A former secretary for New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) will head the EPA’s Region 6. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler tapped Ken McQueen to oversee environmental protection for New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas along with 66 Tribal Nations. McQueen, who is a climate change denier and former oil executive, is the latest Trump administration appointee whose track record appears to be at odds with his new position. “Ken’s experience in public service and familiarity with natural resource issues make him an excellent choice to lead the Region 6 office,” Wheeler said in a statement announcing the selection. McQueen’s industry experience in oil and gas far outweighs his public service.
Concho Resources really wants to get to know you. At least, if you’re on the Legislative Finance Committee. The oil and gas company’s lobbyist reported spending $4,173 at the upscale Santa Fe restaurant La Casa Sena last month on “relationship building” with the influential committee. Lobbyists had a deadline Tuesday night to report spending from the beginning of October to the end of December. This restaurant tab was the single biggest expense disclosed by any of the Capitol’s legion of professional wheelers and dealers.
On Wednesday, Gov. Susana Martinez and her energy secretary testified in Washington, D.C. that New Mexico is losing revenue from oil and gas drilling due to bureaucratic backlogs. Martinez and Ken McQueen, a former energy executive who now heads the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, testified before a House committee in support of four energy bills, including two proposed by Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM. Before running for Congress, Pearce owned and operated an oilfield services company. In November, he will face Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham in the race for New Mexico governor. In Martinez’s spoken remarks before the House Resources Committee, she criticized the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for its slow pace in approving drilling applications, blaming those delays on $2 million of lost revenues per day.
Elected officials will weigh in this week on key energy issues, both in Albuquerque and Washington D.C. What happens in those hearings and committee meetings might not grab headlines, but they affect landscapes, communities and the lives of all New Mexicans, whether they live close to oil and gas wells and coal mines, or hundreds of miles away. When private companies drill or mine on federal lands, they pay a percentage in royalties. Right now, that’s 12.5 percent for onshore coal, oil and gas, though an Obama-era rule—overturned last year—updated valuation rates to increase royalty collections. About half the money collected goes to the federal government and half to the state where the mining or drilling occurred. New Mexico currently receives more royalties from extraction on federal lands than any other state.
Last June, Gov. Susana Martinez joined incident commanders and U.S. Forest Service officials to update local residents on yet another forest fire. She had already declared a state of emergency and called in the state National Guard for the Dog Head Fire in the Manzano Mountains near Albuquerque. Since taking office five years earlier, Martinez had presided over similar meetings across New Mexico while various fires and millions of acres of forest burned. With global warming, the number and size of fires has increased and fire season has lengthened by about two months in the western United States. Even a 2005 report prepared by the state warned that New Mexico’s forests were vulnerable to “catastrophic” wildfires and massive diebacks.
With all the big oil and gas news over the last few weeks, it might be hard to keep track of the different rules, agencies, court rulings and studies—and what they mean for New Mexico. Last week, U.S. District Judge James “Jeb” Boasberg ruled that the federal government’s environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline was insufficient. The ruling came after the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River tribes sued the federal government, arguing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t complied with the National Environmental Policy Act when it greenlighted plans to build the oil pipeline under Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River. In his opinion, Boasberg wrote that the court agrees that the federal government didn’t adequately consider how an oil spill would affect fishing rights, hunting rights or environmental justice issues. It’s not clear, however, if the company must cease operations while the Corps of Engineers reconsiders certain sections of its environmental analysis.
Even as temperatures rise in the southwestern United States and across the globe, climate change doesn’t often grab the interest of many New Mexico’s state legislators. But during the Senate’s confirmation of Ken McQueen as secretary of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department the issue came up repeatedly, both in the Senate Rules Committee and later in the day on the Senate floor. Nominated in December by Gov. Susana Martinez, McQueen retired last year as San Juan vice president from WPX Energy. McQueen spent nearly four decades in the oil and gas business and worked taught Petroleum Engineering at the University of Tulsa. Related story: Over objections, New Mexico energy chief confirmed
His former employer, WPX Energy, has the rights to lease about 100,000 acres of federal, state and Navajo allottee lands in the San Juan Basin for oil and gas production and has drilled more than 100 oil wells in recent years along the Highway 550 corridor.
After his confirmation hearing turned to discussion of climate change and the Four Corners methane hotspot on Wednesday, environmental groups lambasted Mew Mexico’s top oil and gas regulator as echoing politically conservative talking points while one legislator described the conversation as “very troubling.” But despite opposition from conservationists and a small group of Democratic lawmakers, the state Senate voted 32-4 to confirm former oil and gas industry executive Kenley McQueen as secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. While McQueen won praise from some lawmakers as having an expert grasp on the sector he is now in charge of policing, environmental groups have likened his appointment to picking a fox to guard a hen house, prompting some of the harshest opposition that any of Gov. Susana Martinez’s appointees have met so far in the current legislative session. Related: Climate change part of debate over energy head’s confirmation
The secretary’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday only seemed to enflame criticism from liberal senators. “What I heard today was very troubling,” Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said later on the Senate floor.
After a year of high-profile changes in Gov. Susana Martinez’s Cabinet, top officials from several of the most important departments in state government now await Senate confirmation hearings. But the secretaries of environment, finance and health are just of a few of the governor’s nearly 100 appointees on the agenda. With the long list, it is unclear how many appointees will even get a vote before the Senate adjourns March 18. New Mexico’s financial crisis will make confirmation hearings more difficult than usual. Staff members say the Senate Rules Committee only has enough money to conduct background checks on about half the appointees.
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.