Just a Mayor Who Can't Say No to Renewable Energy

Norman, Oklahoma, mayor Breea Clark has to fight for every damn thing

Adapted from an interview by Judith Lewis Mernit

July 2, 2020

Breea Clark, the mayor of Norman, Oklahoma, is wearing a royal-blue top and smiling at the camera.

Breea Clark, mayor of Norman, Oklahoma | Photo by Joseph Rushmore

I like to joke that Norman, Oklahoma, cares about three things: animals, recycling, and trees. Those are the issues that people here get fired up about. When our city council made Norman the first city in Oklahoma to commit to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, the community was all for it.

We moved to Norman in 2005 from Wichita, Kansas, and started our family while I was in law school at the University of Oklahoma. I was new to Norman and didn't know anybody. But after I passed the bar exam, I decided to get involved in my community. Former mayor Cindy Rosenthal encouraged me to apply for city boards and commissions. After I'd served on two boards and as president of the PTA, she asked if I'd consider running for city council. Halfway through my second term, then-mayor Lynne Miller asked if I'd consider running for mayor, because she wasn't running again. So there are two common themes in my leadership story: One is I have a hard time saying no. The other is that strong women in leadership have encouraged me all the way. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them.

We here in Norman often get called troublemakers, but I like to say that we're trailblazers. People in the Oklahoma legislature watch what we do, because we're often the first to try something. I could talk about Norman's battle to put a fee on plastic bags, which is still a trigger phrase to me because it did not go well. We have several legislators who aren't ashamed to admit that they're members of ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council], which represents the interests of a lot of big corporations. One of them proposed legislation to preempt us, saying that no municipality can create any fee on, or ban, auxiliary containers. The Oklahoma legislature passed it in 2019. So now we have legislatively protected plastic waste in our state, and it's embarrassing.

And what is plastic made of? Oh, right—oil. And what is Oklahoma known for? It's a really hard battle to fight here. They've also preempted us from imposing a fracking ban within city limits. They will preempt us on anything, but when we ask for guidance on handling, oh, I don't know, an international pandemic, then we get radio silence.

The beauty of our state is that because we're damn near last in implementing anything, we get to see what works and what doesn't around the world and our nation. So we've seen that it's easy to do renewable energy; they just refuse to do it on a state level.

In Norman, we have two electric companies, the Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC) and Oklahoma Gas and Electric (OG&E). OEC, they've done a great job of embracing solar energy. We've been trying to negotiate a new agreement with OG&E, including more renewable energy, but we're at an impasse. The scary part about franchise agreements is the whole 25-year commitment. Technology changes so rapidly—I mean, I don't even get more than a two-year lease on my phone! We want a shorter franchise agreement, but their argument is "If we do it for you, we have to do it for all the cities." And our response is "And?"

But even OG&E has shown a willingness to do more solar, because it's clearly a priority for the city council and our citizens. So we're on the right track with that. We are also changing out all our city lights to LEDs, and we have a program to incentivize people to build more-efficient homes. It was a pilot program, but we extended it through June 2020.

I'm optimistic that we can hit our renewable energy targets because of how engaged our citizens are. What stinks is that we're trying to play offense, but then we have to switch to defense to see how our state legislature is going to screw it up. But we are not going to give up. Even if our council changed to a council that didn't prioritize the environment, our residents would not let this issue go away.

This article appeared in the July/August 2020 edition with the headline "Oklahoma Trailblazer."