Nancy Sutley and Barack Obama. Photo: AP

Nancy Sutley and Barack Obama.

Washington wags may wonder who will be top green dog in the Obama White House — flashy “energy czarina” Carol Browner or shy, retiring Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley — but folks who know Sutley say there’s nothing to worry about.

Sutley is supposed to be the president’s principal environmental advisor, according to the job description laid out by Congress when it created the CEQ, playing environmental sheriff over federal agencies, and taking the lead role on major environmental policy initiatives. But under President George W. Bush, the council offices were moved out of the White House executive offices to a warren of nearby townhouses, staff and funding were slashed, and many say its current chair, James Connaughton, has been hamstrung in attempts to combat climate change and negotiate international agreements.

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“It’s been death by 1,000 cuts,” said Sharon Buccino of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has watched other federal agencies win “categorical exclusions” from CEQ regulations, allowing them to streamline oil and gas drilling and power-line corridor siting on pristine public lands. “CEQ’s hands have really been tied under this administration … We’re looking forward to the next administration. Hopefully CEQ will now be given the space it needs.”

Two dozen environmental groups pressed Obama to restore CEQ to its historic stature as part of a mammoth, 391-page report submitted to his transition team recently. But Obama transition leader John Podesta co-authored a different report last year at the Center for American Progress, envisioning a powerful new energy czar in the White House who would address climate and energy issues. So far, it appears that vision is prevailing. While Browner was at the table with Obama and his top economic advisors the day after the president-elect announced his “green” team, Sutley was on a plane back to Los Angeles, where she is deputy mayor for energy and environment.

Colleagues and friends say they don’t expect that dynamic to be a problem for Sutley, a skilled, behind-the-scenes bureaucrat who prefers to keep a low profile, and who has served as deputy to many powerful officials in the past decade, including Browner when she was EPA administrator under President Clinton.

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“Because of her own personal demeanor, she’s not the one to be in front of the camera. But she knows the issues so well that she’ll get the job done, even if she’s not the one whose name is on the press release,” said Jerilyn Lopez Mendoza, Los Angeles policy director for Environmental Defense Fund, who also serves with Sutley on the city’s harbor commission.

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“It’s still to be worked out … In terms of who’s boss, Carol Browner has probably the stronger position in terms of being a czar. A czar is in charge of everything, right?” said Warner Chabot of the Ocean Conservancy, who is a friend of Sutley. “But the good news is [Obama’s] not bringing in two people with two different power bases and turf wars. He’s bringing in two people who have worked together, who see the greater aspects of things.”

“It’s a great two-fer,” said Chabot’s wife, Felicia Marcus, western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who worked with both Browner and Sutley at EPA. “It’s going to work perfectly, I think.”

Marcus said Browner could be a great “commander who herds the cats and the flying monkeys in the White House and the agencies … on the broader meshing of economy, environment, and energy.” Sutley could handle the large menu of environmental issues not related to climate change, while playing a valuable background role on energy and climate as well, said Marcus.

Marcus and others described Sutley as a tough, smart deputy who brings all parties together on a thorny issue, listens, does her own research, then makes a recommendation to the executive in charge on what should be done. Along with that finding, she provides input on who would be upset, but what could be accomplished.

While working at EPA during the Clinton administration, Sutley helped craft stronger public health regulations for air pollutants, battling industry opposition and entrenched D.C. politics, said Marcus. When California Gov. Pete Wilson refused to come up with a federally required plan for how California would clean up its badly polluted air, Sutley was flown out to San Francisco to help Marcus, then EPA’s regional administrator, write the plan. She has also worked on California’s water board, deciphering byzantine allocation policies.

When California was hit with rolling blackouts and skyrocketing energy prices in the early part of this decade, Gov. Gray Davis made Sutley his energy adviser, where she questioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s oversight of California’s electricity markets, and worked to keep dirty diesel generators from being used as substitute power.

“When you have a major problem, it’s like, ‘Who you gonna call? Sutley,'” said Marcus.

Sutley’s work in L.A.

In her current job, Sutley has been in charge of trying to implement Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s promises to make Los Angeles the greenest city in America, and to ensure that 20 percent of its power is renewable by 2010.

The mayor praised her work in a statement last week, saying, “The President-elect will be lucky to have Nancy on his team … With Nancy on my team, we have made tremendous progress — from quadrupling our renewable energy portfolio to exceeding the targets set out by the Kyoto Protocol four years ahead of schedule.”

The city’s renewable power portfolio has grown to about 11 percent under Sutley’s watch, and greenhouse-gas emissions have dropped more than 7 percent below 1990 levels, officials said.

But it hasn’t been all roses. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce has fought the city’s ambitious solar initiative, which is supposed to create “green collar” factory jobs while generating power, but could carry a price tag as high as $3 billion. The city’s million-tree program faltered at first under Sutley’s control, with critics complaining that it relied on giveaways of high-mortality seedlings.

Sutley was integral to getting a clean-air plan signed for the region’s ports, the nation’s busiest, to slash air pollution by nearly half in just five years. But a lawsuit by trucking companies and attempts by the Federal Maritime Commission to block it have slowed the plan.

The city’s much vaunted “Green Path” transmission-line project, which would help meet its aim to bring in 20 percent of its power from sources like geothermal, solar and wind, has stalled because of fierce opposition from desert conservationists, who say the massive transmission lines could cut right through carefully cobbled-together wildlife preserves.

Sutley would face similarly daunting challenges as head of CEQ, which is charged with enforcing the National Environmental Policy Act. The act monitors the environmental impacts of all federal projects, including power-line corridors, military-base expansions, oil and gas drilling, and the type of major infrastructure construction that Obama has indicated he may ramp up.

Will she get the job done?

Some California environmentalists and renewable-energy producers say it can be frustrating to deal with Sutley, because she will convene lengthy meetings, then fail to take action.

“We were all ready to tear our hair out” after a non-productive, hours-long meeting convened by Sutley on a solar initiative, said one activist.

“The problem with Nancy is she’s a nice person, she has a record of being around the ball, but never really does anything with it,” said another veteran California environmentalist. “She’s taciturn, secretive … she’s a very safe choice, but the question is, how effective will she be?”

Others disagreed.

“I would see it differently,” said Mendoza of EDF. “She is the one who is putting everything together behind the scenes.”

Mendoza said that while Sutley may bide her time, she is perfect at finding “green” people in every government agency, be it public works or the water department, and coaching them on how environmental policy can be incorporated into their work. Meanwhile, she listens, makes recommendations to her boss, and lets whoever that person is take the limelight.

“Which is why this CEQ position is so perfect for her, because she’s not the executive making the decision,” said Mendoza. “It’s hard to be an institutional activist. It takes a certain level of experience, patience, and skills to deal with the frustrating level of government obstacles.”

Sutley, 46, a Queens, N.Y, native who is the daughter of Argentinean immigrants, “never considered herself a Californian completely,” said Mendoza. Sutley earned an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She still roots for the Mets rather than the Dodgers, prefers public transportation, and, true to her Argentinean heritage, “loves meat,” says Mendoza. “She eats short ribs for an appetizer the way most people eat chips and dip.”

Sutley, who is gay, served on the southern California lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender steering committee for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, and on Obama’s transition team on environmental appointments.

Mendoza said Sutley’s best work is long-term, not overnight.

“It’s only been three years since she’s been part of the [L.A.] mayor’s leadership team. Frankly, it takes about this long to get … action plans in place … Nancy’s legacy to the city won’t truly be felt for a few more years, and by then, she’ll hopefully be building one with President-elect Obama.”