January 10, 2019

Q&A with incoming NMED head: A commitment ‘to go big on environmental issues’

Laura Paskus

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed James Kenney to head the New Mexico Environment Department

On Monday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced more executive appointments, including James Kenney as Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department. The next day, Kenney sat down with NM Political Report to talk about his vision for the agency.

Though he hadn’t officially started the job yet, the secretary-designate wanted to set a tone of transparency, which he expects to be “ubiquitous” throughout state agencies under Lujan Grisham. Having a more transparent website and a social media presence, he said, will also help people “feel confident that their environment is healthy, that their community is robust, and … that NMED is out there doing its job, and that we’re proud to implement our mission.”

Related: Q&A with NM’s incoming energy secretary

NMED doesn’t exist within a vacuum, he said, and the department will work closely with other state agencies, tribes, communities and nonprofits.

“I think being a cabinet secretary means that you use your ears more than your mouth,” Kenney said. “You need to listen and work with communities to make sure that you’re hearing them, and make sure that you’re explaining to them what the science is, what the technical solutions are and what kind of innovations can result from environmental protection.”

Kenney noted that when Lujan Grisham addressed the public during her inauguration speech, she called New Mexico’s environment “our greatest legacy and our greatest resource.”

“I think her statements are so akin to what NMED’s mission is,” he said, “and there’s such a commitment from her, through me, and through NMED, to go big on environmental issues.”

NMPR and Kenney met at the department’s Albuquerque office and spoke for about 40 minutes. What follows is an edited excerpt of that interview.

NMPR: Let’s start with your background: You’re a mystery to a lot of people. You’re not a past [Gov. Bill] Richardson appointee, and you’re coming to state government anew.

James Kenney: I’d been with [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA] for 20-some years, with a little break in between. I’m an engineer by education, I have a masters in engineering, and worked predominantly in the enforcement programs of EPA throughout my career, moving around the country with different programs.

In recent years, during the Obama administration, then-Administrator Gina McCarthy had asked me to work on oil and gas issues, and I developed an expertise in that area, the nexus between energy and environment. As a result of that, I had the opportunity to move to New Mexico and continue on in an oil-and-gas-producing state, being the oil and gas adviser. That happened before the current federal administration took over, and then when they came in, I kept the position. I think I brought a lot of continuity and consistency, [and an] understanding of the technical issues and an understanding of the environment issues, and I think that’s been much-appreciated at EPA.

Beyond that, I’ve spent a lot of time doing Clean Air Act enforcement, Clean Water Act enforcement, working on [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA] matters [and] working on the chemical industry, beyond oil and gas. I feel as though I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades in the regulatory arena, whether it’s been doing fieldwork or supporting litigation or writing state implementation plans under the Clean Air Act.

NMPR: Can you talk more about where environment and energy intersect?

James Kenney: In the role of a policy adviser, which I performed at EPA, when you’re looking at that nexus of energy and environment, you’re really looking at ‘Where can we make the biggest strides in environmental protection?’ [or] ‘What are the biggest issues that are coming out of the energy sector?’

Specific to oil and gas, a lot of folks think about fracking, and the potential contamination of groundwater, and on top of that, also about the produced water that comes out of those wells and how you manage that—[which is] a surface water issue that can lead to groundwater issues. Fracking and produced water can also lead to public drinking water concerns.

Beyond the water focus, [there are] air emissions, whether those are [volatile organic compound, or VOC] emissions that lead to ozone or whether those are methane emissions, which collaterally are emitted […and] are climate issues.

Those are the areas that I was focused on and will continue to focus on within New Mexico, where you’re looking at the science, the technology, how it affects communities, how it affects public health and you’re trying to balance all that to make the best possible decisions that one can make, that further the vision of the department.

NMPR: You’re still getting up to speed, but what are some of the top issues that NMED is going to have to address right off the bat here in New Mexico?

James Kenney: First and foremost, civil servants, public employees, have a tough time. I think one of the things that is really important to me is making sure that people who are at NMED are valued, are respected, are heard. That we’re moving forward together, we’re listening to each other. That’s a really big issue for me. Having been a public employee, and having at moments felt undervalued, I think we need to really hold those folks up and value that they come to work every day and implement this mission.

Beyond that, there are four points I’m going to mention. I’ll start with science. It’s a good word. And we need to rely on science—for regulations, for policies, and for decision-making.

Then, innovation. I think it’s interesting that we as a society promote [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM]—and we should—and yet, as we start to roll out the engineering and technical solutions, we sometimes question those. I want to make sure that we in the Environment Department are cutting-edge and that we’re relying on innovation through technology and innovation through engineering to implement good science, to implement good solutions for the environment.

