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New Mexico environment secretary brings new perspective

January 22, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE — The first time James Kenney came to New Mexico, he spent a week driving around the state in an open convertible.

He got a sunburn. But he was hooked.

“It was in that time period that I knew that I was going to live in New Mexico,” Kenney said recently at the state Environment Department office in Albuquerque. A small zia pendant with a turquoise core was pinned to his lapel.

“The enchantment became fully the land of entrapment, in a very good way, for me,” he said.

After eight years of a Republican administration that most environmentalists describe as aggressive, if not outright hostile, to conservation priorities, Kenney is — at least on face value — a sharp turn to the left.

A Pennsylvania native and longtime policy adviser and engineer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Kenney, 46, was appointed secretary-designate for the Environment Department on Jan. 7 by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Kenney said he is eager to lead the department with a science-first approach and would like to see New Mexico diversify its economy away from oil and gas dependence. If nothing else, he appears to lead a balanced lifestyle: Kenney starts most mornings teaching a 6 a.m. yoga class in downtown Albuquerque.

His Twitter profile is dappled with pro-climate policies, red chile recipes and several photographs of him suspended upside-down from cloth yoga straps.

But it’s his work that apparently interested Lujan Grisham.

Kenney’s résumé includes more than 20 years in enforcement and advisory roles at the EPA, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, taking his first job as an intern for the agency in 1996 after graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia.

“I had always envisioned myself doing something with the environment, but didn’t really know what that looked like,” Kenney said, referring to his decision to major in environmental engineering at Temple in the early 1990s. “The science and mathematics, the STEM pieces, really resonate with me.”

The choice to go into the public sector came right after graduation, when he was offered a full-time job for a private firm and an internship with the EPA. He took the latter, and the agency has defined most of his career.

He’s written a book on the Clean Air Act (“It is extremely popular,” he quipped), did a short stint with an environmental engineering firm, and studied how federal policies could be written to encourage oil and gas companies to comply with regulation.

“You really start to see how oil and gas affects a resident of Albuquerque, and therefore what it is also doing to the residents of Lea and Eddy [counties] as well as San Juan County,” he said, recalling how the potholes on his city street could not be paved when revenues from the industry were low. He and his husband have lived in the city for three years, where he worked remotely as an EPA adviser for oil and gas policy.

“With the amount of activity happening in the state,” Kenney said, “we need a commensurate amount of assuring compliance.”

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, did not directly address whether Kenney’s appointment indicated a more rigorous approach to oil and gas regulation in New Mexico, but said he was chosen for his “vast and hands-on experience as an engineer and in other roles.”

Lujan Grisham has promised to join the interstate U.S. Climate Alliance, extolling plans for a “methane strategy” to address the potent greenhouse gas emissions, and has pledged to increase the state’s reliance on renewable energy sources.

“I fully believe in her position,” said Kenney.

A spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said partnering with Kenney and the new administration “is very much a priority.”

The association’s executive director, Ryan Flynn, once headed the department.

Kenney’s entry to the state comes at an interesting triangle of shifting policy, industry production and environmental need.

The state’s oil and gas production grew 30 percent last year, and 50 percent in the third quarter alone, according to a report from the state Legislative Fiance Committee. Growth is expected to continue around 22 percent this year.

Former Gov. Susana Martinez built strong ties in the oil and gas industry and restaffed environmental boards and commissions, which worked to rewrite air quality rules. Policies written under the Environment Department for copper mining, the dairy industry and cleanup of nuclear waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory were criticized by environmentalists for giving away too much to industry interests and not sufficiently protecting the environment.

Kenney demurred on precisely what kind of changes the department would push for, but transition team documents, which detail the priorities for the new administration, offer some insight on how the new administration might address environmental issues.

The document says it could be wise to reshuffle staff handling the Kirkland Air Force Base fuel spill, saying there is “no enforceable schedule or plan for cleanup” which has been progressing “slowly and unsatisfactorily.”

It also notes a consent order that governs how Los Alamos cleans up environmental contamination from certain nuclear waste, written by the Martinez administration, “allowed [the Department of Energy] to set funding priorities and timelines” and “should be reversed.”

Environmental experts have expressed optimism over Kenney’s appointment and said he seemed like a confident pick for one of the most powerful regulatory agencies in the state — particularly at a time when oil and gas production has been rapidly expanding.

Still, many said he is likely to face a tough road ahead.

“The agency has many, many vacancies, and a lot of talent is gone,” said Thomas Singer with the Western Environmental Law Center. “And he will have his hands full getting competent people in place to enforce the state’s laws.”

According to Environment Department general counsel Jennifer Hower, there is an 18 percent vacancy rate at the Environment Department, or about 117 open positions, though some hiring is in taking place. The transition memo also cites one bureau chief saying the Martinez administration “has been cruel with the budget. … We have not been allowed to fill these critical positions.”

Kenney said he is eager to build capacity.

“I would like to have our environmental programs be more thoughtful and proactive … a little bit more preventative care,” he said. “While cleaning up spills is something that needs to happen, preventing spills is more important.”

Kenney has begun charting a new internal course for the department, even creating a Twitter presence. He recently posted a message to state staff members, thanking them for their work.

“Irrespective of the outcome,” he said on Twitter, “we need to lead with science.”

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