Hazel R. OLeary

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Hazel OLeary 1937

Attorney, energy expert, member of the U.S. cabinet

At a Glance

Becoming an Expert on Energy Policy

Tackled Atomic Waste Issue

Nominated for the Post of Energy Secretary

Vowed to Push Conservation, Technology Transfer


Some environmentalists were troubled when they heard of President Bill Clintons nomination of Hazel OLeary to be the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton had pledged to revitalize a department that in recent years had rejected alternative energies and virtually ignored the environmental hazards of mainstream power sourcesnuclear, coal, and oil. OLeary, an executive at a progressive midwestern utility, hardly seemed the candidate to champion environmental awareness. But her record revealed her to be an energy conservation pioneer, someone who had been more than a mouthpiece for a dirty industry. And in her first days in office, OLeary took several steps that lifted the spirits of those who had doubted her. In one case, she ordered the removal of photographs of nuclear submarines and nuclear power plants from a department corridor and replaced them with pictures of wind energy farms, solar power units, and displays of the departments programs in science education and technology transfer.

OLeary, the first female secretary of Energy, was widely regarded as among the best of Clintons cabinet appointments, largely because she had worked in the public and private sectors and thus understood the pressures experienced on both sides of the regulatory fence. The Wall Street Journal quoted her as saying, In the public sector Ive regulated industry broadly, in the private sector, Ive been forced to live with those regulations and, perhaps more importantly, Ive seen how those regulationsif not carefully crafted and balancedcan impact jobs and lives and economies of people who expected and hoped for better from their government. Initially, however, OLearys qualifications were overshadowed by questions about the character of the new administrationwhether Clinton had chosen her, a black woman, over a white man to appease special interest groups that had called on the president to create a diversified, broadly representative cabinet.

Hazel Rollins OLeary was born May 17, 1937, in Newport News, Virginia, when schools there were racially segregated. After finishing the eighth grade, her parents sent her to live with an aunt in New Jersey, where she could attend a high school for artistically talented youths. We wanted the best for her, OLearys mother said in the Washington Post. We knew she had the ability to do anything. She was a very alert child.She was always a person who was quite sure of herself. In 1959 she graduated with honors from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and seven years later

At a Glance

Born Hazel Rollins Reid, May 17, 1937, in Newport News, VA; daughter of Russell E. and Hazel (Palleman) Reid; married John F. OLeary (former deputy energy secretary; died 1987), April 24, 1980; children: Carl. Education: Fisk University, B.A., 1959; Rutgers university, J.D., 1966.

County of Essex, NJ, assistant prosecutor; state of New Jersey, assistant attorney general; Coopers & Lybrand (accounting firm), Washington, DC, partner; Community Services Administration, general counsel; Federal Energy Administration, director of the Office of Consumer Affairs during the Gerald Ford Administration; U.S. Department of Energy, Economic Regulatory Administration chief during the Jimmy Carter administration; OLeary Associates, Inc. (energy consulting firm), vice president and general counsel, 1981-89; Northern States Power Company, Minneapolis, MN, executive vice president for corporate affairs, 1989-93; U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, DC, secretary, 1993.

Addresses: Offices U.S. Department of Energy, 1000 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20024.

received her law degree from Rutgers University. She worked as an assistant prosecutor in Essex County, New Jersey, and assistant attorney general in that state before moving to Washington, D.C., where she was a partner in the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand.

OLeary gained a reputation as an advocate of the poor during the administration of Gerald Ford, when she served as general counsel to the Community Services Administration, which ran many of the anti-poverty programs that had been implemented in the Great Society era of the 1960s. During the Ford years, OLeary also launched into energy policy, an area fraught with the competing interests of industry, the environment, and consumer protection. As director of the Federal Energy Administrations Office of Consumer Affairs, she successfully defended the concerns of those whose political clout was insignificant compared to the high-powered, high-priced representatives of big energy producers. She endeared herself to the Native American community by helping to organize those owning energy-producing lands, and thus brought the Indians a high-profile presence that had eluded them with previous administrations.

Becoming an Expert on Energy Policy

In the U.S. Department of Energy, which was created under the administration of Jimmy Carter, OLeary headed the Economic Regulatory Administration, supervising a staff of more than two thousand lawyers, accountants, and engineers that, among other things, enforced price controls on various forms of energy. She was considered a fair administrator, even as she implemented several questionable policies, including the Fuel Use Act, which critics said stifled demand for natural gas, an energy source far more environmentally friendly than nuclear power, coal, or oil. At a time when Americans were beginning to reflect fearfully on their dependence on foreign oil, she was credited by environmental groups and energy executives with developing some of the governments most innovative and useful conservation programs, including one paying for the insulation of homes of low-income families.

