• Ben Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Sheila Hollis of USEA

As part of this ongoing monthly series, we’ve interviewed clients, colleagues and friends who boast a number of superlatives. This month, we’re adding another one: the first female head of the United States Energy Association (USEA) in its 100 year history. Our client USEA’s Sheila Hollis is the acting executive director of USEA. She was the first woman to serve as President of the Energy Bar Association, and holds the distinction of being the only person to serve as both President of the Energy Bar Association and Chair of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Section of Environment, Energy and Resources, the leading forum for thousands of lawyers working in areas related to the environment, natural resources, and energy. Sheila has worked throughout the world in energy and environment from Ethiopia to Eastern Europe to Brazil, including serving twice as a delegate of the ABA to United Nations Rio+20.


Prior to becoming Acting Executive Director of USEA one year ago, Sheila was the Chairman of the Board. She has served on the USEA Board of Directors for 15 years. She is also Of Counsel in the Washington, D.C. office of Duane Morris, LLP. At Duane Morris she was the first woman in the firm’s 100 year history to serve on its five-member Executive Committee. She was that office’s founding managing partner and the founding leader of the firm’s Energy, Environment and Resources Practice Group. As a Professorial Lecturer in the Law at George Washington University School of Law, she taught energy law for 20 years to over 600 students in the Environmental and Energy Law Program and was recognized by the Law School for her teaching contributions.


Sheila practices in the areas of energy policy and transactional and regulatory law worldwide. She began her career in energy law as a trial lawyer at the Federal Power Commission, serving as lead counsel on the Pennzoil-United spinoff case, and, after three years representing the Public Service Commission of the State of New York, was appointed as founding director of the Office of Enforcement at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In 2018, Super Lawyers named her one of Washington, D.C.'s Top 100 Lawyers overall and one of the Top 50 Washington Women Lawyers. Sheila was recognized by the ABA as a “Trailblazer” for women in law, among only approximately 100 women to be honored for breaking barriers for women in cutting-edge areas of law. Sheila will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from Corporate Counsel magazine on October 9 in Washington. Sheila is listed as a Statesman in energy and environment by Chambers, an international legal reviewing entity.


Sheila was president of the Women’s Council on Energy and Environment (WCEE) for five years and was awarded its Woman of the Year Award in 2003. She is a Colorado native and a graduate of the University of Denver College of Law and the University of Colorado at Boulder, cum laude in general studies and with honors in Journalism. She also studied EU formation law at the University of Exeter in Exeter England.


I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with Sheila and her terrific team at USEA for the past several months. I’m always impressed with Sheila’s insight and perspective, particularly as she recounts stories from her career and lessons learned for women in energy. I’m grateful for her willingness to share her thoughts with us on this first anniversary of her assumption of the role of Acting Executive Director of USEA.


My thanks to Sheila for sharing her wisdom with us – and you.


Q: You’ve watched the evolution of the energy industry from an important but overlooked sector in terms of media coverage to a vital economic engine that is at the center of much of the national conversation. What trends have you noticed over time that you think are relevant and important for communicators to understand?


A: I like to say ‘energy never sleeps’ and we cannot sleep either. The energy transformation is a trend unfolding in most parts of the world today. USEA is active all over the world, and we work with diverse groups with very different needs. It’s critical to tell the story about what we are doing and the energy industry’s impact throughout the world. The reward is knowing that the purpose of the organization is fulfilling and so important to the world and to this industry. There are very few businesses like energy, that A: have the consequence; B: move as fast; and C: have the technical challenges. Energy is the lifeblood of all economies, including the U.S., and the time has never been more critical to spur stability and economic growth.


The world is moving to decarbonize the energy sector by 2050, and it takes all of us – every corner of the energy industry – to help meet that goal, juxtaposed with the harsh reality that thirty percent of the world’s population does not have any energy supply. Energy demand is expected to double by 2050, as millions and millions are lifted out of poverty and seek to gain access to energy. So, the challenges ahead of us are daunting, and it will take all hands on deck to meet these challenges. But it can be done, and, quite frankly, it must be done.


To sum up your original question about trends – energy has never been as sleepless as it is today. And - I suppose this is similar to many other fields as our world modernizes - the role of technology and research and development in the energy arena has been exponentially growing every year. Almost every sector of our industry can be improved in some fashion by the utilization of new technology. What can be made more efficient? What can help decarbonize a type of energy source? How do we lower costs? Everything is on the table now, and this relationship will only grow in the coming years. And of course, as the energy landscape is rapidly changing, and new variables come into play every year, USEA has remained a strong and steady organization. Our Board has done a truly superb job guiding us, and we would not be able to adapt and adjust without their wisdom and advice. The Board is anchored and guided by Executive Chairman Vicky Bailey - who is in her second stint as Chairman - and we cannot thank her enough for all she has done for USEA.


