Each announcement by President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team about his picks for cabinet positions flares public interest. Whether it’s ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department or former Texas Governor Rick Perry as secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, the appointments provide insight into what the businessman’s presidency might mean for America and the rest of the world.
Those appointments will have significant impacts here in New Mexico, which has 23 sovereign Native American tribes, millions of acres of federal lands and an abundance of natural resources like oil, gas, coal, copper and uranium. Not only that, but in the past five years, the state’s environmental regulations and agencies—which might have been able to hold the line against some of the incoming president’s policies—have been weakened during the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez.
When it comes to issues like science and environmental regulations, high-level staff picks have long-term impacts on everything from pollution trends and energy policy to the rate at which the Earth’s atmosphere is warming. Those changes also affect the lives of the employees who work for the agencies they lead.
The Trump administration could be similar to the George W. Bush era, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. “We’ve been to this rodeo before, but not with these crazy cowboys,” said Ruch.
During the Bush administration, Ruch said, Vice President Richard Cheney and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove centralized White House control over agencies in a way that hadn’t happened before.
The administration also became notorious for rewriting scientific documents and holding frequent briefings with high-level agency employees.
The Bush administration exerted such extreme control over issues related to science and the environment that early in President Barack Obama’s administration, he issued a memo on scientific integrity to the heads of executive agencies and departments. Obama directed each agency to draft scientific integrity policies that would strengthen the credibility of government research. The policies, which included barring public affairs officers from directing scientists to alter findings, were meant to boost public trust in science and the scientific processes informing policy decisions.
That’s not to say that the Obama administration has necessarily championed environmental issues or the agencies and employees working on natural resources.
“For the most part, except in recent months, it had been benign neglect,” Ruch said. “Even now, what’s going on is somewhat uneven.”
Energy development on public lands boomed under Obama, and environmental enforcement continued its decline during his administration. The crisis in Flint, Michigan underscored a lack of federal attention to local drinking water issues and, for the most part, biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service have continued focusing on reviewing new development projects, rather than doing what Ruch calls “deep science.”
Trump has already said he would eliminate NASA’s climate change work, which he called “politicized science.” But there are federal employees across a variety of agencies who work on climate change. Those employees could find themselves working for a so-called climate denier, or see their programs defunded. The Continuing Resolution just passed by Congress funds the federal government only through March.
Worried employees have been calling PEER since the election, and especially since Trump’s transition team submitted questions to the Department of Energy. Two of those questions asked for the names of all employees who worked on climate policy issues. After the department refused to supply those names, a spokesman for Trump told Reuters the “questionnaire was not authorized or part of our standard protocol.”
Despite Trump’s disavowal, the questionnaire sent a wave a fear through many agencies.
“That caused an awful lot of worried calls to us, with questions like, ‘Can they take away our pension?’” said Ruch. “People deduced that the only reason to get those names was to purge those people from the agency.”
At this point, it’s still unclear what type of management style Trump will bring to government, said Ruch.
“Unlike Bush and Cheney, who appeared to have a more consistent philosophy, consistency isn’t really a hallmark of Trump’s,” he said. “The question is: will they try to rewrite the record? Or, how will they handle information coming out of the vast bureaucracy that doesn’t support their political agenda?”
The agencies will likely see a wave of retirements. Not only due to Trump, but because Baby Boomers constitute a sizable percentage of the federal workforce. Ruch estimates that between a quarter and a third are going to be eligible for retirement soon.
“Almost none of these agencies appear to have coherent personnel plans to account for the loss of institutional expertise of these longtime veterans that are leaving,” he said.
PEER plans to corral that knowledge and use it in a way that benefits those who remain at the agencies.“We’re starting to network among retirees,” he said. “And we’re also doing outreach to the public employee unions.” That’s because many of the coming fights will likely be outside the realm of existing collective bargaining agreements.
Ruch said employees shouldn’t jump ship, but admitted, “I don’t believe we’re entering a golden age of public service.”
Federal agencies with big NM impacts
Agencies like the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration fund and oversee facilities in New Mexico like military bases, national laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Many of New Mexico’s communities are affected when those agencies’ budgets or priorities change.
But beyond those agencies, whose activities have a high economic profile profile in the state, there are others which have daily impact on all New Mexicans’ lives.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforces federal laws related to drinking water, air pollution and hazardous waste cleanup. The agency also works with tribes and states to set their own pollution standards. Almost half its budget goes toward grants for states and nonprofits for urban redevelopment of previously-contaminated areas, environmental education, pollution prevention and the cleanup of leaking underground storage tanks.