Collaboration is the third t. Something I’ve been very successful with at EPA is ensuring that—whether it’s the NGO community or industry, whether [it’s] tribes or academia—that we all get in the room and we all work toward a common goal. I don’t have any romantic ideas that we will always all agree. But I think we can build upon the science, we can build upon the innovation and we can collaborate and we can work toward solutions.

The final piece of this is compliance. Without rules and regulations, and without our permits, and ensuring compliance with those, it’s somewhat meaningless. We need to ensure a fair and level playing field—and [ensure] that the folks that we’re trusting with that social license to operate, beyond the physical piece of paper, are actually doing what they say they’re doing.

Those four areas are ‘big picture’ for me. Thinking about those, and then thinking about all the things that are at the forefront of NMED, we’re certainly going to move on a methane regulation and addressing climate issues.

That’s going to take [the four tenets I mentioned]: We’re going to have to use science, we’re going to have to innovate, we’re going to have to collaborate and we’re going to have to ensure whatever we put in place is enforceable and has a level playing field.

I think it’s important to note that not only have I seen this working in other states, it’s working in other states [as a regulatory program or as part of an environmental agency program] while also bringing jobs. I don’t subscribe to [the idea] that there’s a mutual exclusivity here [between environmental protection and the economy]. I think that is old thinking.

We also have a number of Superfund sites, we have a number of groundwater permits, we have a number of hazardous waste type permits. I want to ensure that there’s somewhat of a larger system balance, meaning … we don’t want any current operations to become Superfund sites. We want to ensure that those legacy sites are cleaned up, and we want to be sure ultimately that our groundwater and surface water and our land is as [clean] as possible. I want to take a step back and think about that, ‘If we’re having spill after spill after spill, what’s the root cause? Can we change behavior?’ So that we’re not just cleaning up, but that we’re preventing. I’m confident that NMED is already doing that, but I want to take a step back and also think about it as well.

We’re a state that has a lot of private industry, and we’re a state that also has a lot of federal installations. We have unique things here, like [the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP], like two national labs, and I want to have the equivalent relationships with those federal installations [as with the industries NMED regulates].

And I say ‘installations,’ but I’m also referring to things like federal lands, which aren’t installations, but have a lot of environmental implications in terms of their leasing and mineral rights and things like that.

NMPR: Under the Richardson administration, NMED had been moving forward with studies and rules and programs focused on climate change. I think that those all ended under Gov. Susana Martinez in the last eight years. What role does NMED play when it comes to climate change in New Mexico?

James Kenney: The Richardson administration ended…at the end of 2010, so look at the last eight years for example. The science has certainly shifted and changed, it’s gotten better. The innovation, with respect to technology, has gotten much better. We have NASA-JPL imagery of a [methane] hotspot in New Mexico. We have data analytics that can predict emissions, [we have climate models]. A lot has changed since that time. I think it merits looking at the investment that the state had made [during the Richardson administration], in thinking about what is still applicable, and marrying that up with what states are doing today, and what technology could allow us to do today.

NMPR: You’re in a different role now, but one of the things EPA and NMED had been working on was a produced water plan, so I’m curious where that’s at?

James Kenney: With respect to that particular paper, there’s been a serious investment in the treatment of produced water, there’s been a financial, scientific investment [from private industry]. There will be more of it, and I think it makes for good governance for regulators to anticipate what’s coming so that we can be as protective as we need to be, and yet still as competitive as we need to be as a state to bring those technologies in. The effort that the three state agencies and EPA made was merely a collaboration on what the existing rules allow for, and where those existing rules are unclear.

NMPR: Like many state agencies, NMED has been underfunded and understaffed the past few years. [The current vacancy rate at NMED is as high as 18 percent.] Can you talk about that at all?

James Kenney: [Note: Kenney is still being briefed on budget and staffing issues and couldn’t speak to that issue right now.]

Public service is a noble profession, and if you want to maintain the best science and the best people, we really need to make NMED and state government a robust place that people want to come in and work. Cuts like that—if we’re down 18 percent or so—really mean people are doing a lot more than when they signed up.

NMPR: Anything else our readers should know right now?

James Kenney: I’m not a native New Mexican, I elected to be here. This is where I want to be, and I want to be here because of the environment, because of the people, because of the culture, because of the red chile. So when I had the opportunity to come on board, to be in the place that I want to be, to be affiliated with a governor who I completely believe in her vision, it was a no-brainer—so I could be ‘all in’ in New Mexico. That to me, is the best part of this job.