Traditionally, Oklahoma’s governor has relied on advice from separate officials representing energy and the environment.
But in July, Gov. Mary Fallin moved to combine the two offices into one. “Strong energy policy is strong environmental policy,” Fallin said in a statement accompanying an executive order creating the new Secretary of Energy and Environment cabinet secretary post.
But environmentalists criticized the merger, and Oklahoma’s biggest oil lobby questioned the man picked for the new post, Col. Michael Teague, the former head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa District.
StateImpact asked Teague some questions after his first week on the new job.
Q: Energy and environment are rooting for policies that don’t always mesh well together. When we’re combining these two offices it seems like there’s the potential for it to do nothing.
A: 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.
Q: Almost immediately after you were appointed, the state’s biggest oil and gas lobby, the OIPA, expressed some concern and pretty sharp criticism that you weren’t experienced enough in oil and gas.
A: I Had a chance to talk to those guys. That was second day in the job, went to Tulsa, went to the wildcatter luncheon. Are there things I need to learn? Sure. There’s things I need to learn on the environmental side.
Q: First week on the job, and you’ve met with energy people — not environment people. Does that reflect a priority?
A: I think it does reflect 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.
Q: What’s the state’s biggest energy priority? What has Gov. Fallin indicated to you?
A: Her focus is definitely on jobs and continued workforce development.
Q: Wanting to encourage energy jobs?
A: Absolutely. Encourage the growth of the workforce, but also the technical development of the workforce.
Q: An environmental group would say, ‘Look a lot of things are done for energy in the name of job creation.’ How do you reconcile that with other concerns? That some of these companies’ activities need to be monitored and controlled?
A: I don’t want to make it environmentalists vs. the energy industry because that’s not fair. It’s not fair from either side of that. They are looking for the sweet spot of solutions to hard problems.
Q: You’ve described being able to negotiate a lot of these different interests with your previous role [at the Army Corps of Engineers], it seems to me the state Capitol is a new variable here. The wildcard is politics.
A: It’s a wildcard, but it’s part of everything that we do. I certainly didn’t get as involved on the political side when I was on active duty in the army. You’re right, that’s a different wrinkle, but it’s another part of how you find the right solution.
Q: What are the biggest challenges, right now, facing the environment in Oklahoma?
A: I would say certainly water. Water from both a quantity and a quality standpoint.
As the Tulsa District commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees water storage at many Oklahoma lakes, Teague had a central role in one of the Oklahoma’s largest water war: The fight between the state, Oklahoma City, and the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations over the rights to water in Sardis Lake. That fight has stalled in federal court.
Q: Where are we at with the Sardis Lake water dispute, and what’s your role going to be in that going forward?
A: Right now those negotiations are really managed out of the governor’s office, and she’s got a special counsel that has the lead on those. My background, my previous assignment certainly brings some technical pieces — I also have relationships with folks on both sides of the issue — so if I can be of use, hopefully they’ll figure out the right place to plug me in.
Q: Do you believe in climate change?
A: I believe that the climate changes every day. So, my background is that I’m also a math and statistician. I think there are trends in everything. But I think what we have to do is work with what we have right now.
Q: When you look at the numbers and you look at reports from scientists and researchers do you doubt their claims and assertions that the earth is getting warmer and that humans are playing a role?
A: I’m not going to get into questioning a scientists’ data or the conclusions they’ve drawn out of them. My background as an engineer is you work with the environment you’ve got right now. You can look forward to see how to make the best use out of those resources for the future … but the answer has got to be make the best use of those resources, look long-term, make sure that you’re taking care of the future generations.
Q: A little bit of an artful dodge on the climate change question, but I do want to be direct — and I think it’s a fair question: Do you believe in climate change? And do you think humans are playing a role?
A: I think we play a role in our environment every single day. Does that mean climate change and global warming? I don’t know. But I think that you have to take the environment you’re given and make the best use of it. And it’s not just the best use for today because that’s way to short-sided. You have to look long-term.
Q: What are the opportunities for a big oil state like Oklahoma, when it comes to renewable energy?
A: It’s not just developing those resources or the quantity. It’s how do you use them? You have to do both. You have to make the best use of the resources that you’re given. You have to look long-term. It’s got to be a strategic vision of what we’re doing, and I think the state’s got two good plans — The first one is the water plan, and the second one is the energy plan.
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