WASHINGTON — In the three years since President Barack Obama took office, Republicans have made the Environmental Protection Agency a lightning rod for complaints that his administration has been too tough on oil and gas producers.
But an Associated Press analysis of enforcement data over the past decade finds that’s not the case. In fact, the EPA went after producers more often in the years of Republican President George W. Bush, a former Texas oilman, than under Obama.
Also, the agency’s enforcement actions have declined overall since 2002 and reached their lowest point last year, the review found.
Accusations of EPA overzealousness peaked in April. That’s when a regional administrator resigned after a two-year-old video surfaced in which he compared enforcement of oil and gas regulations with how the Romans used to conquer villages, by finding “the first five guys they saw and they’d crucify them.” GOP critics publicized the video of Al Armendariz, who headed the region that includes Texas and other major oil- and gas-producing states, as an example of what was wrong with an agency that Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney calls “completely out of control.”
“We have a genuine concern that his comments reflect the agency’s overall enforcement philosophy,” six Republican congressmen from Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana said in a joint statement the day Armendariz stepped down.
Romney has expressed distaste for the EPA’s tactics. The agency, he said late last year, “is a tool in the hands of the president to crush the private enterprise system, to crush our ability to — to have energy, whether it’s oil, gas, coal, nuclear.”
Actually, the U.S. produced more oil in 2010 than it has since 2003, and all forms of energy production have increased under Obama, but he can’t take credit for all of it.
Armendariz’s territory, which also includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, has more oil and gas wells than any of EPA’s nine other regions. But the number of enforcement cases against companies working those wells has been lower every year under Obama than any year under Bush.
That trend extends to the rest of the country, where the number of enforcement actions against oil and gas producers dropped by 61 percent over the past decade, from 224 in 2002 to 87 last year. The decline came despite an increase in the number of producing wells and despite the EPA’s listing of energy extraction as an enforcement priority under Obama. So far this year, the administration has filed 51 formal enforcement cases against energy producers.
While there has been an uptick in the average fine against companies producing oil and gas since 2007, when the penalty reached a low in the decade evaluated by the AP, the average is still lower than during some years under Bush, who was viewed as sympathetic to the oil and gas industry.
The year 2011 was an exception; the average soared due to a $20.5 million fine against a BP subsidiary in Alaska. That was the largest penalty against an oil and gas producer under Obama, but it was for a pipeline spill that happened five years earlier.
States usually take the lead on oil and gas enforcement, and federal regulations make clear that is preferred. The EPA’s role is mostly limited to ensuring that state rules are in line with federal regulations designed to protect drinking water, waterways and the air.
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.
EPA critics say the problem is bigger than enforcement. They point to regulations that they say hamper oil and gas production and raise refining costs, while giving an advantage to renewable fuels.
“It is this whole mentality that this administration continues to have as they try to pick winners and losers in the marketplace, as they force consumers off oil and gas,” said Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade group that represents the refineries and chemical plants that process oil and natural gas.
In articles, Drevna has written that “resignation or not, Obama and the EPA are determined to pursue policies that Armendariz so accurately described.”
Critics also say that the data only tell part of the story, since it doesn’t include violation notices or emergency orders — such as the one that Armendariz issued in 2010 to Range Resources to stop contaminating a drinking water well and to supply residents with clean water within 48 hours.
The order was later withdrawn after a state court ruled that the evidence linking the company’s hydraulic fracturing to the well’s contamination had been falsified.