There are times when a choice has sufficient ethical gray areas as to leave good people wondering whether they did the right thing, and then there are times when the lines could not be any more black and white.
One such example emerged recently in Farmington, leaving mouths agape across the conservation community and beyond.
Steve Henke was the field manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington Field Office for nine years before leaving the post in June. Last week, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, a trade group for the industry, announced it had hired Henke as its next director. The list of questions that announcement raised is lengthy.
Under Henke’s leadership, the Farmington Field Office of the BLM earned notoriety among residents, environmentalists and those higher in the agency’s bureaucracy for its coziness with the industry it was supposed to be regulating. The fact that 92 percent of the lands managed by the field office are leased for gas and oil production is telling enough. The details of Henke’s leadership are even more revealing.
After overseeing the revision of the Farmington Resource Management Plan, which authorized the drilling of more than 10,000 oil and gas wells, Henke subsequently approved the development of more than 3,800 additional wells, most of which were approved with little to no environmental analysis. The result has been mounting adverse impacts to air quality, water quality, wildlife and cultural values in the region. The Farmington Field Office was specifically criticized by the Government Accountability Office in 2009 for inappropriately excluding oil and gas drilling decisions from environmental analysis (see www.gao.gov/new.items/d09872.pdf) while fast-tracking natural-gas development.
Those dubious benchmarks, combined with his post-BLM career move, do not bode well for a retrospective on Henke’s impartiality during his tenure at the agency. That raises a series of ethical questions that on their face are worth examining, but the implications for the public resources are downright sickening. That Henke waited at most one month before jumping from the agency charged with regulating the oil and gas industry to becoming an advocate for that same industry strongly hints at whose bidding he was doing while supposedly serving the public’s interest. In the process, a grossly disproportionate percentage of public lands in the Farmington area has been sacrificed to energy production. Along with it, the region’s air and water quality has been compromised as a result of the vast increase in pollution that such activity adds to its environs.
For many of Henke’s years at the BLM, San Juan Citizens Alliance has cried foul over his management decisions. Our watchdogging and protestations, most notable of which was recently settled litigation against the aforementioned resource management plan for its lack of thorough environmental analysis, seems to have been all the more essential in hindsight. With Henke’s move to the industry he so recently regulated, it would be nice to think he will not trade on his past ties with the BLM. It is difficult not to be skeptical.
email@example.com Megan Graham is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.