The last of President Obama's top-level climate advisers is exiting the administration, leaving the gritty work of implementing -- and defending -- his plan to cut carbon emissions to elevated holdouts.
In Nancy Sutley, the president had a low-key aide who worked at softer decibels than higher-profile agents like Heather Zichal, the former climate confidante who departed last month, and Lisa Jackson, who left as head of U.S. EPA in February.
Some even called Sutley bland, compared to the large personalities that chaired the Council on Environmental Quality before her. They include President Clinton's George Frampton and President George W. Bush's James Connaughton.
"I can't find anything particularly interesting about her," said a former CEQ staffer who worked with Sutley.
Yet Obama praised Sutley, who plans to resign in February, as having played a "central role" in some of the administration's most ambitious environmental efforts. The Climate Action Plan that Obama announced in June is among them. Obama emphasized Sutley's good "counsel."
"Her efforts have made it clear that a healthy environment and a strong economy aren't mutually exclusive -- they can go hand in hand," Obama said in a statement.
Sutley, 51, was born in New York but came to Washington by way of California, where she served as deputy mayor for energy and environment in Los Angeles before accepting the CEQ job in January 2009. Before that, she served on the California State Water Resources Control Board and was an energy adviser to former California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who lost a recall election to then-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.
CEQ's influence expected to grow
As CEQ chairwoman, Sutley showed a subtle passion for her work. The National Oceans Policy Implementation plan, finalized in April, is a testament to Sutley's commitment to the administration, the former staffer said.
But in the end, Washington was probably not the best fit for Sutley. She would often lament the capital's dreary weather, said the staffer.
Sutley's departure follows a string of exits by environmental advisers, leaving the work of crafting the details of setting carbon dioxide standards on new and existing power plants to lieutenants who rose through the ranks. Dan Utech, a handyman in the administration, succeeded Zichal. And Gina McCarthy, an experienced hand at EPA, rose to fill Jackson's post in the Cabinet. Some observers assume that Sutley will be succeeded by an insider.
It will fall to that person and to the rest of Obama's "clean energy team" to put the power plant standards in place, said Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress.
"There will still be lots of heavy lifting needed over the coming three years," he said, noting that several agencies will be involved. "It's both the technical work but also broader defense, because we know that any carbon pollution reduction system for power plants, no matter how flexible and how cost-effective, will come under significant attack from Big Oil and their congressional allies."
The council's role, not only as an umbrella for the agencies' climate work, but also as a think tank for the White House, will grow as Obama's climate change agenda progresses, said Thomas Lorenzen, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney and the former assistant chief in the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice.
Earlier this year, agencies released comprehensive climate plans under CEQ's watch (ClimateWire, Feb. 11).
Operating behind the scenes
"That's precisely where CEQ is most important," Lorenzen said. "The next director of CEQ is going to be a critical player."
Under Sutley, CEQ relied on other officials to engage with Republican lawmakers, according to one senior GOP aide in the Senate. This adviser assumes that the administration's point people, like Zichal and EPA staff, were at the leading edge of influence in the White House.
"I speak to the folks at EPA, I speak to Zichal, I speak to the folks at DOE. Just never really CEQ," the aide said. "I've never spoken with Nancy."
From the start, it was clear that the Cabinet secretaries would play a more visible role in the Obama's energy and environment plan than CEQ, said Paul Bledsoe, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund and former Clinton White House aide.
"There was clearly a decision made in the first term, that people like [Carol] Browner, Jackson, [Ken] Salazar and [Steven] Chu would have a larger profile," said Bledsoe, referring to the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy director, EPA administrator, Interior secretary, and Energy secretary. But Sutley's discreet role is not unusual for the CEQ chair.
"Typically, CEQ has played a behind-the-scenes role," said Bledsoe, who compared Sutley to Clinton's first CEQ chairwoman, Kathleen McGinty. "I think it's very typical that they would allow the Cabinet secretaries to have a more high-profile role."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Carol Browner's position under the Obama administration. She was the director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy from 2009 to 2011.
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