As His Replacement is Announced, Dr. Al Speaks Out in Austin

Maybe the EPA knew their former Region 6 Administrator Al Armendariz would be doing a one-on-one interview with the New-York Times-connected Texas Tribune as part of its annual festival on Saturday, or maybe it's just coincidence that the Agency named Armendariz's replacement very late Friday evening.

Whatever behind-the-scenes coordination did or did not take place, the appointment of New Mexico's Ron Curry as the new Region 6 chief gave Armendariz a slightly more removed historical perspective, and maybe willingness to talk, than he might have had otherwise.

Here's a live blogging of the interview that the Tribune's Evan Grant did with Armendariz from the Tribune festival itself in the middle of a forum on energy and the environment (11 am to 12 noon). Elizabeth Souder's recap for the Dallas Morning News is behind the paper's paywall, but here's a peak:

Former EPA regional admin Armendariz said anti-EPA court cases delay the inevitable

AUSTIN — Recent court cases striking down Environmental Protection Agency rules are just delaying the inevitable, said former regional EPA administrator Al Armendariz, who quit after a video surfaced showing him comparing his approach to Roman crucifixion.

Armendariz, who resigned as Region 6 administrator earlier this year and now works on an anti-coal campaign with the Sierra Club, said the agency will just re-write and re-apply the cross-state air pollution rule on coal plant emissions and its rejection of Texas’ flexible air permit rules. Some conservative Texas politicians regarded court decisions knocking down those rules as major victories.

Further, Armendariz said, the court decisions don’t show that the EPA was wrong. No, he said, the decisions show that the courts are wrong.

“They point out to me the importance of getting the President to appoint justices on the federal judiciary that will follow the law,” Armendariz said at a conference held by the Texas Tribune.

“I’m confident those actions, as written, were written completely in compliance with the law, and when those rules are revised that the agency is going to win any future litigation,” he said.

Armendariz defended his former employer and praised his successor at the Saturday appearance. He said the EPA and the White House have been working to implement the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, laws passed by Congress decades ago but never fully applied.

He criticized Texas environmental regulators who enable polluters, and called on energy regulators and lawmakers to create a plan to meet the state’s electricity needs with renewables.

Armendariz resigned in April after criticism over his comments in a video. In the video, he makes an analogy about his philosophy of enforcement. 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’d crucify them. And then, you know, that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.

“And so you make examples out of people who are in this case not compliant with the law. Find people who are not compliant with the law, and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them, and there is a deterrent effect there.”

Arendariz on Saturday said he had apologized because his analogy offended people, which wasn’t his intent. But he didn’t back off the idea of deterring illegal polluting by punishing lawbreakers.

“I do stand behind the concept of my comments,” he said. “When you find someone who is violating the law, you do, within the boundaries of the law, vigorously prosecute.”

He said doing so ensures that illegal polluters don’t gain an unfair advantage over companies following the rules.

Texas Tribune chief executive Evan Smith said some people regarded the video as confirmation that Armendariz had it in for the energy industry.

Armendariz said such criticism was unfair, since in the video, he says his enforcement philosophy is for companies breaking the law.

Nor did he act alone by going after polluters. He said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and her Washington staff had been “very involved with what we were doing in Texas.”

But he said leadership at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state regulatory arm of the EPA, is lax.

“There are some fantastic staff at TCEQ, and I think they’ve got poor leadership. I think the Governor’s appointees at that commission are preventing the staff from doing its job,” he said.

TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw has criticized the EPA’s recent rules that would tighten regulations on coal plant pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

And he praised his successor at the EPA, Ron Curry, the first non-Texan to lead the region that covers Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. The president announced the appointment last week.

“Ron is pragmatic, he’s very smart. He understands the need for conservation and the need for economic development,” Armendariz said.

Armendariz also said people who don’t believe in climate change are doomed to become irrelevant, just as doctors who don’t believe smoking causes cancer.

“I think the science of climate change is really irrefutable and those folks who are continuing to deny that climate change is a problem are really on the wrong side of history,” he said.

Now, Armendariz leads the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign, which aims to keep coal in the ground. He said so-called clean coal plants, which pollute less than traditional coal plants and capture greenhouse gases, are too expensive to justify coal mining. 

“Clean coal I think is technically feasible, but I think it’s completely unnecessary,” he said.

He conceded the country will continue to use coal for the next decade. But he said coal isn’t necessary to keep the lights on.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has said the state is in danger of outages in the next few years because power plant developers haven’t build enough new generation to keep up with growing demand. The prospect of shutting down coal plants because of stiffer environmental regulations has left some regulators nervous about blackouts.

Armendariz said the reliability problem is due to a “complete lack of leadership and forethought.” He called on regulators and lawmakers to solve the problem with long-term planning and a vision centered on renewables, such as wind and solar.