WASHINGTON – Nancy Sutley, the top White House environmental advisor, is a fan of Wallace and Gromit, the claymation movie stars. Wallace, a tinkerer, habitually gets in trouble with his elaborate inventions, and Gromit, his silent but hyper-intelligent dog, repeatedly saves him.
In her five years as head of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, Sutley said she felt a lot like Gromit. “You know, in keeping things moving as chaos ensues,” she said.
One of the longest-serving top officials in the Obama administration, Sutley winds up her tenure Friday to return to Los Angeles, where she had worked as deputy mayor for energy and environment under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. She plans to take a break and then decide on her next move.
She leaves behind supporters grateful for her efforts to address climate change, energy efficiency and the plight of the oceans. But her critics, largely from the environmental community, claim that she was too much in the background, too quiet, too much like Gromit in her approach.
For the last five years, the Environmental Protection Agency has been under attack on Capitol Hill by Republicans and some Democrats, too. Some of its key regulatory efforts have been stalled or halted by the White House, such as a rule on smog-forming ozone. Missing from public view and even inside-the-Beltway talk was any push-back by the CEQ and Sutley, some environmentalists said.
“There has been progress on the environmental front in this administration, but it’s rather meager compared to what some people had hoped and expected,”said Lisa Heinzerling, a law professor at Georgetown University and former associate EPA administrator during Obama’s first term. “With an entity in the White House charged with protecting the environment like the CEQ, it would have been great to have a stronger voice.”
Sutley and Heinzerling worked together on the transition team for Obama in 2008. Heinzerling remembered her as “very smart, quiet but firm, and very environmentally conscious.”
Low-key and succinct, Sutley often answers questions while looking down at her clasped hands on her desk before looking up with a warm smile. She defended her work and that of the Obama administration, which she said has the strongest environmental record of any she’s worked for. Sutley also worked for California Gov. Gray Davis and in President Clinton’s EPA.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished: on the climate, oceans, energy efficiency, agencies working together to protect our most sensitive environments, like the Everglades and the Gulf Coast,” Sutley said, under a vividly orange painting of Death Valley in her office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.
“Sometimes people have unrealistic expectations,” she said, “Does the president need to be talking about the environment every day? Do I? No, because every one of my colleagues in the administration thinks the environment is important and part of their mission, not just the CEQ and EPA.”
Established by Congress in 1969, the CEQ handles a great deal of behind-the-scenes work, most importantly helping agencies comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires them to assess the impact of their actions on the environment.
Coordinating federal agencies seldom grabs headlines, Sutley’s supporters said. But such coordination was essential, they argued, to crafting vehicle fuel economy standards in 2009; developing a sweeping oceans policy; helping the federal, state and local governments improve their resilience to the effects of climate change; and making the federal government’s massive infrastructure more sustainable by cutting waste, fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Her critics also argue that besides its coordination function, the CEQ is also supposed to be the voice of environmental concerns in the White House. They point to predecessors such as Kathleen McGinty in the Clinton administration for their higher profile in defending the EPA.
“When I look over there at the CEQ, it seems like a very still pond, without any ripples on the surface,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former director of the EPA's Office of Civil Enforcement and executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington research and advocacy group.
Carol Browner, Obama’s top climate advisor during his first term, said Sutley’s focus on her work rather than personal recognition, “which is rare in D.C.,” meant that the administration made “continual progress on complex issues.”
“When someone would call with a concern about a new rule EPA was crafting, you could count on Nancy to say, ‘Let’s get the facts before drawing any conclusions. Why they’re doing this, how they’re doing it,’” Browner said. “She went to the mat over and over again for the EPA.”
Those who saw their issues advance under the Obama administration consider the CEQ effective. Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, credited Sutley’s CEQ for pushing energy efficiency to the fore, resulting in a competitive grant program for states.
Energy efficiency draws a rare bipartisan following in Washington these days. Other, more controversial measures have stalled, Sutley’s critics contend.
Environmentalists said they were surprised, for instance, when the CEQ came out against the EPA’s draft coal ash rule, a measure to regulate disposal of residue left from burning coal for power generation. Sutley says that the CEQ’s stance was misunderstood: It did not reject the rule but pointed out instead some possible unintentional negative consequences of it.
When Sutley took office, environmentalists were heartened that the CEQ introduced draft guidance under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for federal agencies to account for their policies’ effects on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Four years later, the final guidance has yet to be issued.
Sutley says the CEQ received many comments on the greenhouse gas guidance and was “still working through it.” The agencies themselves are reviewing it. Days before her departure, a file lay on the top right hand corner of her desk with a small Post-it that reads “NEPA GHGs.”
She gave no indication whether the guidance would be out soon. “Sometimes,” she said, “things are harder to do than you originally think.”