Q: Women have played an outsized role in the energy industry but the awareness and attention to their contributions has not matched their impact. What examples of women’s contributions to the energy industry can you share that have been overlooked or underreported?


A: I encourage everyone to read a new book by Steve Mitnick, Executive Editor, Public Utilities Fortnightly, entitled: ‘Women Leading Utilities’. As noted in the book’s opening by APPA President & CEO Joy Ditto, it is “an overdue recounting of women’s significant role. Since the industry’s infancy, through their brain power, hard work, and determination, women have contributed to breakthroughs in technical and operational advancements with minimal or no recognition. Steve’s book demonstrates that these outstanding women leaders made incredible contributions despite the lack of societal or institutional support, much less equitable promotional opportunities or fair compensation.”


At USEA, we try to do our part to enhance the recognition of women in the energy sector. Many of our team are women and they are an outstanding, dedicated force for good. Our EUPP program, in coordination with USAID, sponsors a monthly spotlight called “Women In Energy”. Every month, a new woman is featured, and the honorees are from all over the world -- not just the United States. And they hold all sorts of positions. For example, this month’s honoree is the head of Risk Management at the Uganda Electricity Generation Company LTD; a few months ago, we featured the Director of Regulatory Affairs for AES Gener, a generation company with presence in several countries in South America.


Another one of our unique programs is called Female Leaders In Energy (FLIE). Andrew Palmateer, one of our Program Directors, coordinates this with the State Department. This is a truly special program: we pair mentees from South Asia, who are early in their energy career, with senior-level mentors from the United States. It’s a two-year program that will culminate, hopefully, with an in-person ceremony. We’re thrilled to partner with State on this incredible initiative, and we are proud to help women halfway across the world advance in their energy careers.


It’s efforts like this that, over time, gradually raise the profile and recognition of women in our field.


Q: As a lawyer, you’ve had to understand not just what is right and wrong, but how to communicate that in the written and spoken word. What advice do you have for communicators to simplify complex topics for clear, compelling communication?


A: I have always believed that you don’t really know your subject unless you can explain it -- verbally or in writing -- in very simple terms. The energy industry -- like most industries -- uses a lot of ‘jargon’ as the result of decades of work together. A real expert, who has fully mastered the energy business from all sides, can describe the sector in terms that the policy makers and the general public understands.


Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?


A: This relates to my previous answer - but knowing when to keep things short and sweet, and when to speak at length. Some communications do require long or detailed answers, but for most back-and-forth interactions, I know that cutting out extra detail and delivering a concise answer is the most effective method to convey your meaning. Otherwise, you risk losing your subject’s focus and attention, and you risk losing the purpose of your original message.


In terms of the current energy landscape -- I have always been impressed by the visionary, and also pragmatic, thought leadership of all of our Board members. One longtime Board member, Daniel Yergin, has written a new book, ‘The New Map’, that offers years of international energy experience and insights into the minds of our world’s most influential leaders. The ‘common sense’ revealed in his book is that we are all human beings examining a global future and what it will look like as a result of globalization, geopolitics, and a changing energy industry. It’s well worth the read.


Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?


A: Effective communication is the foundation of good relationships. In the many different types of relationships we as humans have - from our significant others and family members, to our colleagues in the office, to someone as important as an IT worker assisting you on the phone - good communication and simple kindness is always the underlying factor in a successful and fruitful relationship. Good communication enhances trust, cooperation, and ultimately, the strength of the relationship and the benefit of the people and the entity with which they work.


Regarding the energy arena - the industry is evolving steadily and rapidly. There is no doubt that reducing carbon emissions and climate change has come to the forefront of public debate. A majority of energy companies know that there is growing public concern about climate change in 2021. That’s the reality. Now, with the new administration engaging deeply on an array of these issues, commitments and actions will work to reduce carbon emissions over the next four years. It is not the U.S. alone that must carry the burden and much intense work lies ahead to obtain any steps toward consensus.

It will take collaboration across the entire spectrum of the energy industry to decarbonize the energy sector. My best ‘common sense’ advice: Work together and respect one another to provide energy to parts of a still needy world and at the same time work towards the goal of achieving massive decarbonization.





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