In November 2009, Al Armendariz took a leave from his professorship at Southern Methodist University to become the Dallas-based head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6 office, which oversees Texas and nearby states. His EPA tenure proved tumultuous. The agency incited the fury of Texas officials when it scrapped a long-standing permitting system that applied to some big industrial plants in the state, introduced national regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and attempted to tighten restrictions on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants, among other things.
The attacks on Armendariz intensified in April of this year after a video surfaced from 2010 in which he likened the way the EPA could penalize violators to gain broader compliance to the way Romans would “crucify” Turks many centuries ago. He resigned shortly thereafter, expressing regret for the comments. An additional stir followed his 11th-hour decision not to testify as scheduled at a U.S. House energy and power subcommittee hearing in June. (To Congressional Republicans' ire, he was widely reported to have visited the Sierra Club's Washington, D.C., offices on the day of the hearing; however, those events occurred on different days, the club says.)
Armendariz, an El Paso native, recently joined the Sierra Club’s Austin office, where he will work on the group’s Beyond Coal campaign in Texas, which seeks to slash emissions from coal-fired power. He has given up his teaching position at SMU and says he has “nothing but fond memories” of his time there.
In his first public interview since stepping down, Armendariz spoke with The Texas Tribune about his decision to resign, his work at the Sierra Club and why climate change is the biggest environmental problem facing Texas. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
TT: [Could you] talk to me a little in your own words about stepping down and the events that led up to that — why you decided to step down?
Armendariz: I didn’t want to become more of a distraction to the administrator or the rest of the leadership team or my staff by remaining at Region 6. The ongoing work of the agency is more important than any one individual’s media battles, and I didn’t think it would be a good way to spend my time or ask others at the agency to spend their time in the midst of a media fight with people who disagreed with the work I was doing or the policies at the agency. And so I just felt really for the sake of the ongoing work at the agency and its mission that it was appropriate me to move on.
TT: What about that House hearing? You decided at the last minute not to come, and that sort of opened up the EPA-bashing at that hearing. What went into your decision there?
Armendariz: I really decided that it would be best for me not to attend. I didn’t think that there would be anything productive that would come of it. And I really felt that I and the members of the committee and others would have better ways to spend their time, than to have me up there answering questions about an agency where I no longer worked.
TT: The state of Texas and [Attorney General] Greg Abbott are pursuing a lot of lawsuits against the EPA, and saying the EPA is killing jobs with its regulations. What’s your take on this, now that you’re a little bit liberated to talk? Is this a difference of opinion? Does the state of Texas willfully misrepresent things? How do you see this?
Armendariz: I think the attorney general would be better served spending his time on other issues. The [EPA] has throughout its history a tremendous track record of protecting the American people, and it has a fantastic track record under Administrator [Lisa] Jackson of having the agency’s actions upheld in court. There have been a number of actions recently that the [EPA] has won in federal court. And the attorney general and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have lost a number of cases lately, and it’s a waste of state taxpayers’ money for them to continue to try to defend the polluters of the state, rather than using their resources to enforce the law.
The agency was guided when I was there by two principles. And they were principles that [Jackson] repeated frequently to us and to the public. And [they were] strong adherence to the law and a foundation of the best science. And when those are the two pillars of the work that you’re doing, the administrative records that go before the federal courts really stand on their own.
TT: The business community in Texas has this relentless "EPA is anti-business" line. How do you see that?
Armendariz: I had very good working relationships when I was regional administrator with a number of plant managers and people in industry. Unfortunately, the trade associations and their attorneys thrive on conflict. So what I think you’re seeing in the media is a lot of trumped-up conflict between the trade associations and the attorneys who make their living on suing the federal government, when in fact many businesses in Texas that are regulated by the EPA, like refining and petrochemicals, are doing well — are expanding, are growing jobs and are making investments to reduce their emissions.
TT: How hard does that pressure make it for the EPA to do its job? Did you feel real pressure from some of these industry entrants to lighten up on regulations? How does that play out?
Armendariz: It wasn’t hard to work with industry or to have good productive dialogue with individual companies. What was unfortunate was the way that the rhetoric drove a wedge between the EPA and the TCEQ. I think the people of Texas are best served when all levels of the government — local government, state government, federal government — are all working together on the people’s best interest. And unfortunately I think all of rhetoric, all of the lawsuits by the attorney general, all of the trumped-up conflict was making it very difficult for TCEQ staff to talk to their colleagues at EPA, and for the TCEQ leadership to feel like it could be seen doing things in partnership with the EPA.
TT: And what are the practical effects of that?
Armendariz: Some of the practical effects are that industry would sometimes have to schedule two meetings, because the two agencies would sometimes have difficulty getting in the same room together. It simply makes it more bureaucratic and burdensome when the regulated community or the public have to deal with two agencies who have a very difficult relationship, rather than dealing with a single regulatory structure, both state and federal, in one partnership.
TT: I’m curious about what issues took up most of your time when you were regional administrator, particularly for Texas.
Armendariz: I spent an enormous amount of time working on the Clean Air Act flexible permits in 2009 and 2010, 2011, in particular. I also spent a lot of time working with my staff on the BP oil spill in 2010.
TT: In what way?
Armendariz: I was very fortunate that in my region I had Texas and the states that touched Texas, including Louisiana. And I had a counterpart in Atlanta — another regional administrator who was responsible for the eastern portion of the Gulf. The U.S. Coast Guard was the lead federal agency in charge of the oil spill, but they asked a number of other federal agencies for support on a variety of issues — Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the military, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others. So we were given a variety of assignments by the U.S. Coast Guard to assist in the oil spill work. Our principal assignment had to do with air and water sampling in the marshes, in the open water and in the communities along the Gulf to analyze those samples for chemical constituents, and constituents of the oil that was being released.
