The Trump administration named a former oil executive who has voiced doubts about man-made global warming as the top Environmental Protection Agency official in the South-Central United States, a hub of the fossil fuel industry as well as the site of recent climate-driven disasters such as Hurricane Harvey.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Monday appointed Ken McQueen as administrator for the agency's Region 6, which has oversight of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and 66 Native American tribes. From 2016 to 2018, McQueen served as New Mexico's Secretary of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, "where he worked to streamline rules and regulations," according to an EPA statement.
McQueen's deep background in industry aligns with the Trump administration's goal of reducing environmental regulations on oil and gas companies while increasing their ability to explore for reserves on federal land, often in contradiction to steps scientists say must be taken to combat climate change and protect public health.
Before his tenure in New Mexico government, McQueen was employed for almost 40 years in the fossil fuel sector. His last position was as a vice president for WPX Energy, an Oklahoma-based company with investments in Texas's Permian Basin oil and gas fields.
During the confirmation hearings for the New Mexico post, McQueen described climate change as "just part of the history of the world we live in" and not the result of man-made greenhouse emissions, according to the NM Political Report, a non-profit news organization.
At the same hearings, McQueen was asked about a vast methane "hotspot" in the Four Corners region of New Mexico that was the single largest source of the powerful greenhouse gas in the United States. McQueen said the emissions were naturally occurring. But scientists, including those at NASA, have concluded that the methane is "primarily associated with the production and transport of natural gas from coal beds."
McQueen revised his take on climate change in a recent interview with the website Law360 but did not describe it as a priority. In the interview, McQueen told Law360 he would weigh climate change in his decision-making process on an "issue-by-issue" basis.
A Region Struggling with Climate Disasters
McQueen takes the reins in an EPA region that has been a recurrent victim of climate-fueled extreme weather in recent years and whose vast fossil fuel sector makes it a sizable contributor of greenhouse gases. The state of Texas is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the country. It is a leading producer of oil and natural gas, and its biggest consumer of electricity is the refining and petrochemical sector. Further, the petrochemical sector has been rocked with three major accidents in the last four months, the latest a fire that injured 37 people at Exxon's Baytown petrochemical plant complex.
Environmentalists and public health advocates have long criticized state authorities for lax regulation of the fossil fuel industry, including its safety policies and greenhouse emissions, and have looked to EPA as the backstop for boosting oversight. Those hopes withered with the arrival of the Trump administration, said Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund.
At the same time, extreme weather events have hammered the Gulf Coast. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey killed at least 68 people and caused $125 billion worth of damage, second only to Hurricane Katrina. Local petrochemical facilities emitted toxic substances whose impact and concentrations are still not fully known. Climate change likely exacerbated catastrophic flooding in Baton Rouge in 2016 from a slow-moving rain system.
Under the Trump EPA, Craft said, "what is left is a series of public health threats that have gone unaddressed. My concern going forward is that it's going to be business as usual and that attention won't be given to mitigate these threats that are in fact increasing."
Concerns About McQueen's Support for Industry
During McQueen's two-year tenure from 2016 to 2018 as New Mexico's energy and natural resources secretary, he drew criticism as having lopsided support of industry.
Environmentalists and residents of San Juan and Rio Arriba counties asserted that McQueen allowed permits for the controversial oil and gas company Hilcorp to double its well density in northwestern New Mexico without conducting what critics said were appropriate environmental reviews. The decision is now under review by the new Democratic administration in New Mexico, and state regulators have cited Hilcorp for violating air pollution rules. Hilcorp had amassed a troubling environmental record in several states when it went before McQueen and was granted the permit.
McQueen joins an EPA that has already pulled back from oversight of corporations, its data show.
Under Trump, inspections of companies by the EPA dropped to their lowest level in 20 years, according to a review of agency data by the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group. The number of civil pollution violation cases EPA referred to the Justice Department in fiscal year 2018 was 123, less than half the annual average of 304 citations under President George W. Bush.
The Sierra Club cited McQueen's views on climate change and his role in granting the Hilcorp permit in criticizing his appointment as the top federal environmental watchdog for the region.
"Putting an oil and gas executive like Ken McQueen in charge of our drinking water and the air our children breathe is a dangerous mistake," said Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club's Rio Grande Chapter.
McQueen replaces Anne Idsal, a Texan who also does not accept that human activity is the primary driver of climate change. Idsal was recently appointed as the acting director of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, a powerful unit that oversees climate policy. The previous chief, Bill Wehrum, a former fossil fuel industry attorney, submitted his resignation after Congress announced an ethics investigation.
Published Aug. 7, 2019