Published: 1:50 am, Sun. Sep. 4th, 2016Updated: 1:47 am
The former head of the New Mexico Environment Department was appointed Friday to lead an oil and gas group that represents producers around the state, a move that drew criticism from environmentalists concerned about a revolving door between government and industry.
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association announced Ryan Flynn as its new executive director. He replaces Steve Henke, who retired after six years on the job.
Henke is also a former government official. He worked in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s field office in Farmington before moving to the industry group.
“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,” said Cliff Brunson, the association’s chairman.
Brunson said Flynn’s talents will be important as the industry looks for solid footing following a downturn prompted by the global decline in oil prices that has cost New Mexico jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
Flynn resigned as environment secretary in August, saying he wanted to spend more time with his wife and two young children. Gov. Susana Martinez appointed Flynn in 2013 to lead the agency after a retirement forced her to reshuffle her cabinet. He previously was the environment department’s top lawyer for two years.
Flynn was the administration’s main negotiator for an agreement with federal regulators and the state’s largest utility for reducing pollution from a coal-fired power plant in northwestern New Mexico. He also oversaw settlement negotiations following a 2014 radioactive release at the federal government’s underground nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad and sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over a 2015 mine waste spill that tainted rivers in three western states.
“Ryan Flynn was a committed and effective environment secretary who put his heart and soul into protecting our environment,” said Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan.
Flynn also oversaw the crafting of regulations to address groundwater pollution by copper mines, sparking a legal challenge by environmental groups.
Ben Shelton, the political and legislative director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, suggested Friday that Flynn is “most interested in protecting oil and gas profits without any consideration for negative impacts on New Mexico families.”
As secretary, Flynn repeatedly dismissed similar criticisms. Flynn did not comment Friday but Oil and Gas Association spokesman Wally Drangmeister said Flynn will honor an agreement he signed prohibiting former state officers or employees from being paid for representing a person before the government agency at which he or she used to work.
“He intends to honor the details and spirit of his agreement for the two-year period,” Drangmeister said.
While the agreement doesn’t mention lobbying the state Legislature, Flynn has no plans to do so during the upcoming session in January, Drangmeister added.
“So many of the regulatory issues facing the oil and gas industry in New Mexico are related to the federal government,” Drangmeister said. “These federal issues will be a significant part of NMOGA’s activities in the next few years, and Ryan’s legal and regulatory background and skills will be extensively used in helping the oil and gas industry address these issues.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers praised Flynn’s appointment, noting his experience and the importance of the industry to New Mexico’s bottom line.
Oil and gas development accounts for about one third of the state’s general fund revenues, and association members are responsible for 95 percent of the oil and natural gas produced in New Mexico.
“As a land grant state, I am glad he will be staying in New Mexico to work on smart regulations which will continue to allow us access to our state’s resources,” Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said.