Infrastructure & Environment

One Office, Two (Sometimes Competing) Interests

Oklahoma is one of only a few states in which one executive oversees both cornfields and oil fields.
by | November 2013
Michael Teague, a former district commander in the Army Corps of Engineers, is Oklahoma’s first secretary of energy and environment.
Michael Teague, a former district commander in the Army Corps of Engineers, is Oklahoma’s first secretary of energy and environment. Flickr/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
 

When two vacancies recently opened up in Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s cabinet, she decided to combine them. It was an unusual step, but what made the move particularly controversial was the two offices she consolidated: the secretaries of energy and environment. That makes Oklahoma one of only a few states in which one executive oversees both cornfields and oil fields.

“Strong energy policy is strong environmental policy,” Fallin said in a written statement, stressing that the merged agency would weigh both concerns equally. But some critics wondered whether one might end up trumping the other. After all, the oil and natural gas industry is responsible for some 300,000 jobs in Oklahoma, about 20 percent of the state’s workforce.

As it turned out, Fallin’s decision rankled both environmentalists and the energy industry alike. David Ocamb, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club, told a newspaper that the merger was “a disservice to the state” because the governor ought to have separate counsel on energy and environmental issues. Meanwhile the state’s biggest oil lobby, the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association (OIPA), voiced qualms about Fallin’s pick for the new position, Michael Teague, a former district commander from the Army Corps of Engineers in Tulsa. The association’s president said it was unprecedented for the state’s energy secretary to have no prior working experience in the oil and natural gas sector.

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After the announcement, Teague says he heard from Oklahomans who either thought his appointment meant that environmental policy would take a backseat to economic development or that overall energy production would slow down. “Neither of those are true,” he says.

Teague points to the lesser prairie chicken. The bird’s population has been on the decline across the Midwest ever since homesteaders first arrived and began fragmenting its natural habitat. Teague supports a proposed conservation plan, which his predecessors helped draft. It would leverage public funds and assistance to convince ranchers to adopt conservation practices, and it would implement new voluntary guidelines for the oil and gas industry (such as avoiding the prairie chicken’s nesting season) aimed at minimizing the impact of drilling. Teague says the prairie chicken plan previews how he will handle other issues in the future, balancing public and private interests.

Massachusetts in 2007 became the first state to combine its energy and environment offices. The agency’s current secretary, Richard Sullivan, had previously served as commissioner of conservation and recreation. The choice of Sullivan by Gov. Deval Patrick signaled that energy policy would be considered in concert with environmental concerns. The combined office has pushed a range of energy policies with an environmental bent, such as increasing the state’s wind and solar power portfolio and creating cash incentives and rebates for reducing electricity use.

Teague, a Massachusetts native, called Sullivan for tips. The two had a 45-minute call, but much of the conversation boiled down to simple advice: “Just make sure everybody’s in the room when you’re having those discussions,” Sullivan told him.

Teague attended an OIPA luncheon on his second day on the job to meet with members of the oil and natural gas industry. A week later, he met with representatives from the Sierra Club. On a host of issues, from greenhouse gas emissions to water quality, Teague says it makes sense to have one person in government reconciling the two interests, and he expects more states to consider hybrid positions in the future. “There’s so much overlap,” he says. “How can you not have those two in the same conversation? It really is a must.”

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