Nancy Sutley.Photo illustration by Tom Twigg / GristNancy Sutley is sitting in the catbird seat as America’s environmental landscape begins to radically shift under the Obama administration. As chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, she is President Obama’s chief environmental adviser, coordinating activities across more than half a dozen federal agencies on issues ranging from climate change to water quality to land conservation.

Sutley, a Latina and the first high-level openly gay official to join the Obama administration, served from 2005 to 2009 as deputy mayor for energy and the environment in Los Angeles. There she helped quadruple renewable energy production, cut greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels, and push through a program to cut air pollution from cargo ships at the region’s enormous ports. An outspoken advocate of environmental justice, Sutley also served at EPA during the Clinton administration, where she worked on clean-air protections.

For all her achievements in the environmental realm, Sutley is no idealist. She promotes the development of cleaner coal technology, reasoning that “clearly coal is a part of our energy mix now and it’s likely to be so in the future.”

I met with Sutley at CEQ headquarters in a cozy brick townhouse next door to the White House, where we discussed climate policy, the fruits of the economic stimulus bill, and her role as an agent of environmental change.

Q. Let’s start with your job description. You coordinate federal activities on environmental policy. What does this entail on a practical level?

A. CEQ was created back in the 1970s to provide some policy guidance to all the agencies toward the U.S. meeting its environmental goals. On a day-to-day basis it can mean anything from thinking about the environmental trends and what are the pressing environmental issues affecting the country, to trying to resolve differences of opinion between agencies on very specific environmental questions.

Q. The House may soon vote on the landmark Waxman-Markey climate bill. You have said that President Obama is willing to personally intervene to ensure the passage of strong climate legislation. In what ways are you and he working behind the scenes to rally support for this bill?

A. The president’s been very up front. He met with the House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats, and he’s talked about it repeatedly, that he wants to see comprehensive energy and climate legislation on his desk for him to sign. He has urged, as we’ve all urged, Congress to continue to move forward on acting on comprehensive energy and climate legislation, to foster this clean energy economy, to foster green jobs, and to tackle this pressing problem of climate change.

Q. Has President Obama said that specific provisions need to be included in the bill for it to be acceptable?

A. I don’t think that he has, and [I don’t think that] now it is appropriate to draw lines in the sand. I think Congress is doing its job, it’s debating about the best ways to approach very important issues.

He has called for and been consistent in calling for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. I think that’s generally an accepted, scientifically based goal, the goal we need to meet to try to deal with the worst potential effects of climate change. He’s also talked about protecting consumers, in addition to promoting clean energy and creating green jobs. There’s a lot of different ways you can go about doing that and it’ll be an important component of the bill going forward.

Q. Do you think that passing a moderate bill would be worse than passing no bill at all? Some people have voiced concerns that the bill might get stripped of its strongest provisions.

A. I think that the U.S. needs to deal with these energy issues. This has been a lament in Washington for many years, that we don’t have an energy policy. We are on the cusp of being able to really move our economy in a different direction, in a cleaner, more sustainable direction. There’s not always one way to do it. And it’s not just the only opportunity–we’ve made important efforts and investment through the [economic] recovery act in clean energy and in green jobs.

Q. The stimulus package allocated tens of billions of dollars to clean energy development and green jobs promotion. Can you give examples of energy projects and green jobs that are emerging as a result?

A. One of the important things that the recovery act does is provide very significant funding for green job training. That’s something we really never had. The Department of Labor is working very hard to get that money out the door to provide a platform for people to be trained for these new green jobs.

In terms of clean energy, the Department of Energy [is] working on loan guarantees for money for the smart grid. The Department of Transportation [recently announced] the first money on high speed rail, which is a really exciting opportunity to change fundamentally the transportation system, to bring us into the 21st century with respect to rail, which can help to reduce pollution in our cities and reduce our contributions to greenhouse emissions as well. Money for weatherization, money for improving the energy efficiency of government buildings—the U.S. government is the largest landlord in the country, we own thousands of buildings and manage thousands of buildings—to try to reduce their environmental footprint. The president said when he signed the recovery act that he wanted not only to stimulate the economy now, but to provide the foundation and the investment in this clean energy future.

Q. Sometimes building clean-energy projects butts up against protections for endangered species and land. How can you speed up renewable energy projects when you confront such barriers?

A. What’s important is for there to be a cooperative and concerted effort. Most of these projects will be built by the private sector, but we have an important role to play thinking about putting renewable [energy projects] and transmission in places where it’s appropriate to have them, where you have the best resources, but also to stay away from areas that are very sensitive.

I think there’s an important effort underway between the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture — which manages the Forest Service, which manages a lot of land — between the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to try to work together as federal agencies to speed up the process, to not shortchange the environmental review. There [have] been efforts at the state level, in California and the Western states, to try to identify areas where the renewable resources are good, and to try to identify areas that are particularly sensitive that you want to stay away from. So I think with the federal government working together with the states, local governments, the environmental community, and the people who want to build these projects, we can come up with a sensible, efficient way to move forward with projects that will help move our country toward a cleaner energy future.

Q. Will there be trade-offs? Will we have to decide that clean energy may need to trump endangered-species protection? Or do you think it’s possible to do it all?