TT: What surprised you most about your EPA tenure, either substance-wise, or style-wise, or politics-wise?
Armendariz: I didn’t have a preconceived notion of what the job would be like when I came in. So it’s hard for me to say that anything surprised me. I was certainly struck by the professionalism of the emergency response staff. I got to work with them very closely during the BP oil spill, and as well as on a number of other emergency responses, the 2011 wildfires in New Mexico, up near Los Alamos, as another example. And there is a group of EPA on-scene coordinators in each of these regional offices who are fantastic to work with and great public servants. I knew very little about them, but they certainly have my lifelong respect. They are a tremendous group of people.
TT: What environmental issues worry you the most about Texas? And as a second, what don’t we pay a lot of attention to that we should?
Armendariz: The one environmental issue that I think is most critical for Texas is climate change. 2011 was the year of our drought of record as well as the hottest year we’ve ever had. And the best scientists in the U.S., in government and at universities are telling us that with climate change, drought might become more prevalent and severe in Texas and the rest of the American Southwest. I’m very concerned about 2011 becoming an example of what every year is going to be like in the future, and having year after year and decade after decade like what all of us experienced in 2011. And so I think government at all levels has to really prioritize reducing greenhouse gas emissions or we run the risk in this state of losing so much precipitation that it’s going to be a big challenge to supply drinking water to the cities as well as to the ranchers and growers and freshwater to the coastal ecosystems. So that I think is the most important environmental problem.
The one environmental problem that I don’t think gets enough attention — it’s the problem of accidental releases from refining and chemical facilities along the Gulf. These facilities have permits that they use to regularly emit pollutants into the air and the water, and they’re supposed to do so in a way that’s protective of public health. But there are occasional fires and explosions and spills and mechanical upsets at these facilities which can result in the immediate release of thousands of pounds of extremely hazardous chemicals. And I do worry about the communities that sometimes live only a few hundred feet from the fence-line of some of these refineries and chemical plants, because on the other side of those chain-link fences are chemical process units that use or store some extremely dangerous chemicals, if there were to be a release, explosion or a fire. … I am worried about the people that live so close, and I do think it's a concern that does need more attention from the state government, federal government and from the industry itself.
TT: What made you decide to join the Sierra Club?
Armendariz: The coal industry is destroying communities, it’s poisoning our air and our water and our land. And it’s damaging our climate in Texas. And I am very concerned about what climate change is going to do to this state, and I’m very concerned about the role of the coal industry in causing climate change. I wanted to join an organization with a track record of success in taking on the coal industry, and I wanted to join an organization that I felt I could contribute to, and contribute to additional success. And I found that in the Sierra Club and in the coal campaign.
TT: So you’re going to be working with the Beyond Coal campaign. What does that mean you’ll be doing exactly?
Armendariz: I have a small handful of objectives. The first is to stop the construction of any new coal plants in Texas. And also to stop the expansion of any additional coal exports from Texas ports [to] overseas. The second objective is to work on the transition … to clean renewable sources of energy. And the third objective is to work really with all of the stakeholders in the state to further the development of renewable sources of energy, like wind and solar and geothermal.
TT: Do you think that coal is dying a natural death anyway in Texas, because of the low [natural] gas prices?
Armendariz: I do think there are a number of factors which are pushing coal use down in Texas as well as in the rest of the country. I think the low price of natural gas is one factor. I think federal regulations focused on coal pollution to air and water and land — I think that’s another factor. And I think that the success of the on-the-ground work of the Sierra Club is a third component of that.
TT: If we shut down coal plants, we still obviously have to get power. Is natural gas part of the solution?
Armendariz: My principal objective is to replace our use of coal with renewable energy sources like wind and solar and geothermal, with efforts at energy efficiency to reduce demand. If we’re going to use natural gas to replace some of the existing coal capacity, I think we should use it as little as possible. And if we’re going to use it, I do think it is incumbent on the natural gas industry to assure the highest standards of protection to the air and the water of the communities that live near the natural gas fields.
TT: What do you feel are the real risks or concerns about natural gas? Why should we not embrace it? There’s a whole range of possible concerns that the environmental community [has] laid out. I’m curious about how you prioritize them, and if any of them we shouldn’t actually worry about.
Armendariz: My work in Sierra Club is going to be focused on the Beyond Coal campaign. So my portfolio is not going to focus on natural gas production. But there are a number of environmental problems associated with the production and use of natural gas that the industry needs to address — air emissions in the natural fields being one, the proper disposal of the flow-back waters and fracking fluids, as well as the reduction of fugitive methane leaks from the natural gas infrastructure. I would highlight those as being principal issues that the NG industry needs to address.
TT: What happened with the Range Resources case?
Armendariz: It really did happen the way it was described by the agency, which is that we withdrew our Range order. And Range also agreed to a series of additional measures in the immediate area around the drilling that they had conducted in Parker County. So they agreed to do some additional sampling of water wells in the area and to report those results to EPA. And so the agency felt that it would be better to move forward on that matter rather than continuing to litigate it in federal court. And so we withdrew the order and Range agreed to do some more sampling and to send that data to the agency.
TT: What is your thought on President Obama’s record on the environment? Obviously some regulations, like [tighter] ozone [restrictions] for example, have been delayed, and there’s Keystone, etc.
Armendariz: I think really without hesitation that he is going to go down as the most environmental of any of our presidents. He, working with Administrator Jackson, has successfully put forward a number of clean air rules that are long overdue. The mercury and air toxics standard, the new source performance standard for coal-fired power plants, the clean-car rules which are going to push the average mpg of vehicles in this country from mid-20s to the mid-50s over the [coming] years. So I think when people look back on the tenure of the president and the administration, they’re going to see an EPA that has a list of accomplishments that’s really unmatched.