It’s not clear why Al Armendariz, recently removed from a top post at the Environmental Protection Agency for saying that the government should “crucify” bad actors in the energy industry, abruptly canceled plans to testify before a House panel on Wednesday.
But it is clear that he was in Washington that day and met with someone—at the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental organization.
On Wednesday afternoon, when a reporter visited the Sierra Club’s Washington headquarters just a few blocks from Capitol Hill, Armendariz’s name was written on the sign-in sheet as having been the last person to visit the office. The visit apparently came only a few hours after Armendariz had infuriated Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee when he canceled his scheduled testimony on EPA enforcement issues without offering a reason.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune told National Journal in an interview that he hadn’t met with Armendariz but that he knew the former regional administrator at EPA was going to be in town.
“I knew we were going to be talking to him. I personally haven’t, but he’s been a long-time champion for public-health protections,” Brune said. “We expect him to have a long career in public health, so we’re happy to talk with him.” Brune said he didn’t know that Armendariz had canceled his planned appearance before the Energy and Commerce Energy and Power Subcommittee.
A lawyer representing Armendariz, Danny Onorato, did not respond to a request for comment. EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said that because the agency no longer employs Armendariz, EPA officials “did not advise him on whether or not to testify.” The Sierra Club also didn’t offer information about who there met with Armendariz.
Congressional GOP leaders were fuming in reaction to the news.
"The fact that Dr. Armendariz was just blocks away and still refused to testify at our hearing raises even more questions,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a statement. “If he had time on his schedule to meet with the Sierra Club, it is even less clear why he was unable to fulfill his prior commitment to testify.”
Upton and other Republican leaders of the Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to Onorato and EPA on Wednesday, asking why Armendariz canceled and requesting all communications between Armendariz and the agency about his invitation to testify.
“Why, several weeks after he had agreed to testify, did he retain counsel and withdraw?” Upton said at the hearing on Wednesday, which went on without Armendariz. “The EPA did not make a witness available to appear alongside Dr. Armendariz today. Did the Obama administration urge him not to appear? ... Congress and the American people deserve answers about this administration’s policies and practices, and we intend to get them.”
Armendariz resigned as EPA’s regional administrator for Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Mexico on April 30 after an uproar over his comment that EPA’s “general philosophy” with its enforcement policy should be to “crucify” oil and natural-gas companies.
The comments were made in 2010 but only became public this spring when aides to Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., discovered them in a YouTube video. After Inhofe turned the video into a national controversy over EPA’s enforcement strategy, it took less than a week—and an off-putting comment by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson—for Armendariz to resign.
Inhofe speculated on Thursday that Armendariz was at the Sierra Club to seek new employment, although when he took the EPA post in 2009 Armendariz announced that during his government service he would only be taking a leave of absence from Southern Methodist University, where he was an environmental engineering professor. He is still listed as a faculty member at SMU.
"Rather than testifying in the House and being accountable for carrying out the Obama-EPA's 'crucify them' agenda, it appears Mr. Armendariz may have had a job interview with the Sierra Club,” Inhofe said. “With such an impressive job-killing resume, it would be no surprise if the Sierra Club is recruiting him for their 'Beyond Gas' campaign designed to 'prevent any new gas plants from being built' and to end natural gas production in this country.”
The Sierra Club did not respond with more information about his visit on Thursday and Armendariz’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment throughout the day.
Armendariz’s visit to the Sierra Club could be particularly galling to House Energy and Commerce Republicans, who just last week released a statement blasting the organization for what they purport is a “none of the above” energy campaign.
The committee cited a Wall Street Journal editorial from last week that lambasted the Sierra Club for its “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign to oppose further reliance on natural gas, which has traditionally been seen as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil. The group’s campaign, first reported in National Journal, criticizes natural gas as “dirty, dangerous, and run amok,” according to a recently launched website for the campaign.
The House committee also cited examples of the Sierra Club's opposition to all types of energy, including renewable solar, wind, and nuclear power.
Brune dismissed the Republicans’ attack as lacking credibility and said his group supports the vast majority of clean-energy power, including helping 160,000 solar installations get up and running around the country.
“I’ll answer to just be polite,” Brune said. “It’s a clever line. It’s more political theater than anything else.”