A. I think we have frameworks [so] that we can do it all. The National Environmental Policy Act reviews are intended to do that, to understand what the environmental impacts [are] of actions that the federal government’s involved in. Many states have similar kinds of reviews, so we don’t have to make tradeoffs between endangered species and transmission lines. It’s possible in a smart way, if we’re working together, if we’re planning ahead and making smart choices, that we can do both. I don’t think people have really anything to fear by the expansion of renewable energy.

Q. Mountaintop-removal coal mining has gotten a lot of attention recently for the harm that it’s causing Appalachian communities and waterways, and I know that the Obama administration has said that you will scrutinize permits more rigorously. Do you think this means we’re going to see less mountaintop mining as a result?

A. I don’t know the answer to that right now. There are a bunch of permits sitting in limbo because of some court decisions, and the reviews of those will have to move forward, and the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers will have to make decisions based on science and the law. The Department of Interior has asked to withdraw a last-minute Bush administration rule under the surface mining law that they oversee. So with respect to projects that are pending right now, I don’t know the answer to that, but they will have the scrutiny they deserve.

I think everybody acknowledges, the president has said it, and I think everybody you’ll talk to acknowledges that there are serious environmental impacts associated with mountaintop mining, and we have to address them going forward, and we have to look at what we can do under our existing authority to strengthen the oversight of these projects and to see that we’re using those authorities fully to try to address the environmental impacts of mountaintop mining. So again, does it mean fewer projects? I don’t know the answer to that. But it will mean that we will deal with the environmental impacts of those projects.

Q. Another hot-button issue is “clean coal.” Do you think it’s misleading to imply that mining and burning coal can be clean?

A. I think what we have to recognize is that all forms of energy production have environmental impacts. The only one I think that doesn’t is energy conservation. So we have to consider what are the best ways to address those environmental impacts. I think there is hope for technology that will help to reduce both the environmental impacts of mining coal and producing electricity with coal. There are promising technologies to deal with the carbon dioxide using carbon capture and sequestration. The truth of the matter is we’ve had a generation of coal plants that have been built using basically 1950s technology and we really have to push to innovate in that technology because clearly coal is a part of our energy mix now and it’s likely to be so in the future.

But even if we were to stop using coal tomorrow, it’s used around the world and we have to deal with its environmental impacts. So investing in the technology, investing in innovation in how coal is used to produce electricity, is very important not only for our country and our economy but really for the entire world. And we can be a leader in providing that technology, we can be a leader in providing the innovation and research that will get us to be able to deal with the effects of burning coal and try to address carbon capture and sequestration. These are important technologies that we’re going to need.

Q. A clean environment should be a universal civil right, and yet it’s widely perceived to be an issue of a narrow, white, privileged slice of America. The Obama green team is a diverse group. How are you helping to shift the way Americans think about the environment and potentially expanding this narrow issue into a universal political movement?

A. I’ll take a little bit of issue with the premise because I’ve worked here in Washington, I’ve worked in California, at the state level in Los Angeles, where the environment is an issue for everyone. People care about the environment they experience, as they experience it. People care very much about the environment in their communities, they care about the health of their families and their community, they care about the places that they live.

It doesn’t always get translated into the big policy issues of the day, but I think this team, the Obama administration, the team here at CEQ, we are people with a really broad range of experience. A lot of us have worked at the community level, at the state and local level, where there is no doubt that the environment is an issue people care about across the board. So I think we bring that perspective, and reaching out to people across a broad range of communities is a very important issue for us. And we’ve got Van Jones here, who’s a special adviser at CEQ on green jobs. We believe, and I know the President believes, that the promise of a clean energy economy will reach across the entire spectrum of our country.

The other thing I’d say about this theme is that the experience really goes beyond the environmental agencies. We have people in positions, in agencies, that don’t have the environment in their title, who care very much about these issues. Secretary Solis in the Department of Labor sponsored the first environmental-justice legislation in California. John Donovan, the secretary of [Housing and Urban Development], came in with a lot of experience trying to green public housing in New York and bringing that same ethic here, to think about sustainable and livable communities. So I think it’s not just the type of people, but also that the environment cuts across so many issues that we deal with, and we have a great team in place who bring those experiences here to Washington.

Q. What policy developments would you like to see with regard to environmental justice?

A. What unfortunately I think happened over the last eight years was that those voices didn’t have a place in the administration’s discussion about the environment. The first thing we need to do is give those voices a place as we put policy together. We’ve been very active in reaching out into a diverse set of communities. As I talk to people to hear what they’re thinking, I think there’s really a lot of excitement about the possibilities of growing this green economy and creating a clean energy economy of green jobs and what it can mean to communities which have been suffering a long time with both economic deprivation and environmental harm. So there’s real opportunities there, and most important is to start the conversation with them. And that we’ve started to do.  And we’ll make sure that as we move forward on this clean energy economy, that it really does touch all parts of our economy and all parts of our country.

Q. What’s the most fun part about your job, and the hardest part?

A. The hardest part is that, having spent the last 13 years in California and coming back here, the weather really stinks, so sometimes I get up in the morning and I think, why did I leave California?

The most fun, as my experience has been doing jobs like this in other places, is the people you get to work with. It’s an incredible group of people, and we’re working for someone who’s a very inspiring leader, who cares about these issues. And I think we feel the sense of possibility, the hope that’s out there in this country that we can move our country into a better place, and that this clean energy economy is really an integral part of a vision for the future. To work on forward-looking policies with a great group of people is great, and it’s wonderful and I look forward to many happy years doing it.

Be sure to check out video highlights from the interview.