Nancy Sutley

Nancy Sutley.

Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley is expected to be appointed to head President-elect Barack Obama’s White House Council on Environmental Quality, a transition team spokesperson said Wednesday.

Combined with the expected nomination of Steven Chu from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to be energy secretary, her appointment would give the Golden State two key voices in the Obama administration — although not the ones initially expected. Neither Sutley nor L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office returned calls for comment.

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Sutley has a long, varied track record in California and Washington, D.C., on environment, energy, and water policy. A native of South America who is now a U.S. citizen, she currently oversees climate change and energy policy for Los Angeles. She is also on the board of the Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to more than 25 million southern Californians. She has worked at the U.S. EPA, served as deputy secretary for policy and intergovernmental relations at California EPA, and was energy advisor to California Gov. Gray Davis (D).

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Many observers are thrilled by her selection, although others questioned her effectiveness and said privately that her old boss, Mary Nichols, currently chair of the state’s powerful Air Resources Board, would have been a better selection.

Rhonda Mills, southern California director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, praised Sutley: “I think it’s awesome that [the CEQ pick] is a female of color, who’s lesbian, and who’s got a lot of experience working on environmental and resource issues. I think what works really well for her is she’s cool under fire, and that’s got to be an enormously challenging position.”

Sutley is widely described as a quiet, reserved, even “painfully shy” person who nonetheless is a dogged, thorough worker, with experience on a number of issues that will be critical during the next administration, from electricity transmission lines to water allocation. One source said the selection of Sutley sends a message that Obama will not use the CEQ chair as a “cheerleading” position to justify particular environmental stances, as both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush did, but rather as someone who can quickly and deftly handle the already mounting workload of dealing with lengthy reports and other requests for action from a wide spectrum of environmental and business groups.

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“She is very good in a bureaucratic setting,” said a veteran California environmental official. “If you’ve got 10 people you need to sit down, and you’ve got to get something done, she’ll get it done.”

Terry Tamminen, Schwarzenegger’s former climate guru, worked with Sutley when she was on the state water board, and agreed that she’s a strong pick to head CEQ: “I think it’s a great choice because she’s worked in various levels of government, state and federal … and she is a force of nature. She can get everybody singing from the same sheet of music … I think the world of her.”

But others who have worked with her said that while she was thoroughly versed in environmental policy issues, she was not good at taking action.

“Nancy Sutley is a very safe choice … she is bright and capable, but people aren’t sure how effective she will actually be,” said a longtime California environmentalist.

The same source said, “I’m not convinced this is a done deal yet. This is a purposeful leak from the Obama senior people, this is transition-team chatter. It would make some sense as a consolation prize to California if they give Lisa Jackson [of New Jersey] the EPA job. It does make sense to have a strong Californian in the White House, which is what Nancy would be if it’s a complementary appointment with Jackson. Nancy has been around a long time, she knows everybody.”

Several people said they would have preferred Nichols in the CEQ post or as head of EPA because she is far more charismatic, and has a proven track record of leadership in shepherding diverse business and environmental groups together and hammering out regulations and policies. Those skills are being put to the test this week as Nichols finalizes board votes Thursday and Friday on the massive plan to implement California’s AB 32 greenhouse-gas legislation, and a second regulation that would force diesel truck owners to replace dirty, aging equipment in coming years.

Some critics said Sutley played a role in the electricity deregulation debacle in California in the 1990s, but her former Cal-EPA boss and one of her mentors, Winston Hickox, said the exact opposite was true.

“She was part of the cleanup crew,” said Hickox in a phone call from London Tuesday night. He said Sutley and a few others had worked hard to keep highly polluting diesel generators from being used as substitute power sources during California’s power crisis, among other accomplishments.

“I’m thrilled for Nancy, she’s one of the most competent people I’ve ever known,” said Hickox. He said her selection and others thus far were also gratifying because of their wide diversity.

“What I see clearly is an unprecedented commitment to be inclusive in terms of appointments,” he said. “There are various sectors of our society who haven’t always been represented who are now being represented, and I couldn’t be more proud of that, whether by race or sex or sexual orientation or whatever, [Obama] is putting together a truly talented team of people, which is truly also a cross section of all of America.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and L.A. Department of Water and Power chair David Nahai also lauded Sutley as a fine pick. “The governor and his administration look forward to working with Nancy on a variety of environmental issues that will benefit all Californians,” said a Schwarzenegger spokesperson in a statement. “Certainly having a voice from California on environmental issues is an asset to not only our state but the nation.”

Nichols weighed in with praise as well: “Nancy is smart, tough, energetic, fun to work with, and as knowledgeable as anyone in the country on energy and environmental issues, and I believe she will serve President Obama well wherever he assigns her,” Nichols wrote in an email. She added that she and Sutley are “close friends,” and other sources echoed that.

Still, some sources said Nichols was angry with Sutley a few years ago, after Mayor Villaraigosa left it up to Sutley to inform Nichols, her former boss at U.S. EPA, that she was being replaced as head of the LADWP. The sources said Sutley was then miffed when Nichols was picked to head the state’s air board and Nichols did not select her to be the board’s new executive director.

But Nichols wrote in her email, “There has never been any rift that I was aware of.” And several people who know both women said if there were any differences between them, they had long ago been smoothed over.

Janet Wilson is a veteran reporter based in southern California, who formerly covered environmental issues for the Los Angeles Times. She can be reached at