Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Nancy Sutley, President-elect Obama’s pick to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, faced tough questions from several senators about whether she will play second fiddle to Carol Browner, the Clinton-era EPA chief who has been tapped by Obama to serve as climate and energy czar.

During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sutley insisted that CEQ “would retain all its statutory responsibilities and its role as an adviser to the president on environmental issues.” She said her office “will play an important role in coordinating the efforts of the federal government to build a cleaner environment and a sustainable economy and future for our nation,” and said that CEQ will be “the voice for the environment” in the White House.

Some of her comments were prompted by questions from James Inhofe (Okla.), the committee’s ranking GOP member and resident climate-change skeptic. “I am quite concerned that the chair’s role has been diluted by the addition of former EPA administrator Carol Browner as White House climate and energy czar,” Inhofe said. “The law states that the CEQ chair is to report directly to the president on environmental policy. I sincerely hope that Ms. Browner’s new position will not undermine the statute’s intentions nor overshadow the chair’s autonomy and judgment.”

Sutley sought to allay those concerns, asserting that the council would oversee critical environmental issues like the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act. But she also argued that there will be plenty of climate and energy work to go around.

“How we solve this is going to take the creativity and thought of a lot of people in the executive branch, working with Congress,” she said. As for Browner, “I think we will work together very closely on recommending policies to the president,” said Sutley.

Also at the hearing, which followed a lengthy questioning of EPA nominee Lisa Jackson, Sutley took pains to stress the importance of science in guiding administration policy.

“My focus, if confirmed as the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality,” said Sutley, “will be to ensure that there is a strong science and policy basis for our environmental policy, to move the nation to greater reliance on clean energy and increase energy security, to combat global warming while growing the green economy, to protect public health and the environment, especially in vulnerable communities, and to protect and restore our great ecosystems.”

Committee chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asked how Sutley intends to deal with other agencies of the executive, some of which have exerted strong controls over environmental policy in the Bush administration. Boxer’s colleague, Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, cited as an example the Office of Management and Budget, an agency that administration insiders have attested sought to derail environmental regulations.

“I intend to confirm that CEQ is a strong voice for the environment in the executive branch,” said Sutley.

“I believe as the president-elect does that an open and transparent administration leads to better decision-making,” she continued.

Related Links:

  • Sutley’s opening remarks (PDF)
  • Boxer’s opening remarks
  • Grist profile of Sutley