Catching up with Nancy Sutley isn’t easy. As the Head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and President Obama’s chief advisor on environmental issues Sutley is a busy woman. She recently spared a few minutes to share what its like to powwow with the president, be a high-ranking out lesbian in the new administration and her hopes for the next four years.
What role does the White House Council on Environmental Quality play in the administration?
Sure, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is one of the oldest federal programs dealing exclusively with environment. Their role is to be the environmental advisor to the president, to coordinate among federal agencies and to be the advocate for the environment.
So far, what is the most challenging aspect of your position?
We just have so much to do. There is work to be done regarding pollution in our communities, preservation of our national spaces and of course clean, sustainable energy- How we produce and use energy is a huge concern. A lot of time was lost in the last eight years and we are dealing with the sheer volume of trying to catch up, and move the environment off the back burner—and back to a top priority.
You were just named one of Out magazine’s 50 most influential gay people. How do you plan to use your newly recognized influence?
In my job description we don’t necessarily get into issues that are specific to the gay community. For me, visibility is an important thing. I think it’s important that gay people are out and visible in all walks of life. And it’s important for everyone to understand that we are part of the community. A couple of weeks ago, the President signed an executive order establishing a council on girls and women, and I was standing on stage right behind him.
In your opinion, how does this administration’s approach to the environment differ from the previous one?
I think the President has shown, in his not quite three months in office, that this is an issue of enormous importance to him. He recognizes the connection between energy and the environment and he’s talked about transitioning to a clean energy economy. In all my experience, I’ve never seen a president give this much attention to these issues. This administration is trying to address the most pressing threats and is using science, instead of politics, to guide our decisions.
Can you give us a specific example?
One of the first things I got to work on was regarding mercury, which a very serious toxic substance. There is a lot of exposure around the world to high levels of mercury. One of the reasons that there hasn’t been worldwide agreement regarding mercury in the past is, that the U.S. has opposed any kind of agreement. We are now in support that there should be a binding worldwide agreement to limit mercury in environment. There are now diplomats all over the world now working on creating a treaty to limit mercury emissions. This decision was a big departure for the U.S.
What do you most hope to accomplish in the next four years?
I will feel that my time was well spent, if we continue to make the environment a priority. We will work closely with the EPA to make sure we do everything we can to limit peoples’ exposure to harmful pollutants, make our energy economy more sustainable and create more green jobs. I want to help put the U.S. back where it belongs as a leader in clean energy and climate change. I also want to make the federal government itself more sustainable. The federal government is the largest employer in the U.S., the largest landlord and the single largest user of energy.
The health of our natural places, such as The San Francisco Bay Delta and the Chesapeake Bay are in trouble. These are large ecosystems with lots of people surrounding them, and we need to do everything we can to restore the health of these natural places. We want to have the federal government work with state agencies and local communities, to restore the health of these natural places.
As deputy mayor for energy and the environment, how did you help to make Los Angeles a greener place?
We put together a big plan—a lot of things the city could do itself and things that people living in L.A. could do to make it a greener placer. We did a lot with the port of L.A., which is the largest port in the U.S. There’s a lot of pollution around the port and a lot of families were having health problems because of it. We enacted one of the first laws that require new buildings to be green buildings. The mayor pledged to plant a million trees, last I heard we had about 200,000 trees planted. There were 14 new parks built and we put together a plan to restore the L.A. River. We got a lot done, I feel good about it.
Have you had much contact with President Obama?
Yes, I don’t see him everyday and that’s probably a good thing for both him and me. We’ve had a number of occasions to talk about environmental policy [and] climate change.
You were a big Hillary Clinton supporter throughout the election. Have you had the opportunity to interact much with her?
Not yet, we have been working closely with the state department though. I know that she has put the environment as a high priority for the state department, and that the environment is always on the agenda when they talk to foreign leaders.
Have you always been open about your sexual orientation on a professional level? When did you first come out professionally?
Once I told my mother I figured it didn’t really matter who else knew. I worked for Governor Davis and I was standing on stage when he signed the California domestic partnership law into effect and I worked for Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa who opposed Prop. 8. I’ve been out and open in my career and have been lucky to be in very supportive environments.
How do relax from your stressful job saving the world?
You’re implying that I do relax. I think between the job and moving 3,000 miles I haven’t had too much time to relax in the last three months.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I don’t think I ever wanted to be a fireman or a baseball player. I’ve always been interested in public policy.
Any dating prospects in D.C.?
When I figure out if I have time for that, I’ll let you know.
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