In May, for example, the New Mexico Environment Department received a $611,000 grant to support water pollution control, and the Pueblo of Santo Domingo received $122,000 for its environmental program.
Trump’s pick for EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has been Oklahoma’s Attorney General since 2011. In that position, Pruitt has challenged the federal overtime rule, sued the EPA over its Clean Power Plan and opposed protection for endangered species, such as the lesser prairie chicken.
In a blog post about “green activists” and the bird after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped plans to list it for protection under the Endangered Species Act, Pruitt wrote that represented “one tiny example of Americans winning over big-government power-grabbing bureaucrats.”
While AG, in 2011 Pruitt sent a letter to the EPA, complaining that the agency was overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by oil and gas operations in Oklahoma. As reported by the New York Times in 2014, that letter was written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of the oil and gas companies that operates in Oklahoma and many other states. Pruitt’s staff copied the letter on state letterhead, then sent it to the EPA with his signature.
Then there’s the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees many agencies that have high profiles in the West like the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation and Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.
In other words, DOI is responsible for everything from mine reclamation and trust responsibilities on American Indian lands to endangered species, public lands and water delivery to farmers. The department’s 2017 budget totaled $13.4 billion, and in New Mexico alone, it supports thousands of jobs. The Bureau of Land Management itself, for example, employs more than 600 in the state, the Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 300 and the Bureau of Reclamation, about 200.
Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke is Trump’s pick to lead that department.
Calling himself a “Constitutional conservative” and a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” Zinke is a lifelong hunter and angler. According to sportsmen’s groups, including the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, he has a “history of defending public access to federal lands.” But, noted the group, he has also opposed efforts to regulate pollution from oil and gas drilling, as well as the EPA’s Waters of the United States rule, which clarifies which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act.
Zinke has run for office four times, three times successfully, and raised over $10 million total during the four runs. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, nearly $4 million of that money came from “unitemized donations.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s additional choices for top posts are unlikely to champion environmental issues.
Rex Tillerson is CEO of ExxonMobil, which countered the warnings of its own experts, who had long warned about the link between carbon emissions and climate change.
In investigations published last year, reporters at InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times unearthed Exxon documents that show the energy giant’s own scientists had raised concerns about the impacts of the fossil fuel industry on climate change.
As early as 1978, for example, a senior scientist at the company said carbon releases from the burning of fossil fuels was influencing the global climate. He warned that “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
Instead of addressing the problems, the company funded a decades-long effort to discredit climate scientists and mislead the public.
In mid-December, Trump announced that he planned to nominate Tillerson as his Secretary of State.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Trump’s choice to head the Department of Energy, has deep connections with the oil and gas industry.
Even Trump’s pick for Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, Jr., could affect research related to climate and the environment. The Commerce department oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ross, whose net worth was pegged by Forbes Magazine at $2.5 billion, has spent his career specializing in bankruptcy, restructuring and privatization.
Udall troubled by nominees
New Mexico U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said he’s troubled by some of the nominees and the positions they’ve taken in the past.
“Our job in the Congress is to make sure they’re thoroughly vetted,” he said, adding that senators will need commitments about “where they’re headed in these particular agencies and departments they’re going to take over.”
Udall recently decided against a run for governor, choosing to stay in the Senate, where he said he can better serve New Mexicans. Udall currently serves on the Appropriations Committee, Commerce Committee and Foreign Relations Committee and will be the vice-chair of the Indian Affairs Committee.
In a recent news report, members of Trump’s Native American Affairs Coalition recommended placing tribal lands into private ownership.
According to Reuters, Markwayne Mullin, a Republican U.S. Representative from Oklahoma and a Cherokee tribe member, said, “We should take tribal land away from public treatment. As long as we can do it without unintended consequences, I think we will have broad support around Indian country.”
Udall said he would fight that effort, but also pointed there is no legal mechanism for privatizing Indian lands.
“These are sovereign nations. They have status under the Constitution of the United States, treaties that are the supreme law of the land,” he said. “This is what the tribes signed, treaties, with the U.S. government, many of them over 100 years ago.”
Udall is also confident that employees of the Interior Department and within the Bureau of Indian Affairs will advise Trump and his appointees on these issues.
“When he takes over as president, he’s going to have great career people to be able to advise him on what the realities are,” he said.