The countrys deputy energy secretary at the time was John F. OLeary. The pair married in 1980 and left the department to set up their own energy consulting firm. With Hazel OLeary as vice president and general counsel, the firm attracted clients from around the world seeking advice on energy economics and strategic planning. In the early 1980s, companies routinely sought consultants for help in adjusting to the countrys dramatically shifting energy policies. President Ronald Reagan, a strong proponent of nuclear power, was redirecting the departments focus away from alternative fuels and conservation and toward the nuclear segment of Americas military complex. The OLearys received a crash course in the hazards of nuclear power when General Public Utilities Company, owner of the Three Mile Island plant that had suffered a partial meltdown of the core in 1979, brought John OLeary on as chairman to salvage the company.

Tackled Atomic Waste Issue

After her husbands death in 1987, Hazel OLeary folded the consulting firm and, in 1989, joined Northern States Power Company, one of the largest gas and electric utilities in the Midwest, serving 1.6 million customers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Overseeing the companys legal and personnel departments, environmental affairs, public relations, and lobbying, OLeary was thrust under the microscope of industry groups, environmental watch dogs, and alternative energy organizations. She was praised for her unyielding management style, which enabled her to implement some of the conservation and alternative fuel programs she had formulated during her days in the government. Under OLeary, Northern States in 1991 launched a two-year, $35 million conservation plan that resulted in the saving of energy equal to the output of a 650-megawatt plant. She also helped shape the Minneapolis-based company into one of the most progressive utilities in the country, aggressively reducing carbon dioxide emissions from its plants and pursuing the development of renewable energy sources.

But controversy could not be avoided in this world of clashing interests. Northern States, a big player in the power industry, remained a company at odds with many environmental organizations at a time when the dangers of ravaging the land were increasingly entering the American political consciousness. With a tenaciousness respected by both supporters and opponents, OLeary tackled the central debate over nuclear power: the safe disposal of atomic waste.

In 1989, Northern States, the owner of three nuclear power plants, was running out of space for storage of radioactive spent fuel for its reactor on Prairie Island, Minnesota, and proposed building above-ground storage casks on a site near a reservation of the Mdewakanton Sioux tribe. The Indians, joined by environmental organizations questioning the safety of storage of a material so inherently dangerous, lambasted Northern States and OLeary for what they saw as suppressing public debate over the proposal and bullying the public, state agencies, and the state legislature. Meanwhile, supporters of OLeary lauded her for clearing regulatory hurdles on which other industry insiders had previously tripped, and for bringing Northern States closer than any other utility to a resolution of the politically charged issue of radioactive waste.

Nominated for the Post of Energy Secretary

OLearys nomination as secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy took the country by surprise. Northern Power had just announced several executive changes, one being her appointment as president in charge of the companys natural gas division. Washington power brokers expected Tim Wirth, a Colorado Democratic senator who decided not to run for a second term in the Senate, to accept the position of Energy secretary, which he is rumored to have been offered prior to OLearys nomination. But Wirths nomination was killed because of alleged opposition from several key Republican senators and a desire on the part of the young Clinton administration to steer clear of controversy. At the same time, several reports suggested that OLeary, the second woman and third black nomination to the cabinet, had been tapped to deflect criticism from various minority groups that Clinton was coming up short on his campaign pledge to create a cabinet far more diverse than those of his predecessors.

Industry groups representing the big-money segments, such as nuclear and natural gas, hailed the nomination, grateful that the department would now have an enlightened insider at the helmsomeone who had been on the receiving end of regulations. Even those groups concerned with alternative energies saw in OLeary an advocate who, when she had been in government and even during her tenure at Northern Power, had shown creativity and innovation with energy policy. Im generally bullish on Mrs. OLeary, Scott Sklar, executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association, commented in the Christian Science Monitor. Shes frankly one of the first energy secretaries weve ever had with a background in energy.

Environmentalists, however, were generally less enthusiastic, pointing to her advocacy of above-ground storage of nuclear fuel in the Prairie Island case and concerned that she might be dangerously cavalier in finding permanent disposal sites for the 20,000 metric tons of radioactive spent fuel from the nations power plants. Anti-nuclear groups were also cautionary, noting her support of controversial legislation expediting construction of a permanent disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Vowed to Push Conservation, Technology Transfer

During her confirmation hearings, OLeary stated that as Energy secretary, she would speed work on atomic waste repositories and oppose increased energy taxes. This alarmed many critics who consider such taxes an effective means of encouraging energy conservation. But OLeary appeased some foes by saying she would increase direct funding for energy conservation programs, assist vice president Al Gore in coordinating federal research to quicken the development of new environmental technologies, and refocus the department on cleaner sources of energy like wind, solar, and natural gas. In prepared answers to questions from the Senate Energy Committee, OLeary wrote, according to the Wall Street Journal, that the administration would seek to convert the economy to more natural gas use where it makes sense, particularly for electric generation and motor vehicles. I drive a natural gas-capable vehicle and I wish more people did.

