Energizing Environmental Issues

Former Georgia-Pacific President Lee Thomas helped create Georgia’s energy strategy

At times, life creates strange bedfellows. For example, Lee Thomas, the 62-year-old former president and chief operating officer of Georgia-Pacific, who’s about to become CEO of Jacksonville-based Rayonier Corp., is both a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Reagan administration (1985-1989) and a member of the governing council of the Alliance for Climate Protection, a group that includes former Vice President Al Gore. In August 2006, Thomas was tapped by Gov. Sonny Perdue to chair the Georgia Energy Policy Council, a 22-member committee charged with developing a comprehensive state energy strategy.

Thomas doesn’t see any inconsistencies in his longtime commitment to environmental and energy issues and his politics. “Support for the environment is a bipartisan issue,” he says. “It’s the interpretation of priorities and the implementation that tend to be politicized.” He supports organizations willing to address tough questions by looking for innovative answers when it comes to issues such as climate change and renewable sources of energy, and he says Georgia’s Energy Policy Council did just that.

“We did a full review of the current strategy, had a tremendous public outreach, discussing the issues with a variety of sources, then presented our strategy on Dec. 15 [2006],” Thomas says. “The state has to take those recommendations and work on ways to move it forward. Our work is done but we did recommend that the State Energy Office update [our] strategy on a regular basis as new technologies become available.”

Thomas says Georgia’s greatest challenge is population growth and corresponding demand for energy. “The impact of our population growth will have a tremendous effect on the environment and the economy,” he says. “We need to anticipate those needs now and develop our best response.”

The Energy Policy Council report encouraged a concerted push toward energy efficiency in buildings, creating tax incentives for those who build “green.”

“We need to see more education with regard to the impact of energy efficiency,” Thomas says, adding that between 20 and 30 percent of future energy demands could be met through improved efficiency. The report also addressed developing alternative energy sources and marketing Georgia as a place to locate biofuel industries.

But even with expanded efficiency and alternative sources, Georgia still needs an additional base load supply of electricity coming from either coal burning or nuclear plants. “My view about [nuclear energy] is that it’s a very clean source, there have been great technological advances in the past two decades,” Thomas says. “[Nuclear] is a clear alternative in climate protection but the waste created is a policy issue which must be addressed and remains the largest stumbling block.”

Thomas pulled a “Michael Jordan” March 1 when it was announced he would come out of retirement to become CEO at Rayonier, a forest products company with timber holdings throughout the South. “I just wasn’t ready to retire,” he says.

Thomas was born and raised in Ridgeway, SC, graduating from Sewanee with a degree in psychology and earning a master’s in counseling from the University of South Carolina. He was a county juvenile probation counselor before moving to the state criminal justice system, where he eventually ran the Offender Rehabilitation Program for South Carolina’s state prisons. He jumped to public safety and emergency management on the state level before moving to Washington, DC, to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I was ‘on loan’ to the EPA for 90 days and stayed there for six years,” Thomas says. His EPA tenure included signing the stratospheric ozone treaty (1987 Montreal Protocol) and handling the U.S. response to the Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

Thomas’s private sector resumé includes a stint as chairman/CEO of Law Companies Environmental Engineering. He joined Georgia-Pacific in 1993, serving as a senior vice president of environmental and government affairs and communications before he moved to the operations side of the company in 1995. Thomas left Georgia-Pacific in January 2006 after the company was acquired by Koch Industries.

Categories: Influential Georgians