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Braving the political winds

EPA official Robbie Roberts took a stand against unbridled energy development

 

After oil and gas drilling ramped up on Wyoming’s Pinedale Anticline in 2000, Perry Walker, a retired Air Force physicist and amateur astronomer, noticed that the once crystal-clear night skies were becoming hazy. Even with a telescope, Walker could hardly see some of the stars and galaxies with which he’d become familiar during his 16 years in the area.

When Environmental Protection Agency officials came to Pinedale this January to look into complaints that drillers had violated environmental standards, Walker accompanied them on a van tour of the nearby gas fields. Walker discussed air quality issues with a staffer on the ride back to town. “I gave him a lengthy dissertation on why I objected to the (agency’s) heavy reliance on computer modeling for air quality,” he remembers. “Their code has some Achilles’ heels. And there needs to be empirical measurements to validate these models.”

At lunch, Walker says he stated his position directly to Robert “Robbie” Roberts, the now-former head of EPA’s Region 8 in Denver, Colo. “He listened and said, yes, I understand what you’re saying.”

Just a few weeks after that van tour, Roberts sent a letter of reckoning to the Wyoming BLM office. He took the agency to task for not adequately controlling the impacts of expanded drilling on Pinedale’s air and water quality.

By the time he retired in June, Roberts had won the respect of conservationists around the West for his stance on energy production. The industry-friendly Bush administration has imposed few restrictions on oil and gas drillers, allowing companies largely unfettered access to Western public lands. Roberts’ criticism of the BLM bucked the administration right in Vice President Dick Cheney’s home state. “Such an act is pretty rare overall and exceedingly rare in (this) administration,” says Peter Aengst of The Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont. “His letter created quite a stir.”

Despite numerous requests, Roberts declined an interview with High Country News this spring. In May, he took a month off for knee surgery. Then, on June 17, Roberts abruptly retired. An EPA spokesman says he plans to spend time with his family in Alabama.

His departure was preceded by the May resignation of another top EPA official. Mary Gade, formerly administrator for the Midwest’s Region 5, left the agency after she  pushed for Dow Chemical to be held accountable for dioxin pollution in Michigan. Allegedly, administration appointees forced her to quit after she spoke out in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. Agency critics fear that her resignation will dampen other EPA administrators’ willingness to take strong anti-industry positions. And Roberts’ sudden departure could cast a further chill.



During his career, Roberts made several decisions that were more popular with the boards of environmental nonprofits than with those of major corporations. Many conservationists see him as “a huge hero” because of his “courageous” stance against unfettered gas development, says Aengst.

Roberts was appointed to lead Region 8, which encompasses Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, by then-EPA Administrator Christine Whitman in March 2002. His previous career included 23 years in the Air Force, ending with his retirement as a colonel in 1990. After serving as secretary of South Dakota’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Roberts helped create the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) in 1995 to act as a liaison between state and federal agencies on environmental management issues. He was the nonprofit’s first executive director until the EPA came calling.

By and large, Roberts has kept a low profile throughout his career. R. Steven Brown, who co-founded ECOS with Roberts, describes him  as a political conservative who has “always been a defender of the states and their role in the environment.” Frank Montarelli, former public affairs staffer at Region 8, says he’s friendly, garrulous and a great public speaker, and Walker calls him “a consummate diplomat.”

But Roberts’ early years at Region 8 weren’t particularly distinguished. Largely seen as ineffective – Region 8 employees called him “invisible” in a 2003 survey by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- Roberts started gaining notice last year for his pro-environment opinions.

By that point, locals had long accused the BLM’s Wyoming office and the energy industry of violating federal air and water standards on the Pinedale Anticline and marring the once-pristine visibility. This year, the town of Pinedale has even seen ozone alerts, events typical of major urban areas, not rural hamlets.

In February, Roberts sent a strongly worded 16-page letter responding to the BLM’s draft plan to increase wells in the Pinedale area from 700 to more than 4,000 over 30 years. “EPA is concerned about the potential environmental and health impacts” caused by elevated ozone levels due to gas development, wrote Roberts. The letter was a resounding call for the industry to put in more emissions controls before drilling additional wells. Roberts further described groundwater impacts as “environmentally unsatisfactory” and concluded that development “should not proceed as proposed.”

Beyond the Pinedale Anticline, other Region 8 activities under Roberts ran against prevailing policies. In February, Region 8 official Larry Svoboda raised questions regarding the “breadth of exceptions” in Forest Service plans, written in concert with state officials, for logging Colorado’s pine beetle-ravaged roadless areas. In March, the office joined with other agencies — and local environmentalists — in calling for more study about the impact of exploratory drilling in southwestern Colorado’s Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

This spring, Roberts wrote a letter to Selma Sierra, director of the BLM in Vernal, Utah, declaring that agency had not thoroughly investigated the impact of drilling in the state’s petroglyph-rich Nine Mile Canyon. He said that the BLM’s model, which showed only a small increase in ground-level ozone, was “not technically defensible,” and went so far as to declare the entire analysis “inadequate” -- a move Utah conservationists applauded as uncommonly bold .

BREAK

Roberts’ actions haven’t been universally lauded, though. His office has drawn plenty of criticism for the asbestos cleanup (or lack thereof) near Libby, Mont.; the original problem pre-dates his appointment, but anger has continued to mount. Montana ranchers and environmental groups have also criticized Region 8 for not enforcing pollution controls on coalbed methane development.

And there have been serious questions about the agency’s broader effectiveness. In late July, several Democratic senators demanded that EPA head Stephen Johnson resign for alleged perjury and obstruction of justice regarding his December denial of California’s request to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

A survey of EPA scientists conducted earlier this year by the Union of Concerned Scientists highlighted 889 instances of political interference in the last five years. Region 8 was no exception, with its employees’ responses reflecting a hotly political workplace. But respondents also showed a considerably higher level of respect for EPA leadership in Denver than for its counterpart in Washington, D.C.: In Region 8, 93 percent of staffers respected local officials, compared to 44 percent who said they respected top agency leadership.

Ultimately, the fact that two top EPA administrators in a few short months left their posts after taking tough stands against big business might just be a coincidence. But critics say that the notorious politicization of the Justice Department is repeating itself in the EPA. An e-mail ordering rank-and-file staffers not to speak directly to federal investigators or reporters -- sent by Robbi Farrell, the head of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance -- only added to the controversy when it became national news in late July.

Up on the Pinedale Anticline, Perry Walker doesn’t need his telescope to see the political wrangling between the EPA and the Bush administration. An EPA staffer in Denver confirmed to him by telephone that Roberts was called to Washington, D.C., this spring to answer for his stance on Pinedale, Walker says.

Roberts’ retirement, at least as described by Walker, fits “a consistent pattern” under the Bush administration, says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He cites Mary Gade’s case as the prime example. “Independence is not tolerated from the EPA administrators. If campaign contributors complain back to Washington, D.C., people are called onto the carpet.”

Eric Peterson is a writer who lives in Denver. His most recent book is Ramble Colorado (Speck Press, 2008).