In keeping with the position articulated by Clinton during the campaign, OLeary also said that, in the wake of the Cold War, the department should redirect to other needful industries the billions of dollars it had lavished for decades on nuclear weapons. In March of 1993, she made public an administration proposal to convert one of the nations three laboratories for nuclear weapon design into a center for research on environmental cleanup technology.

In December of 1993, OLeary gained more supporters by disclosing the governments role in radiation tests during the 1940s and 1950s. Facing the outcry of the general public and the opposition of her own staff, OLeary nonetheless revealed that unsuspecting people were subjected to experimental radiationthe levels of which have since been declared unsafe. OLeary has also made it her mission to inform the American public about storage sites for spent nuclear fuel. As these actions attest, in her role as secretary of Energy, OLeary has shown administrative skill as well as concern about the welfare of citizens of the United States.


Black Enterprise, March 1993.

Boston Globe, December 22, 1992, p. 10.

Christian Science Monitor, January 14, 1993, p. 8.

Ebony, May 1993, p. 64.

Newsweek, December 27, 1993, pp. 14-18.

New York Times, December 22, 1992, p. B9; January 9, 1993, p. 8; January 19, 1993, p. A19.

Wall Street Journal, December 21, 1992, p. A10; January 12, 1993, p. A14; January 19, 1993, p. B9.

Washington Post, January 19, 1993, p. A9; March 9, 1993, p. A10; April 12, 1993, p. A17.

Isaac Rosen

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O'Leary, Hazel Rollins

May 17, 1937

Fisk University President Hazel Rollins O'Leary, a former corporate executive and U.S. Secretary of Energy, was born and raised in the seaport city of Newport News, Virginia. She graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1959 and earned a law degree from Rutgers in 1966. In New Jersey she began a career in law enforcement, serving as an assistant state attorney general and later as an Essex County prosecutor. In the early 1970s O'Leary moved to Washington, D.C., and became a partner at the accounting firm of Coopers and Lybrand. She later joined the Federal Energy Administration during the Ford presidency. She served in President Jimmy Carter's Energy Department as head of the Economic Regulatory Administration. While there, Rollins befriended John F. O'Leary, the deputy energy secretary. The couple married in 1980 and formed an energy consulting firm, O'Leary Associates. After John O'Leary died in 1987, Hazel O'Leary closed the consulting firm.

In 1989 O'Leary was named executive vice president for corporate affairs at the Minneapolis-based Northern States Power Company, one of the largest gas and electric utilities in the Midwest. She was in charge of environmental affairs, public relations, and lobbying. As an energy policy maker O'Leary advocated decreased dependence on oil and coal, promoted fuel conservation, and helped develop a program at Northern States Power to generate electricity with windmills. She was also a proponent of nuclear power, and her goals included the creation of safe storage methods for nuclear waste.

The policy of Northern States Power regarding the storage of nuclear waste earned O'Leary some criticism from environmental groups. In 1990 Northern States sought to build nuclear storage facilities at Prairie Island, Minnesota, next to the Mdewakanton Sioux Indian Reservation. After the Sioux protested, a judge prohibited an expansion of the nuclear waste site. O'Leary then drafted a compromise with regulators that permitted Northern States to open the storage facility on a reduced scale. Her background in energy regulation and her commitment to conservation attracted the attention of President Bill Clinton, who in 1993 offered O'Leary the post of secretary of energy. When confirmed, O'Leary became the first woman ever to hold that post.

O'Leary's tenure as energy secretary was troubled. Critics charged that she had sold access to her office by forcing companies to contribute to her favorite charity. Following her resignation on January 20, 1997, a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the allegations. Shortly afterward, O'Leary again made headlines when she admitted in a deposition that watchdogs who made complaints in nuclear facilities were routinely harassed.

In 2000, African-American investment banking firm Blaylock & Partners of New York appointed O'Leary chief operating officer. She remained with the firm until 2002, while continuing to serve on the boards of various commercial and nonprofit organizations. O'Leary was named President of Fisk University in 2004.

See also Politics in the United States


Haywood, Richette L. "Secretary O'Leary: Bright, Charming, Tough." Ebony 50, no. 4 (February 1995): 9497.

Nixon, Will. "Bill and Al's Green Adventure." Environmental Magazine (May 1993).

james bradley (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005