Without a Full Crew, MLG and Kenney Steer NMED Toward Failure – Despite New Methane and Ozone Regulation Policies

Poor Leadership at Environment Department – Creating New Rules, but Failing to Manage Resources for Implementation (while blaming others).

Earth Day was last week.

New Mexico wildfires are widespread.

Climate change is increasingly difficult to deny.

Any thoughtful individual can connect the dots and conclude that failed fossil fuel energy policy has contributed to the environmental damage experienced by hundreds of New Mexicans in smoldering neighborhoods around the state.

The unprecedented surge in wildfires throughout the southwest is the most recent real life example of the consequences of not having developed and implemented sound regulatory control of extraction and other polluting industries for too many decades.

If you need it further spelled out, look at this from the Center For Climate And Energy Solutions (C2ES):

  • Climate change enhances the drying of organic matter in forests (the material that burns and spreads wildfire), and has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western United States.”(Emphasis added.)

Three years ago, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham charged her Secretary of the Environment Department and the employees that worked at the agency to start drafting changes and address Climate Change issues.

Changes were drafted and rules were recently adopted.

On Earth Day, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham – a politician never shy about claiming her administration is leading the United States, and even the world, whether it be her COVID-19 response, economic development, or fighting the causes of climate change – issued a press release claiming:

  • “The Lujan Grisham administration, through the work of the New Mexico Climate Change Task Force, has taken more action to combat climate change than any other administration in state history…”

The press statement continues, claiming her administration was “[i]mplementing nationally leading methane rules that will result in hundreds of millions of pounds of reductions in methane and harmful air pollutants from the oil and gas industry.” (Click here to link to complete press release.)

On April 14, 2022, a week before she issued her Earth Day message, Governor Lujan Grisham, through the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), issued the following statement regarding her administration’s efforts to curb ground-level ozone:

  • “After two and half years of collaborative public and stakeholder engagement, the Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) adopted new air quality rules that will eliminate hundreds of millions of pounds of harmful emissions annually from oil and gas operations in New Mexico. The new rule will improve air quality for New Mexicans by establishing innovative and actionable regulations to curb the formation of ground-level ozone.
  • “Today marks the fulfillment of a promise I made to New Mexicans – to create strong, enforceable regulations in the oil and gas sector that will result in cleaner, healthier air in our communities,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “This is a momentous step forward in achieving our goals of lowering emissions and improving air quality. New Mexicans can be proud of the fact that we are leading the nation by implementing rules that protect our families and their environment.”

Her Secretary of the Environment Department, James Kenney, was quoted in the statement as follows:

  • ““This rule is an enormous win for communities impacted by unhealthy air quality caused by oil and gas operations,” said NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney. “Over the next few months, we will begin robust and innovative compliance assurance activities to ensure oil and gas operations are adhering to these new requirements.””

The new rules are groundbreaking – But You Need Staff to Do the Job.

NMED has been severely understaffed for years – including the last three years of Lujan Grisham’s administration under Kenney’s leadership.

So, stating you are going to enforce the new rules with “robust and innovative compliance” requires more than splashy press statements – especially when you are into your fourth year piloting the agency.

It requires engaging, supporting and growing the workforce tasked with implementing environmental policy.

On that front, James Kenney has failed monumentally.

Kenney pushes Hydrogen Hub Development.

Although there are other notable rules changes coming from his leadership team, there has been a serious breakdown in making sure there are sufficient qualified staff to carry out existing enforcement duties of the agency, and to prepare for the new changes.

NMED’s boss seems to be more a cartographer than department manager.

He has spent more than a year creating a Hydrogen Hub agenda to mark the spot on the administration’s mythical treasure map for economic prosperity.

And the embracing of the Hydrogen Hub policy by Kenney and the Governor has not sat well with environmental NGO’s – with some in the community beginning to take a closer look at the actions of the agency versus the words of its leadership.

(Note: The Hydrogen Hub travels of Kenney and the Governor will be documented in another story, soon.)

This is unfortunate, as three years ago, the new NMED leader was greeted with the hope and support of those worried about the planet burning up.

Most environmental advocacy groups look back at former Governor Susana Martinez’s Environment Department (2011-2018) as an annex of the oil and gas lobby – an earlier version of the Trump administration policy of putting industry sympathizers and insiders in charge of regulating the industry.

Martinez’s Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department, Ryan Flynn, carried the industry’s water so well he was handed the job of executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

So, when Michelle Lujan Grisham (MLG) was sworn into office in 2019, and appointed James Kenney as her Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), environmentalists believed the agency would have a leader focused on getting the job done.

