WASHINGTON — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson distanced herself Friday from comments by a top agency official who told a Texas community two years ago that his approach to enforcement was to make an example of polluters the way Romans crucified people to quash rebellions.
Republicans on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, demanded that Jackson fire the official, regional administrator Alfredo Juan Armendariz.
“Frankly, [the comments] were inflammatory but also wrong,” Jackson said Friday when asked about a YouTube video discovered this week by Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe’s staff. “They don’t comport with either this administration’s policy on energy, our policy at EPA on environmental enforcement, nor do they comport with our record.”
She noted that Armendariz has apologized for what he called a “poor choice of words.” Jackson said she will “continue to review” the case. But she stopped short of saying he will resign and declined to say whether he faces discipline.
House Republicans representing the energy-rich South Central region Armendariz oversees called his philosophy of enforcement “beyond the pale” and a reflection of a “petty, arbitrary and demagogic” environmental agency under President Barack Obama.
“The EPA is not a conquering army, it does not wield dictatorial power, and it certainly was not granted the authority to crucify anyone,” the lawmakers told Jackson in a letter Friday calling for his dismissal. Armendariz’ comments “betray a vindictive culture that is driven by ideology more than it is by science.” The letter was signed by 26 congressmen, including the entire Republican House delegation from Texas.
Armendariz’ remarks came during a 90-minute speech in 2010 to residents of Dish, a tiny town north of Dallas where concerns over the environmental effects of a method of natural gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have moved center stage.
Armendariz is shown in the video answering a question about enforcement of environmental laws. Noting that the analogy was “crude” and “maybe inappropriate,” he said: “It was kind of like how 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.” He then said the same approach could prod companies to obey environmental laws: “You make examples out of people who are not complying with the law.” An audience member posted the speech on YouTube.
Inhofe spokesman Matthew Dempsey said the senator’s staff came across the video while searching the Internet for an administrative order the EPA withdrew against a Texas company, Range Resources, which the agency had accused of polluting water supplies in Texas.
That move came after the EPA relented in two other gas-related disputes, agreeing to retest water in Wyoming in response to criticism over how it conducted its analysis and issuing a finding that well water in Pennsylvania had not been contaminated by nearby fracking activity.
The senator’s office posted a two-minute clip on his website.
Inhofe said the remarks show that the Obama administration’s agenda is to restrict oil and gas development through zealous enforcement of environmental laws. Inhofe has been a long-standing critic of the EPA, questioning why it has moved to limit greenhouse gas emissions and suggesting its recent limits on other power plant pollutants could threaten the electricity supply and cost jobs.
Although Obama has endorsed the expansion of natural gas development, the EPA has been engaged in a multi-year examination of fracking’s impact on nearby water supplies. To extract natural gas from shale, companies inject water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure to let the gas escape. This process, in which waste fluid sometimes flows back to the surface as well as remains underground, is currently exempt from the Safe Water Drinking Act and regulated instead by individual states.
On Wednesday, Armendariz called his comments “an offensive and inaccurate way to portray our efforts to address potential violations of our nation’s environmental laws.” Through a spokesman, he declined to comment Friday.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday: “The truth is better illustrated by . . . the impact that the administration’s policies have had, which is that oil and gas production has increased every single year that President Obama has been in office.”
Obama appointed Armendariz administrator of the EPA’s Region 6 in November 2009. A former professor at Southern Methodist University, Armendariz worked as an environmental activist before joining the administration.
Staff reporter Juliet Eilperin contributed to this story.