MAYBE AL ARMENDARIZ — until Monday, one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s top administrators — didn’t mean his comments to sound quite how they did. But they didn’t sound good. In a 2010 speech, now circulating online, Mr. Armendariz compared his “philosophy of enforcement” to ancient Roman soldiers’ practice of crucifying random victims in recently conquered territory.
The most reasonable interpretation is also among the most disturbing — that Mr. Armendariz preferred to exact harsh punishments on an arbitrary number of firms to scare others into cooperating. This sort of talk isn’t merely unjust and threatening to investors in energy projects. It hurts the EPA. Mr. Armendariz was right to resign this week, while EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson denied that his comments reflected the agency’s approach. Yet the question will remain: Is an aggressive attitude like the one Mr. Armendariz described common among EPA officials?
Maintaining the legitimacy of the EPA’s broad regulatory authorities requires the agency to use its powers fairly and, in so doing, avoid the impression that its enforcement is capricious or unduly severe. Mr. Armendariz’s comments violated the latter principle. Another recent, high-profile miscalculation on the part of the EPA violated the former.