Udall also said that the election doesn’t wash away issues like environmental protections, civil liberties, health care and Native American rights. “Let’s not forget that the popular vote was substantial in the other direction,” he said. “This isn’t a mandate to dismantle major parts of bipartisan policy and laws that have been put into place in the past.”
Upheaval in New Mexico
Weathering the Trump administration’s likely assault on environmental regulations and management agencies will be more difficult for New Mexico than it was during the last Republican presidential administration. That’s in large part because one hallmark of Martinez’s administration has been a dismantling of environmental progress made during the previous administration of Bill Richardson, a Democrat, which largely overlapped with George W. Bush’s time as president.
While the Bush administration thwarted climate research and tried to skim or eliminate regulations, New Mexico at that time was moving forward on renewable energy and efficiency initiatives, drought and climate change planning and the regulation of wastewater from oil and gas drilling.
That has not been the case during the Martinez administration.
Just this week, Martinez announced that energy executive Ken McQueen would be leading the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD).
McQueen retired earlier this year from WPX Energy, a spinoff of Williams Energy.
WPX has rights to lease about 100,000 acres of federal, state and Navajo allottee lands in the San Juan Basin and has drilled more than 100 new oil wells in recent years along the Highway 550 corridor near Lybrook and Counselor.
The agency McQueen leads oversees applications and permits for new wells, regulates oil and gas activity in the state and enforces the state’s oil and gas statutes. EMNRD also manages the state’s forests and state parks.
McQueen will also implement Martinez’s Energy Plan. Released last year, that plan calls for “increased development of every kind of energy we can produce in New Mexico.” And he’ll oversee New Mexico’s Energy Roadmap Project.
The state recently released a request for proposals (RFP) for that project. According to the RFP, it will “bolster” state and regional energy planning efforts by facilitating discussions among stakeholders on energy issues, including natural gas, energy efficiency and renewable energy.
McQueen’s appointment isn’t out of character for Martinez, whose major campaign contributors since her 2010 run include Mack Energy, Me-Tex Oil and Gas, Chase Oil, Yates Petroleum, Devon Energy, Heyco Energy Group, Merrion Oil and Gas, Williams Energy, WPX Energy, McVay Drilling Company, Marbob Energy, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, Myco Industries, Koch Industries, McElvain Oil and Gas and other oil and gas companies and executives.
During her first days of office in 2011, Martinez terminated members of the Environmental Improvement Board, which had just approved a second new rule setting limits on carbon emissions. She also worked to eliminate rules related to everything from carbon emissions reporting and green building codes to the storage of wastewater from drilling.
Her first choice to lead EMNRD, back in 2011, was former astronaut and U.S. Senator Harrison Schmitt, an outspoken critic of scientists studying the links between rising greenhouse gas emissions and the Earth’s accelerated warming trend. Schmitt called environmentalists “communists” while appearing on the radio show of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Schmitt withdrew his name from consideration because he did not want to undergo background checks required by the state senate to consider confirmation.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has seen its share of upheaval, too.
“One of the first things that the administration did was to take bureau chiefs who had been doing a very effective job at protecting the environment, and who knew a great deal about what they were doing, and moved them into positions where they didn’t have that expertise or experience,” said Doug Meiklejohn, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “By doing things like that, the Martinez administration systematically decimated the department.”
The employees being shuffled around weren’t the top-level political appointees who are typically moved in and out of departments when a new governor takes office. NMED’s top air quality expert, for example, was moved into the occupational health and safety bureau. And the state’s longtime regulator for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP—who had been in that position for nearly 20 years—was relocated into the food safety bureau.
State programs related to climate change disappeared and staff who led those efforts left the department. Many of NMED’s attorneys, who had spent their careers defending environmental regulations from being weakened, started leaving, too.
The regulatory agencies are hurt in other ways.
NMED and EMNRD are both among the four state agencies whose staffing vacancies take the longest to fill. According to the State Personnel Office, the average time is more than 80 days. Of 744 staff positions at EMNRD, 230 were vacant as of early December. At NMED, 129 out of 649 jobs remain vacant.
Early in her administration, Martinez brought in Ryan Flynn from Modrall Sperling Law Firm to be NMED’s top attorney. Within two years, Flynn went from general counsel to secretary of the department.
He left NMED earlier this year to become executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, a lobbying group.
With environmental departments—and regulations—already weakened in New Mexico, the state is all the more vulnerable to the potential threats posed by the incoming Trump administration.
But this is no time to despair, according to Meiklejohn: “We are just redoubling our efforts.”