By Andrew Oxford and Rebecca Moss | The New Mexican

Former New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn is taking over as executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, the lobbying arm of one of the state’s most politically influential industries, the organization said Friday.

The move, which was decried by conservation groups critical of Flynn’s record as environment secretary, comes less than one month after Flynn stepped down from his Cabinet position. It also comes despite Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s pronouncement early in her tenure that her Cabinet secretaries would refrain from lobbying for at least two years after leaving state government.

A spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said Flynn intends to honor an agreement not to work with the state Environment Department for two years.

That agreement does not include lobbying legislators, according to the spokesman, Wally Drangmeister. But he added Flynn does not intend to register as a lobbyist during the coming legislative session and will instead rely on other staff to lobby lawmakers.

Officials in the Governor’s Office maintained Friday that Flynn will not lobby the administration and called criticisms by environmental groups suggesting otherwise false and hypocritical.

“Ryan Flynn was a committed and effective environment secretary who put his heart and soul into protecting our environment,” Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for Martinez, said in an email. “Under his leadership the administration negotiated the largest settlement in the history of the U.S. between a state and the Department of Energy, held the EPA accountable during the Gold King Mine spill, and took action on the Kirtland Air Force Base spill.”

In Martinez’s 2011 State of the State address, the newly minted governor made clear her intent that members of her administration and the Legislature would stay away from lobbying for two years after leaving state government.

“There must be no question that public officials are serving only the interests of the public, not positioning themselves for a big payday with a special interest group,” Martinez said. She has made similar pronouncements since then.

Environmentalists were quick to seize on such language Friday in criticizing Flynn’s new role.

“This move by Ryan Flynn confirms what his tenure as secretary of the Environment Department suggested: Ryan Flynn is most interested in protecting oil and gas industry profits without any consideration for negative impacts on New Mexican families,” Ben Shelton, political and legislative director for Conservation Voters of New Mexico, said in a statement issued moments after the Oil and Gas Association’s announcement.

“This move validates the position of every advocate and elected official who opposed Flynn’s appointment in the first place, and is a damning testament to the misplaced priorities of Governor Susana Martinez, who thought Flynn was right for the job in the first place,” Shelton said.

Flynn will start work at the association Tuesday, Drangmeister said.

A lawyer by training, Flynn stepped down as environment secretary Aug. 12. Martinez appointed him to the post in 2013, and the Democrat-controlled Senate confirmed him 30-11 in 2014. Senators unanimously reconfirmed Flynn in 2015.

A graduate of Harvard and the University of Arizona law school, Flynn served as the agency’s top lawyer for about two years prior to his appointment as secretary of the environment. He led negotiations for the Martinez administration on an agreement with federal regulators and the state’s largest utility for reducing pollution from a coal-fired power plant in northwestern New Mexico. Under his leadership, New Mexico became the first state to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster. Martinez also has credited him for holding the federal government accountable for a plume of jet fuel that has contaminated Kirtland Air Force Base.

But environmental groups have maintained he was too cozy with industry.

During his confirmation hearing, some lawmakers and public-interest groups questioned his role in designing regulations they claimed would allow groundwater pollution by copper mines.

Flynn will take charge of the Oil and Gas Association as the industry struggles amid low prices.

“Flynn’s background and experience in legal and regulatory affairs combined with his straightforward leadership and clear communication style are a great fit for our industry in these challenging times,” New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Chairman Cliff Brunson said in a news release Friday. “Ryan’s talents will be extremely important in moving the oil and gas industry forward to create the jobs and provide the revenues that are so important to New Mexico.”

Drangmeister suggested federal regulations are the industry’s chief political concern at the moment, but the organization’s lobbyists are also fixtures at the state Capitol.

The group’s former executive director, Steve Henke, who resigned in April, and its top lobbyist, Michael D’Antonio, reported spending a total of more than $46,000 on lawmakers during the last three legislative sessions.

The group has also donated more than $12,500 to political campaigns so far this year. That does not include the tens of thousands of dollars donated to campaigns by its members, who were among Martinez’s biggest contributors during her two successful runs for governor.