O'Mara links environmental, economic success in Delaware

Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Collin O’Mara had a message for the attendees of this year’s Today and Tomorrow Conference at Del Tech: Environmental responsibility and a sustainable economy do not have to be mutually exclusive.

O’Mara said that, often, creating a strong environment is seen as destructive to the economy – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

“I’m here to propose that I think we can do both,” said O’Mara. “We have to figure out creative ways to get there.”

He recalled some time spent recently in Seaford, in the Middleford Road area, and the beauty of the natural environment alongside the degradation of old, seemingly abandoned, stores and gas stations. The key, he said is to invest in improving corridors such as that one and using the environmental amenities that already exist to attract new talent and jobs to the area.

He said that, many times, when being asked about what their next step is after college, students will talk about where they want to live first and where they want to work second. “[The environment] can be one of the largest drivers,” he said of that decision of where to live and work.

Energy use is another way in which Delaware can evolve, according to O’Mara. He said farms are spending a high percentage of their money on natural gas, oil and electric, and if people make an effort to drive those numbers down, “we can make ourselves more competitive.” Farms can do this by maximizing their energy efficiency and also looking into renewable energy sources, such as solar, he said. “And obviously they create less pollution, but people can increase profit margins, if we look at it holistically.”

He said another key to Delaware’s success is not just attracting companies. “That’s just part of the equation. It’s a whole greening of the economy.”

He said the fours historic C’s of Delaware’s modern economy — credit cards, cars, chemicals and chickens – each have an opportunity to be more competitive while being more environmentally responsible.

With the recent announcement that eco-friendly car manufacture Fiskar would be taking over a former GM plant upstate, O’Mara offered that case as a prime example. Having a company like Fisker is seen as economically sustainable, as well as environmentally friendly, because they need a skilled workforce to survive, and that can be found in Delaware.

“And the chemical companies are moving away from petroleum-based products,” he noted. “It’s part environmental and part good economic sense. You can control the price of soy more than a barrel of oil.”

“They all create opportunities, in the supply chain, in the workforce… But, if we are not smart, we could end up trading oil for Chinese-made photovoltaic panels or wind turbines from Scandanavia,” he warned.

He again referenced companies such as Fisker, which makes a plug-in hybrid car and will do so with help from a Delaware-based skilled workforce. He also mentioned success stories in companies such as Flexera, a renewable energy company that has grown significantly in the past five years, and Atlantic Refrigeration, the leading geo-thermal installer in the state, which is, even in the economic downturn, hiring new employees.

O’Mara also mentioned BlueWater Wind and other, perhaps less obvious, companies, such as Miller Metals in Bridgeville, which, because they manufacture metals that are used in wind turbines, are “providing goods that are critical to their long-term growth and growth of the industry.”

“We have to get back to basics – make things again, export them – to rebuild the fabric of the economy,” O’Mara said. “You can’t retrofit your house if the employee is in China. The job’s gotta be here.”