With vacancies in two cabinet posts, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin's decision to combine the offices of secretary of energy and secretary of the environment has drawn criticism from the state chapter of the Sierra Club.
David Ocamb, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club, said combining the responsibilities into one cabinet post was a troubling development because of potential conflicts of interest between energy development and protecting the environment.
“Gov. Fallin would be best served by having two voices in the room when it comes to energy and the environment,” Ocamb said. “Not having that does a disservice to the state.”
The governor's office said Friday that Secretary of Environment Gary Sherrer would resign, effective Monday. That followed the May resignation of Secretary of Energy Mike Ming, who left to head an energy research center being started by General Electric Co. in the Oklahoma City area.
Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said there is no timeline on naming a secretary to the combined energy and environment post. A new appointment will serve on an interim basis until confirmation by the senate when the Legislature reconvenes in February, he said. In the meantime, the offices are being headed by Jay Albert, deputy energy secretary, and Tyler Powell, deputy environment secretary.
Weintz said at least two other states, Kentucky and Massachusetts, have combined cabinet posts for energy and the environment. He said combining the posts in Oklahoma would free up a cabinet post for an area of future emphasis. Oklahoma governors are limited to 15 cabinet members.
“You can't make energy policy in a vacuum and expect it to have no effect on the environment, and you can't make environmental policy in a vacuum and expect it to have no effect on energy and jobs,” Weintz said. “We don't think combining them means we're less committed to one or the other.”
Weintz said Fallin remains committed to the Oklahoma First Energy Plan, which puts a heavy emphasis on using state resources such as natural gas and renewable energy to boost the economy, create jobs and reduce emissions.
“The governor's plan is an all-of-the-above plan,” Weintz said. “It uses all of Oklahoma's energy resources, including big resources in oil and increases in natural gas and wind. As we purse new export markets for natural gas and wind and improve our energy infrastructure, we'll also see environmental benefits.”
Former Environment Secretary J.D. Strong, now executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said the energy and environment cabinet posts are among a handful where the secretary doesn't direct a state agency. Strong worked in the environment secretary's office under Republican Gov. Frank Keating and Democratic Gov. Brad Henry. He was secretary of the environment for the last two years of Henry's second term.
Strong said cabinet positions are an important liaison between agencies and the governor's office. Much of the state's energy regulation comes at the elected Oklahoma Corporation Commission, while the Department of Environmental Quality carries out much of the state and federal regulation of air, water and land.
“I'm not worried about it having any undue influence,” Strong said. “Agencies answer to the law, their boards and what the governor asks them to do.”
You can't make energy policy in a vacuum and expect it to have no effect on the environment, and you can't make environmental policy in a vacuum and expect it to have no effect on energy and jobs.”