Bucking turnover trend, Sutley may stay on at CEQ

Despite speculation in environmental circles earlier this year that she was headed for the exit, White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley has given no indication she is planning to leave her job.

In fact, it's been quite the opposite.

At a White House event late last month celebrating women in the environmental movement, Sutley enthusiastically talked about the "honor" and "privilege" it is to work for President Obama and expressed excitement over his second-term agenda.

"The president in his State of the Union underscored the importance of addressing our energy and climate challenges with several new commitments," she said at the event.

When asked about Sutley's future with the administration, a spokeswoman last week said the chairwoman is "focused on building on the historic progress the administration has already made on the environment and clean energy."

Sutley "currently has no plans beyond that," the spokeswoman said.

A departure announcement by Sutley now, nearly five months after Obama won re-election, would fall a bit outside the traditional time frame of staff turnover for a president heading into his second term.

But the earlier speculation over her departure stemmed from a variety of reasons, beginning with questions about how much influence Sutley has in her current role.

It is no secret Sutley saw her position in the Obama White House overshadowed early on when the president brought in former EPA Administrator Carol Browner to direct a new White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy.

It was Browner who headed high-profile issues in the president's first term, including Obama's push for climate change legislation and the federal response to the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And Browner's departure from the administration in 2011 did little to raise Sutley's profile.

While Browner's old post has since been folded into the White House Domestic Policy Council, the administration still turns to Browner's successor, Heather Zichal, on many high-profile energy and environmental issues.


For example, shortly after Obama unveiled his plans earlier this month for a new Energy Security Trust to fund $2 billion worth of research and development into alternative fuels for the transportation sector, Zichal went to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to promote the new effort.

Some observers who believed Sutley would leave the administration had a theory that Zichal was primed for the CEQ job.

One former administration insider said Zichal, more than Sutley, has been the key player inside the West Wing in shepherding the administration's clean energy and environmental accomplishments, including the new vehicle fuel standards that are often touted by the White House.

What's clear is that Sutley's role at CEQ is less high-profile than that of George W. Bush council Chairman James Connaughton -- who wielded a great deal of influence in the White House.

Another theory is that Sutley may simply be delaying her departure while she looks for a job, perhaps in Los Angeles where she previously worked. And if that's true, she may be waiting for the current mayoral race there to be settled. Two Democrats, City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel, will face each other in a May 21 runoff that will decide the new mayor.

Sutley previously served as the city's deputy mayor for energy and environment.

But she may feel a pull to stay because CEQ may soon have a bigger role to play.

CEQ's future

The White House is considering taking steps to ensure that federal agencies include climate change in a uniform way when performing National Environmental Policy Act assessments before issuing permits for major new projects. Such a move would be cheered by environmentalists who have expressed concern that not all agencies follow the same procedures when weighing climate change.

The effort would be led by CEQ.

While the job of a CEQ chief has been described as one that's reinvented with every new administration, Congress created the position in 1969 specifically to oversee implementation of NEPA.

Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who served in the Clinton administration as part of the White House Climate Change Task Force, said CEQ could also see its influence grow in the coming years because the use of executive orders, particularly for land and conservation efforts, tends to increase during a president's second term.

"The level of ambition for executive order becomes much more important," Bledsoe said. "They tend to happen more frequently and they tend to have a much grander ambition" and CEQ is in a good position to coordinate those efforts.

Even with the heightened role, Sutley is unlikely to become the political lightning rod that Browner once was during her time in the White House.

For one, that's not Sutley's style. The quiet-spoken Sutley, who once served as an assistant to Browner at U.S. EPA, seems more comfortable working behind the scenes.

In addition, as Josh Freed, vice president for clean energy at the centrist think tank Third Way, recently noted, it's a different political environment than four years ago and the White House is taking a different approach to climate change.

"It's not one person in the White House driving a comprehensive climate agenda that requires congressional action," Freed said. "What we've seen, which reflects the times, is a more diffuse set of agencies making policy that matches opportunities."

Freed said a number of people in the administration will help drive policy on the issue.

"The president has made it clear this is a priority of his. There's a big role for EPA to play. There's a big role for the departments of Energy and the Interior to play. There's a big role for CEQ to play. I think [CEQ's role] will be a coordinating and convening role."

CEQ spokeswoman Taryn Tuss also sought to play up CEQ's coordinating job when it comes to new climate change efforts.

"As the president made clear in the State of the Union, the administration will continue to identify steps to prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, reduce carbon pollution and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy," Tuss said. "CEQ will continue to play an integral role alongside our White House colleagues and the many federal agencies engaged in this issue in developing policies to accomplish the president's goals."

Meanwhile, one energy insider said last week that clean energy advocates aren't looking to CEQ to be the sole champion in the White House for their issues. Rather, the insider said, they want to elevate the issue in the White House by promoting clean energy on multiple fronts and finding as many champions inside the president's office as possible.

If those appeals are taken up by the Obama administration, there may be more seats at the table for environmental voices at the White House.

In 2008 the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund called for the creation of a new body, called the National Energy Council, that would specifically coordinate energy and climate change issues across federal agencies.

"We do believe, as we have for four years, that it would be beneficial to have a council within the White House that would do nothing but focus like a laser on coordinating the work of all the agencies that have part of the clean energy and climate change portfolio," CAPAF senior fellow Daniel Weiss said last week.

Weiss said CEQ has undertaken a portion of that work but also has a whole other set of responsibilities including coordinating the environmental impact review process under NEPA.

"CEQ is playing an important part in energy and climate policy but not the comprehensive role we envisioned when we made the energy council proposal," Weiss said.

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