Kathleen McGinty, head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, approaches the state’s environmental challenges with an optimistic “let’s-get-it-done” attitude.

Early in her career, she made waves as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and deputy assistant to then-President Bill Clinton. After creating and heading up the first-ever White House Office on Environmental Policy, McGinty left national politics for a yearlong fellowship at the Tata Energy Research Institute in India, returning in 2000 to act as a counselor to Al Gore during his presidential campaign.

Now, with much of the nation’s environmental progress happening at the state level, McGinty is well-positioned to pioneer and push through innovative solutions to environmental problems. In 2004, she helped rally support for Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard — a bill requiring 18 percent of the state’s energy to come from clean sources by 2020. And she played a supporting role this year as Pennsylvania became the first coal-producing state to reject the EPA’s mercury rule and move forward with its own tougher mercury-reduction requirements for coal-fired power plants.

McGinty maintains — to the point of evangelizing — her conviction that protecting the environment and creating a new, clean energy future can lead to dynamic growth in the economy. She explained her reasoning in a recent chat with Grist from her 16th-floor office in the (aptly named) Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg, Pa.

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Let’s talk first about the work you’re doing in Pennsylvania. What projects have you been working on lately?

Energy is our top priority. I think it’s a way to better secure our future and also vastly clean up our environment. If there ever was a win-win, I think it is turning very deliberately to the energy challenges we have and beginning to grow our own energy, right here at home, where we’re not dependent on crazy dictators on the other side of the planet.

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Pennsylvania has rejected the EPA’s mercury rule and moved forward with its own. How much can be accomplished on the state level without the aid of the federal government?

The absence of federal leadership is a real detriment both to public health and the environment, but also, I would argue strongly, to our economy as well. The mercury issue represents that quite dramatically. The sportfishing community is a major revenue-raiser in Pennsylvania. The fact that we now have to strongly advise people against eating the fish that they are catching [because of mercury contamination] … let’s just say it’s not a big boost to tourism and recreation dollars in Pennsylvania.

What’s your overall opinion about the Bush administration’s environmental record?

At best, it represents a huge opportunity lost, and at worst, a real injury to the health and the vitality of our country. The opportunity is ours to capture energy, transportation, advanced-technology markets, and we are ceding those markets and the billions of dollars of export they represent to other countries. Having said that, our failure to show any leadership or vision as it relates to our environmental security very definitely is an injury to the health and well-being of our young people especially.

What role did you play in shepherding through the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, and what do you think it can do for your state?

This legislation was a top priority for the governor. We rallied around to build the coalitions and the partnerships to support and ensure its passage. I’m really happy to report that the dialogue was completely nonpartisan — that unlike the deadlock and the polarization at the federal level, here at the state level, people were convinced that diversifying our energy resources, growing and using much more of our energy right here at home, was a winning recipe not only for our environment but also for our economic revitalization and for our security as a state.

Have you seen any job creation as a result yet?

We certainly have. To give you just one example, we won a race to have the most profitable renewable-energy company in the world, the Spanish [wind-energy] company Gamesa, select Pennsylvania as their U.S. home. That company now is building not just one but three manufacturing facilities in Pennsylvania, and they’ve also opened their U.S. corporate headquarters here. When you add up all of their investments in our state, it’s on the order of a thousand new jobs, most of them manufacturing jobs — one of the largest new investments in manufacturing in our state in a very long time. We are just thrilled to see the positive economic spin-off of our commitment to clean energy.

You recently announced a grant financing an operation at a Pennsylvania landfill turning waste gas from the rotting garbage into fuel.

This is one of my all-time favorite projects. Here we have something that everyone loves to hate: a landfill. It’s generating methane, a pollutant that is one of the worst problems as it relates to climate change. But instead of just throwing the book at the landfill, we decided to roll up our sleeves and partner with them, and now that landfill is producing a gas product that is being delivered to four manufacturers in Pennsylvania. It is enabling us to save hundreds of good family-wage jobs at those four manufacturing facilities. It is enabling us to avoid polluting the atmosphere with a strong greenhouse gas. And overall, it’s generating enough energy to heat 34,000 homes. That last point is really important to me because as we face what could be a very cold winter — as we see energy prices going through the roof — the idea that we can both reduce pollution and hopefully ensure that some 34,000 families will not be shivering in the cold this winter is just a wonderful accomplishment and a terrific partnership.

Any predictions about the future of alternative energy?

I think it is our future. Period. I think that every generation is called upon to achieve some greatness for their country and for the world, and I think that the calling for this generation is to invent a new energy reality — one that is healthy for our people [and] stabilizing for the world.

After working with President Clinton and later on Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, you stepped away from politics and started a clean-energy investment fund. What prompted your shift out of the political arena?

My approach to environmental challenges, from my first days in working in the environmental area, has been to see in them economic opportunities in disguise — to see that an environmental problem is really some business’s invitation to invent a new technology, to enhance productivity, to improve efficiency, and to grow their bottom line. So when I had the opportunity to leave government and do something different, I was very drawn to the notion of helping to channel investment dollars in the direction of new, clean, sustainable technology.

Now that you’re back in politics at the state level, do you see yourself continuing in politics, perhaps moving back up to the national level in the future?

Honestly, I have never enjoyed politics. I have been in and around the political world my whole career, and I guess I would say I tolerate politics in the interest of getting good things done, but it’s not at all what inspires me. I know that seems odd, given my résumé and where I’ve been. But I love public policy. I’m mostly just passionate about this country and what we can achieve. I realize that the rules of the road are that you have to bear and survive politics along the way in order to be able to do the things that I’ve had the privilege of doing.

Do you see yourself running for office in the future?

You know, I honestly don’t.

As a native of Pennsylvania, what do you see as the most critical environmental issues for your state?

My smart-aleck answer to that is: air, land, and water.

On a more serious note: in terms of air, energy certainly connects centrally to our need to clean up the air pollution that comes from our old, dirty power plants.

In terms of land, we have made a great push to revitalize brownfield properties as a way of cleaning up the pollution that is on those properties but also as a critical part of our strategy to encourage smart growth and to hold on to the rural character of Pennsylvania. I am pleased to say that we now have one of the most expansive brownfield programs in the country as well as the largest farmland-preservation program in the country.

As it relates to water, we’re aggressively taking on the legacy of 300 years of unregulated mining in Pennsylvania, trying to clean up the thousands of miles of streams that have been polluted or destroyed by abandoned mine drainage. And now, with the strongest regulations in the country, [we’re] requiring farming operations to ensure that manure does not run off those farms and get into streams.

What are your hopes for your home state?

I hope that we will be seen as a state that is inventing and building a clean, sustainable, promising, and exciting future.