republicans and Democrats renewed their charged debate about the Obama administration’s enforcement of environmental policies.
Dr. Alfredo Armendariz, a former southwestern EPA regional administrator, was scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday to elaborate on a 2010 comment he made that indicated his bureau would “crucify” natural gas and oil companies to make examples of them. But the committee sent out a press release Tuesday night to reporters saying that an attorney for Armendariz had notified them that he had canceled his appearance.
Colorado Reps. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma) and Mike Coffman (R-Lone Tree) had called for the beleaguered former Obama appointee to explain his comments to Congress in the immediate aftermath of the controversy.
Committee members from both parties rebuked Armendariz for his no-show, saying he had shown their panel a lack of respect. House Republicans made a bolder claim, asserting that his harsh remarks mirrored the Obama administration’s enforcement of the natural gas and oil industry.
“Let’s be honest. For this administration, the extreme has become routine,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan) said. “His words provided a window into a pervasive mindset driving a long list of problematic enforcement and regulatory actions by the agency.” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the former committee chairman, said Armendariz “saw himself more as an executioner than a fair umpire.”
House Republicans and one House Democrat cited the Environmental Protection Agency’s treatment of three natural gas producers as proof of its heavy-handed enforcement. They noted the agency had said or suggested that hydraulic fracturing companies in Parker County Texas, Dimmock, Pennsylvania, and Pavilion, Wyoming had contaminated local water supplies only to back off from those conclusions months later for lack of evidence. Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) said “the EPA got ahead of itself” in those instances.
While Green, a Democrat whose Houston-based district contains many oil refineries, chided the EPA for its enforcement of oil and gas companies, liberal or progressive Democrats, who represent urban districts, defended the EPA and Obama administration.
“The American people don’t want to focus on some stupid statement by an ex-government employee,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill). “Why are we wasting our time? We want an opportunity to parade him before the cameras and embarrass the Obama administration. Well, I think we’re embarrassing ourselves. We’re not providing one solution to move this nation forward.”
Underlying both sides’ amped-up rhetoric was fear and mistrust of one another.
Joel A. Mintz, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, has written three books that address the history of the EPA’s enforcement. Noting that career-civil servants rather than political appointees make the vast majority of the agency’s decisions, he said “the EPA’s enforcement philosophy and strategy have not changed since the early 1970s. In fact, EPA enforcement during the Obama administration has not been uniquely harsh.”
He said that George W. Bush’s administration had assessed $117 million in penalties against violators on average each year, while the Obama administration has assessed $115 million.
Oil-and-gas industry leaders implied that President Obama’s denunciations of “big oil” were farcical. Robert J. Sullivan Jr., chairman of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, testified that 18,000 small, independent producers account for 68 percent of total U.S. production and 54 percent of domestic oil production. The typical producer employs 11 full-time employees and three part-time employees, he said.
Mintz said Sullivan’s comments suggested that Armendariz failed to reach out to oil and gas companies. “I came away with the perception that he was inexperienced dealing with lots of different actors – state officials, environmentalists, industry. There was no communication,” he said.
Toward the end of the debate on the EPA’s enforcement policies, some Republicans on the committee sought to refocus the hearing on Armendariz’s cancellation. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said the committee ought to examine “whether the White House bullied or roughed him up so he wouldn’t have to answer tough questions.”
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.) said the committee plans to send a letter this week to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and possibly President Obama about the reasons for Armendariz’s last-minute decision not to appear. Whitfield all but ruled out using the committee’s authority to subpoena Armendariz, however. “We’re not even close to doing that,” he said in an interview. “He’s a private citizen, and any information he would provide would not be useful.”