The resignation Monday of Al Armendariz, the controversial regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency, was cheered by many Texas officials and bemoaned by environmental activists, leaving it unclear how his departure may affect regulatory enforcement of gas drilling operations.
Armendariz, a longtime advocate of tougher pollution rules for industry, was appointed by President Barack Obama to the EPA's Region 6 office, which oversees Texas and four other states. While a professor at Southern Methodist University, he gained public notice in 2009 with a study asserting that natural gas operations in the Barnett Shale gave off more emissions than all the region's cars and trucks combined.
In 2010, he issued an emergency order against Fort Worth-based Range Resources accusing it of contaminating two Parker County water wells with natural gas. Range fiercely contested the finding in court and before Texas regulators, and the order was withdrawn March 30.
Last week, Armendariz came under fire when a video recording of a 2010 community meeting surfaced in which he likened his approach at the EPA to Roman conquerors who used crucifixion to deter dissent. He apologized for the remarks, but EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Friday that the comments "don't comport with our record."
Armendariz wrote to Jackson: "As I have expressed publically, and to you directly, I regret comments I made several years ago that do not in any way reflect my work as regional administrator. I have come to the conclusion that my continued service will distract you and the agency from its important work." The agency released his letter Monday.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, told The Associated Press that Armendariz has received death threats. Sam Coleman, a career official who led the agency's response to Hurricane Katrina and was Armendariz's deputy, took over as acting regional administrator.
Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of Dish, said he invited Armendariz to speak at the gathering in the small Denton County community where he made the crucifixion analogy. Tillman said Monday that Armendariz was catching heat from skeptical residents who thought previous meetings with regulators about controlling emissions from huge gas compressors and equipment had been futile.
"I think that probably led him to use the analogy he used," said Tillman, who now lives in Aubrey, where he is interim director of ShaleTest.org, which conducts environmental tests for low-income people affected by drilling.
Whatever Armendariz's words, Tillman said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality "was a lot more aggressive after he got involved."
The agency was among the Texas parties to applaud Armendariz's departure, saying in a statement that "we approve of the decision" while taking a shot at the federal agency.
"This EPA administration has been unwavering in its determination to impose new regulations and new costs on Americans and American industry, often without any real scientific determination that new laws will result in any environmental benefits. Dr. Armendariz's mistake was that he slipped and unveiled the EPA's questionable and draconian enforcement philosophy," the statement said.
It was among many that shared a similar view.
U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, said "a practiced pattern of hostility was illustrated by the Armendariz enforcement philosophy."
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, said that Armendariz's comments were "inappropriate" and that "Texas air quality has improved in the last two decades."
And the Texas Oil & Gas Association backed "a Congressional investigation into the EPA's enforcement strategy."
The agency, perhaps more than any other, has found itself in the GOP's cross hairs. Republicans including presidential contender Mitt Romney, who has called for Jackson herself to be fired, have blamed the agency for high gasoline prices and clamping down on American energy.
But Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter, called Armendariz's resignation "a major loss for Texas. He brought a breath of fresh air -- literally and figuratively -- to Texas in his vigorous enforcement of the federal Clean Air Act."
Kramer said in a statement that Armendariz "was one of the best Region 6 EPA administrators who have served since the post was created in the 1970s. The only people who will celebrate this resignation are the polluters who continue to foul Texas air and the politicians who serve those special interests."
Drilling critic Sharon Wilson, an organizer for the Earthworks environmental group, said "drilling-impacted communities lost a champion." Armendariz's departure, she said, "is regrettable because it may signal a premature end of what is a much-needed public conversation about what effective environmental enforcement is."
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said that remains to be seen.
"When things like this happen, I talk about the second-day story," Jillson said. "There will be more information about pressures brought to bear. Did Washington cut him loose? Once we know those things it will be clearer."
Jillson, who said he has not met Armendariz, said he was surprised by the resignation.
"Being a federal official, the expectation is you'll speak relatively carefully," he said. "The comments were incendiary, but not a firing offense."
Tillman said that while Armendariz's fate "pulls the rug out from under property owners" fighting the impact of natural gas development, it's also possible that it will motivate the critics.
"I'm pretty sure we haven't heard the last of Dr. Armendariz," Tillman said.
As natural gas development and hydraulic fracturing have spread across the country, many efforts have been started to assess the risk of environmental damage.
On Monday, a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said the federal Institute of Medicine will examine whether fracking "poses potential health challenges."
Health concerns include the potential for water contamination and air pollution, Christopher Portier, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, said at a workshop in Washington.
This report includes material from The Associated Press and Bloomberg News.
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