After his confirmation hearing turned to discussion of climate change and the Four Corners methane hot spot, environmental groups on Wednesday lambasted New 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 Ken McQueen as secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
While McQueen won praise from some lawmakers who said he has 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 this legislative session.
The secretary’s confirmation hearing Wednesday only seemed to inflame criticism from liberal senators.
“What I heard today was very troubling,” Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said later on the Senate floor.
When members of the Senate Rules Committee asked about McQueen’s views on climate change, for example, he replied that “climate change is just part of the history of the world we live in.”
When pressed, McQueen added that he believes human activity can affect climate, but McSorley argued that the secretary missed the point.
“We are in a crisis now as it relates to global warming, but I didn’t hear any concern,” McSorley told the Senate.
Asked about the sharp drop in fines pursued against oil and gas producers even as the number of spills has increased dramatically in the last few years, McQueen said the state “is able to bring them into compliance without fines.”
And when asked about an anomalously large concentration of methane over the Four Corners area, McQueen maintained that much of the greenhouse gas has seeped from mines and from exposed geologic formations, even though NASA has linked much of it to natural gas wells, pipelines and storage tanks in the area.
“My personal opinion is that the methane hot spot in the San Juan-Four Corners area has existed for at least the last 10 million years,” McQueen said.
Evidence of the Delaware-sized hot spot dates as far back as 2003, and a satellite image released in 2014 showed it in vivid color.
“McQueen refuted solid science several times and showed more concern for oil-company profits than for the wellbeing of New Mexicans,” Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter, said in a statement.
Environmental groups piled on in opposition to McQueen’s confirmation, with the League of Conservation Voters saying it reinforces “widespread concern about the outsized influence the oil and gas industry has in the Martinez administration.”
McSorley voted against McQueen’s confirmation along with Democratic Sens. Nancy Rodriguez of Santa Fe, Bill Soules of Las Cruces and Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque.
But most Democrats backed the secretary’s confirmation, with several senators saying they would give him a chance to show he can balance the interests of oil and gas producers with the demands of serving as a regulator.
And other lawmakers argued that his more than 35 years of experience in the oil and gas sector is a benefit.
“Background in the industry, I think, is fundamental,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales.
McQueen retired in May after 14 years as vice president of WPX Energy, where he was in charge of the company’s operations around the San Juan Basin.
Though the company has won several awards for its environmental practices, it also has clashed in court with conservation groups over drilling near Chaco Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northwestern New Mexico with an exceptional concentration of Pueblo ruins. WPX is one of two companies that have drilled about 150 wells in the area.
Martinez, who received thousands of dollars from WPX Energy while campaigning for governor, tapped McQueen in December to head the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. He succeeded David Martin, who retired from the post earlier last year at the age of 79.
An Oklahoma native with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Tulsa, McQueen on Wednesday seemed to revel in his role as a veteran of the oil and gas industry, answering some senators’ questions with technical explanations.
As secretary, however, McQueen is not only responsible for regulating the mining, oil and gas industry but also management of the state’s parks and forests.
In his confirmation hearing, McQueen outlined a vision for the department that seemed to represent a continuation of his predecessor’s work rather than a sharp change.
The secretary said he would work to fulfill the energy policy rolled out by his predecessor. The policy called for tapping every source of energy in New Mexico, from nuclear to fossil fuels to solar and wind.
“The most important thing I can do is to implement — fully implement — this energy policy,” McQueen said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.