Energy and Environment: A natural link?

OKLAHOMA CITY – When Governor Mary Fallin first combined the portfolios of Energy and Environment in her executive cabinet, I was perplexed, along with many other observers of state government.

Now, after more than a year of watching Secretary of Energy & Environment Michael Teague quietly defend the state’s role in both areas of policy development, the linkage between the two seems natural.

When Fallin made the move in late summer 2013, it was the first time in state history the two areas had been merged. It has potential, at least, to be one of the best moves she has made during her time in office. It’s so interesting, in fact, that for me the energy and environment nexus emerged as one of the state’s most significant news stories of 2014.

The merger might seem merely symbolic – but sometimes symbols mean a lot in policy development.

The two arenas are closely intertwined. Whether or not the combination is a permanent one, Fallin was smart to recognize the truth of how these areas overlap.
In Oklahoma, at least, people in the energy industry care as much about the environment as everyone else. The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB) has long financed (from energy industry resources) efforts to clean-up abandoned well sites. The industry’s titans and workers contribute to every manageable charitable activity and worthy cause.

With fossil fuels-based energy a strong legacy business for Oklahoma, this cornerstone industry can only continue growing by having sound environment policies for the next generation to continue building the energy industry.

For starters, the energy sector needs access to water, well-maintained lands, with cooperative and mutually beneficial policies needed to achieve both.

As for sensitivity to the good earth, Oklahomans certainly learned during the 1930s what happens when people do not act as good stewards, caring for the land given to us by God. The Dust Bowl wreaked havoc on the entire nation and economy, far beyond our own borders.

When he first took the job, Secretary Teague was interviewed by a journalistic colleague, Joe Wertz of State Policy Impact. Joe’s questions were blunt, and conveyed an environmentally sensitive mindset.

Teague handled himself well, commenting, “It’s very difficult to talk about any issue that involves one industry, whether it be environmental or energy, that does not also involve the other counterpart. It’s both. There’s so much overlap between the two.”

Teague explained his initial moves, in fall 2013, to concentrate on relations with energy companies. That, he told Wertz, reflected “the governor’s priorities. She was pretty clear in the press release where she announced the appointment: One of the very first things I needed to do was get out and meet some of the energy people because I’ve not worked with them.”

Teague’s background is in the military, including studies at the Naval Postgraduate Institute, and the Naval War College.

Stateside, he served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Overseas, his duty posts included service in Germany, Honduras, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In 2003, he ran the 52nd Engineer Battalion in Mosul, Iraq in support of the 101st Airborne Division as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After 30 years of service, he retired as a Colonel.

The next few years may be eventful for Teague, in contrast to his quiet start over these past 15 months. Little doubt, in these times, environment and energy will be at center stage in the state.
Oil and natural gas prices have plummeted, with consequential impact on state government tax revenues.

Despite affections for the oil and gas sector hereabouts, there was overwhelming opposition to plans recently floated to allow exploration wells near Lake Hefner. City and oil business representatives decided to call that whole thing off.

For Teague, the proof of success will be in the long term, but thus far his combined policy hats look like a winner, a combo in the public interest, if not yet in perfect harmony.

Bottom line, Gov. Fallin recognized that the energy industries best players care about the environment and that those sensitive to the environment should care about energy efficiency and wise policy.

Only pragmatic policies will, in the long run, be truly sustainable. That’s not to say the areas will remain permanently conjoined in future cabinets.

Fallin’s move captured one thread of wholesome American principle, establishing a check and balance among two concurrent, often factional, interests. Forging a logical overlap between energy and environment, in the next few years Oklahoma has a chance to seek reasonable policies for energy while retaining the goodwill of most Oklahomans.

All that may increase the odds of both a quality natural environment and a strong economy for future generations.