Niermann of Texas Prioritizes Stability amid COVID, along with Communication and Science
What sparked your interest in environmental protection?
Stockholm syndrome. I was kidnapped into the movement while managing quality assurance for an equipment manufacturer. A state environmental investigator paid us a visit and, voila, I was “promoted” into a hastily created environmental management role (while retaining my other duties, naturally). The inevitable, copious, multimedia Notice of Violation became my syllabus for learning about state and federal environmental regulation. And it became a great frustration. I struggled to create a culture of compliance where there was none; my responsibility decoupled from actual authority. I left that job for law school, vowing to forever steer clear of environmental regulatory work.
Though mostly true, that is only a fraction of the story, and focuses narrowly on regulation. As for environmental protection generally, isn’t our interest innate? Like thirst? In any event, we are all inspired by moments in nature. My personal epiphanies include a sunrise during an ascent in the Cascades, swimming among darting squid in a Micronesian abyss, and watching a recent meteor shower with my eight-year-old to the yips and howls of coyotes. I am also motivated by the menace and collective shame of environmental degradation, including childhood memories of stifling smog in the Los Angeles basin in the early 1970s, more recent encounters with Tijuana sewage in the San Diego surf, and the devastation of the Deepwater Horizon. These and a multitude of other events point to progress made and work left to be done, of which this group is well aware.
I had a not so passing interest in architecture too. The field asks and tries to answer a compelling question: how are we to live within nature? Understanding that we need to do a better job of it, architecture promised an opportunity both to serve others and leave the world a better place than I found it. In other words, it promised meaning as well as a potential career. The career I found in environmental regulatory work seems a world apart from architecture, but I am deeply engaged with the same question and in work that is meaningful, and I have some wonderful colleagues to boot. I am thankful to have failed my vow to avoid it.
What past jobs prepared you best for your current agency role?
I’ve worked on environmental regulatory issues for the aforementioned equipment manufacturer, as an attorney in private practice, and as a state Assistant Attorney General representing Texas’ natural resource agencies. My work representing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has been highly valuable in preparing me for my current role.
What are your top priorities?
My first priority is the continued support of TCEQ’s employees in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, both to protect their health and well-being and to maintain delivery of the services the agency provides our fellow Texans. My other priorities are to maintain the sense of mission and spirit of service that is characteristic of the agency’s outstanding staff, to respect the diverse experiences and voices of our staff and the communities they serve, to improve the quality of TCEQ’s communication with and services to all Texans, and to be faithful to sound science and to the authority the legislature has given the agency.
What’s your proudest agency accomplishment?
My proudest agency accomplishment is the settlement of Texas’ claims stemming from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The achievement belongs to the lawyers and technical experts at the TCEQ, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the Texas General Land Office, and the Texas Attorney General’s Office. I had the privilege of leading Texas’s delegation to the settlement negotiations. Together with the other Gulf Coast states and the federal government, we held the responsible parties accountable with a settlement of unprecedented scale to take on a vast and still unfolding suite of ecosystem restoration and enhancement projects. All in, Texas is allocated roughly $1 billion from the various settlement funding streams.
How would you describe your management style?
In two words, I delegate and collaborate. Given the breadth and technical nature of our agency’s work and that we’re blessed with really wonderful staff, it makes sense to empower, delegate, support, and cheer them in their work. Decisions belong with the skill and expertise; that generally resides somewhere other than the executive suite. As a commissioner, I have oversight responsibility, much more than an operational role. So rather than directly manage, I collaborate with executive management to develop agency strategy and messaging, to troubleshoot, and to resolve the thornier issues. This is a team sport.
Where’s the first place you’ll travel when the pandemic is over?
At the moment, our short list of fantasy travel is actually quite long. But the first priority will be to get together with family, wherever we can make that happen.