This week, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe is promoting a video clip he says supports contentions by EPA critics that the agency is capriciously targeting fossil fuel industries.

Conservative websites, and even Politico, are running with Inhofe’s claims that the EPA is using “a ‘crucify them’ strategy” as it enforces pollution rules.

The clip in question features EPA Region 6 Administrator Al Armendariz describing Roman military tactics as an analogy for how an agency can enforce regulations with a small staff – to “hit them as hard as you can” and “make examples out of them.”

I was in a meeting once and I gave an analogy to my staff…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 would 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.

And, companies that are smart see that, they don’t want to play that game, and they decide at that point that it’s time to clean up.

YouTube video

Inhofe says the comments are proof that the agency is conducting a “war on fossil fuels.” Glenn Beck’s news website The Blaze also carries the narrative, saying the video “seems to confirm what many conservatives have long suspected: that the EPA is at war with the oil and gas industries.”

But if you actually watch the video, you’ll notice a few things. First, Armendariz doesn’t mention the oil and gas industries, or any particular industries at all (see update below). Second, and more importantly, what he’s describing is a deterrent effect – “making examples” of a handful of violators to encourage everyone to comply with the law. It’s the same reason all laws – from the speed limit to financial regulations – are selectively enforced (as opposed to having a police officer on every corner), and is a common rationale for, say, capital punishment, which Inhofe supports, incidentally.

Even The Blaze concedes that “it’s obvious Armendariz is simply using over-the-top imagery to deliver a somewhat entertaining (albeit macabre) analogy.” Armendariz has since apologized for the remarks.

So is this a damning indictment of the EPA or a political canard by Inhofe? I encourage readers to watch the video and decide for themselves.

UPDATE: The Daily Oklahoman provides more context for the clip, which came from a meeting in which Armendariz was addressing residents’ concerns about pollution from fracking operations:

According to media accounts of the 2010 town meeting, Armendariz was in Dish [TX] to address residents’ concerns about air emissions from oil and gas drilling in the Barnett Shale in northern Texas. He also spoke about hydraulic fracturing at the meeting, although he does not specifically mention fracking in the video clip released by Inhofe.

In a statement released Wednesday, Armendariz said, “I apologize to those I have offended and regret my poor choice of words.

“It was an offensive and inaccurate way to portray our efforts to address potential violations of our nation’s environmental laws. I am committed to fair and vigorous enforcement of our nation’s environmental laws.”

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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