According to its website, NMED’s mission, “is to protect and restore the environment and to foster a healthy and prosperous New Mexico for present and future generations. We implement our mission guided by four tenets: Science, Innovation, Collaboration, and Compliance.”

To meet its mission the agency needed to be adequately staffed.

Despite record surpluses in state revenue through most of the Lujan Grisham administration, and the authorization to fill more than 100 permanent employee positions, Kenney failed to hire the workforce needed to implement the Governor’s lofty goals.

(Besides reviewing payroll data, The Candle spoke with current and former NMED employees, regarding their disappointment in Kenney’s leadership – more on that in another article to be posted here.)

And after more than three years of Kenney’s leadership, it’s clear the agency is not only understaffed, but is mismanaged and bleeding experienced personnel who can no longer stomach the disappointment.

  • For the third year in a row, according to an internal survey of agency employees, more than half of the department’s workforce believes they do not have sufficient resources (enough people, materials, and budget) to get their job done.

In a review of NMED payrolls for the first pay period of March for the last four years, the agency’s hiring focus is anemic at best.

As a result the agency is failing the public – especially poorer neighborhoods, which usually get ignored the most when resources are squandered.

NMED is silent when asked about staffing levels.

Three weeks ago, on April 6, 2022, The Candle emailed the following to Kenney’s new public information officer, Matthew Maez:

  • “According to the latest information on the New Mexico Sunshine Portal, employee data for the week including March 16, 2022, NMED has 535 employees and 184 employee positions which are listed as vacant.
  • “Can you or NMED HR confirm the accuracy of those numbers and if the representation is incorrect, please provide me with the number of filled positions (current NMED employees on the payroll) and the number of employee positions currently vacant – I realize this can be a moving target as people come and go, but any static number would be helpful which includes a date as well as any anecdotal related information you and/or HR can provide would be appreciated.”

Mr. Maez seems to have been muzzled by his boss.

We sent follow up emails on April 11, and 15, 2022 (the last one with this note added at the end: “PS – It seems that any properly run state agency should have easily retrievable data on the number of employees and the vacancies.”)

Absent a response from NMED to the contrary, and having checked with legislative budget personnel, and reviewing payroll records we received via an Inspection of Public Records Act request of the State Personnel Office, here is what The Candle found as to actual persons working at NMED for the first pay period of March in each of the years Kenney and the Governor have been in charge:

Month/Year First Pay Period Staffing at NMEDNumber of Full Time Employees on Payroll
March 2019521
March 2020531
March 2021543
March 2022531

Kenney should have recognized that the agency’s severe under-staffing would negatively impact any reform efforts he hoped to advance.

As the numbers above reflect, there has been little progress made in hiring people to do the job the administration claims it wants done.

If there were problems with the State Personnel Office, Kenney should have spoken up.

Michelle Lujan Grisham should have had his back, as the governor can pick up the phone and solve a lot of inter-agency problems.

Despite having authorization and funding from the legislature for more employees than those actually on the payroll, key positions remain unfilled.

As a result, existing responsibilities for: inspections, compliance reporting, and issuance of orders including penalties for violating environmental rules, were already unmet.

While the new rules were being developed, Kenney should have been filling the vacancies to enable NMED to get back up to speed on its existing work, as well as hiring in anticipation for the increased work anticipated to implement the new rules.

The numbers reveal more than the rhetoric coming from the Secretary and the Governor.

Kenney’s performance has also negatively impacted retention of experienced personnel.

There has been significant turnover at NMED – much of it due to employees being disillusioned by Kenney’s leadership team.

In response, Kenney has tried to project his failure on legislators, inferring they have denied him resources – which is more than a bit disingenuous, given that his agency has funding and the flexibility to adjust salaries upward to attract talent and fill scores of vacant positions.

UPCOMING: In the next article The Candle will provide more detail on management failures in staffing and expose the dishonesty of Kenney’s claims the legislature is the problem.

In other reporting over the next few weeks, The Candle will provide an examination of the work of a key architect of the agency. Justin Garoutte was hired by Kenney to create and oversee “strategic initiatives” relative to the implementation of the agency’s “four tenets” of its mission – Science, Innovation, Collaboration, and Compliance.

The Candle learned a few days ago that Garoutte left NMED for another job – and so far, he won’t return phone messages requesting an opportunity to question him on what he accomplished.