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Mary Fallin: A Conservative Trailblazer Takes on Obama, EPA

Fallin, a political trailblazer in Oklahoma, is taking on Obama administration environmental rules. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
Fallin, a political trailblazer in Oklahoma, is taking on Obama administration environmental rules. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin is no stranger to Washington insiders. She’s a conservative who rose through the state’s Republican ranks to win two terms in the House, before being elected the state’s first female lieutenant governor and then the first female chief executive.  

In addition to breaking the state’s gender barriers, Fallin has become known nationally among Republican governors who have consistently opposed President Barack Obama’s policies, notably his signature Clean Power Plan carbon emissions limits on existing power plants. Fallin, 61, the first Republican woman to lead the National Governors Association, projects a polite but firm stance in her dealings with Washington, saying that she is looking out for her state.  

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“I’m one of these governors who believe in states’ rights, (who) believe that many times the federal government overreaches in their regulatory authority or in their policy, and that a lot of these things should be reserved back to the states,” she says.  

Fallin has also opposed Obama over new Clean Water Act rules on pollution of wetlands and streams, known as the Waters of the U.S., on Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, and the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S.  

Her prominent role as a fossil fuel defender prompted House Republicans to have Fallin give their weekly video address in February 2015, in which urged Obama to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.  

She’s also made headlines over the state’s controversial death penalty method, which led to a 5-4 Supreme Court decision last year that upheld the use of an alternative lethal drug that inmates challenged as cruel and unusual.  

Now in her second four-year term, her staunch anti-Obama record has earned her applause from conservatives — and brickbats from liberals and environmental groups.  

She will have a chance to burnish her anti-Republican record even further in 2016 over the Clean Power Plan, which Fallin has called a “politically charged war against utility consumers across the country.”  

Last year, she became the first governor — and so far the only one — to heed the call by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that states not comply with the rule.  

Even before the rule was finalized last year, she signed an executive order that barred Oklahoma state agencies from writing an initial compliance plan to submit to the Environmental Protection Agency that is due by September 2016.  

There is still time to reverse that order.

Fallin has been coy about what she would do so if a federal appeals court in Washington does not stay the rule while it hears a suit by  Oklahoma and 26 other states  to overturn it. The coal industry, some utilities and trade groups also have filed suits.

A three-judge panel on Jan. 21 rejected stay petitions by opponents, though the judges also put the suits on a fast track for a decision, with oral arguments set for June 2. But if the rule is not overturned by early September, EPA would impose its own federal plan on the states that don’t draft their own.

Oklahoma gets a third of its electricity from coal, and is required under the rule to lower its power plant carbon emissions rate by about 32 percent below 2012 levels by 2030.  

“That’s something we’ll work with our attorney general on, and certainly with our consumers and our various utilities in our state to determine what the best plan of action is,” Fallin said before the stay was denied.  

“Of course we’re going to keep it close in hand at this time until we get an order from the court — but we are certainly aware that there are different options on the table for us to look at.”  

The order was part of Fallin’s agenda to support the use and production of fossil fuels, particularly oil and gas, a linchpin in the state’s economy. She signed legislation in 2015 that barred towns and counties from restricting hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells — a move that solidified siting authority in the state’s Corporation Commission.  

Her pro-drilling and pro-coal stances have earned Fallin praise from fellow opponents of Obama, particularly Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who got behind her when she was in the state legislature in the early 1990s and urged her to run for lieutenant governor, a post she held for three terms.  

Inhofe has led unsuccessful attempts in the Senate to stop the carbon rule and the Waters of the U.S. rule, which expanded EPA authority over streams and wetlands that feed drinking water sources.  

The state was the nation’s fifth-ranking oil producer in 2013, according to the Energy Department, and is home to the central oil pipeline and storage hub in Cushing. It’s also been hit hard by the crash in oil prices.  

In an interview, Inhofe stressed that every Oklahoma governor must have a firm grasp on energy issues. Fallin’s long career in state politics may have given her the most oil and gas knowledge of any state executive in the U.S., he added.  

“There’s no hiding place for someone who’s in the governor’s seat,” Inhofe said. “Mary is doing a very good job, but it’s expected that she does. I’ve served with her in so many different capacities, and energy has been one of our closest issues to deal with, because it has such an effect on us.”  

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