Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Looking at EPA Enforcement, Beyond the Rhetoric

Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Tony Waldrope of the Garner spill response cleaning company walks among tubes used to contain an oil spill in flood waters at the idle Valero oil refinery 25 September 2005 in Port Arthur, Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.

The saying goes, “Don’t Mess With Texas,” and that was certainly the attitude on display today when a group of Texas regulators testified before a Congressional committee in Washington.

At a the hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power entitled “EPA Enforcement Priorities and Practices,” the head of the Railroad Commission of Texas, Barry Smitherman, and the chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Bryan Shaw, took turns criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its recently-resigned regional director Al Armedariz (who was also supposed to testify at the hearing, but canceled at the last minute). Smitherman and Shaw, along with other oil, gas and energy representatives, aired their usual grievances: the EPA has overreacted to allegations of fracking contamination, whether in Texas, Pennsylvania, or Wyoming; and the states are doing a fine job of regulating themselves without any intervention needed from the feds. There’s a wrap-up in the Texas Tribune by Kate Galbraith, but suffice it to say there’s little news to be had. Texas regulators don’t like the EPA, and the sky is still blue.

But there was one member of the panel that brought some statistical calm to the proceedings. Joel Mintz, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, has studied the EPA for three decades. And he told the committee that despite all the anti-EPA rhetoric being used to attack the Obama administration, enforcement at the agency hasn’t changed since the president took office.

“My main point is simple and straightforward,” he told the committee. “For the past three and a half years, EPA’s approach to enforcement has employed the same overall philosophy and strategy that have characterized EPA enforcement since the 1970s.” Mintz said that rather than being overzealous or draconian, the EPA under Obama has instead “followed longstanding patterns, established at the EPA well before 2009.”

Mintz offered some numbers to back up this claim. Looking at EPA enforcement reports, he found that during the George W. Bush administration, fines for violations came in around $117 million per year. During the Obama administration fines are actually lower, on average $115 million per year.

Enforcement actions against oil and gas companies are down, too. Mintz found that there were 87 enforcement actions by the EPA in 2011. In 2002, there were 224. “Although there may well be good explanations for these declines,” he testified, “they do support the overall conclusions of my historical research: EPA’s enforcement work during the Obama period has been similar in nature to its work in nearly every administration since the Agency was established, regardless of the party affiliation of the president.”

Mintz said that the reason for this is that the EPA’s enforcement is largely done by career professionals, “not by political appointees.”

A recent report by the Associated Press reached the same conclusion: enforcement by the EPA is actually down under Obama.

More from that report:

“EPA officials said the lower enforcement numbers reflect a strategy that focuses on the violations that pose the most significant risks to human health and the environment. Many of those occur not at well sites, but at other points in the oil and gas process, such as collection sites and refineries.

The agency, struggling with constant budget cuts in recent years, also doesn’t have the manpower to police all the wells nationwide. The states often have more inspectors on the ground than does the federal government. In Texas, for example, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has 500 inspectors, all of whom do some work with the state’s nearly 400,000 oil and gas wells. The Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that oversees drilling, has 153 inspectors. The EPA in all of Region 6 has two oil and gas inspectors.”

You can read more about at our topic page, Everything You Need to Know About the EPA.


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