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The GOP's Continued EPA Witchhunt

J. Mijin Cha

It’s hard to imagine that an industry that has spent over $28 million on federal and state campaign contributions this election cycle alone would be victimized by government regulation, but that is the cry coming from the oil and gas industry. Well, more accurately, that is the cry coming from politicians in the pockets of those industries.

A few weeks ago, a senior EPA official resigned after video surfaced from two years ago in which he used a poorly worded analogy likening environmental law enforcement to the Roman crusades. In remarks to a small Texan town concerned about the environmental damage from fracking, the regional administrator for the South Central region, Alfredo Armendariz, stated that the Romans would conquer villages by crucifying individuals and instilling fear, and likewise, companies could be prodded into obeying environmental laws by making examples out of people who are not complying with the law.

Was it the best use of words? No. Was it the sign of an administration-wide conspiracy against the oil and gas industry? Definitively not. Yet, predictably, the Right was up in arms. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s spokesman stated, “This isn’t just one person, this is an entire agencywide philosophy. He stepped down, but unfortunately the agency is still there and that whole mind-set is still there.” I would expect nothing less from Perry’s spokesperson given that he is the top recipient of money from individuals within the oil and gas industry.

Likewise, the calls for a broader witch hunt are led by Senator James Inhofe, whose top contributor is the oil and gas industry-- which contributes more than three times the amount as his next highest contributor. Inhofe, by the way, is one of the leading climate deniers. In total, the oil and gas industry has spent over $28 million in political contributions in this election cycle alone. Eighty-six percent of it went to Republicans. On top of that, the industry spent more than $110 million in lobbying.

The Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer shows the extent to which money has permeated politics and policy. Exxon Mobil, for instance, has not only spent over $10 million on lobbying (again, just this year alone), but they also sit on 11 congressional committees as “advisors.” At the same time, they have five contractor misconduct fines, including one for over $25 million for asbestos exposure, and three EPA violations. Yet, they still received 10 government contracts—one for nearly $70 million. Given Exxon received over $270 million in contracts, the money it spent on campaign contributions and lobbying paid off extremely well.

This fits a broader pattern of an energy industry that uses its money and political muscle to evade accountability. As reported by Greenwire last year:

Oil and gas drillers who pollute groundwater, spill toxic chemicals or break other rules have little to fear from the inspectors and agencies regulating the surge in American petroleum production.

A Greenwire review of enforcement data from the largest drilling states shows that only a small percentage of violations result in fines, and the fines that are levied often amount to little more than a rounding error for billion-dollar companies.

In Texas, 96 percent of the 80,000 violations by oil and gas drillers in 2009 resulted in no enforcement action. West Virginia, a state with 56,000 wells, issued 19 penalties last year. And Wyoming, the center of Rocky Mountain energy, collected $15,500 in fines in 2010.

Pennsylvania, the most aggressive about fining violators, sought penalties for more than a quarter of the violations found last year. It levied fines for 4 percent of the violations, with the penalties totaling $3.7 million. The largest of those was a $900,000 fine against a drilling company that contaminated the water of 16 homes.

That was less than the profits the company makes in three hours.

Some states don't even track key enforcement data, so regulators don't know which companies have already been fined repeatedly.

Judging by these facts, Armendariz was spot on: we do need to make some examples of companies that break the rules, since the current strategy of enforcement is not working.

Armendariz will testify before a House panel in June about EPA enforcement priorities and practices. Besides being a total waste of time and taxpayer money, the more frustrating aspect of this witch hunt is that Armendariz was doing his job. Yes, the words he chose were terrible. But, one of the main roles of the EPA is to crack down on polluters. It is called the Environmental Protection Agency. Its purpose is not to coddle industries and ignore their environmental violations. It is a pretty sad indictment of our current political environment that people are being persecuted for doing their jobs. Sad but not surprising given the massive amount of money pouring into our political system.