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August 06, 2009

Conversation with Nancy Sutley of White House CEQ

Sierra Club columnist Javier Sierra recently had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. He wrote a column on this discussion, which you can read on his Sierra Club page. But we also wanted to provide the complete transcript right here for you to read and enjoy. Thanks for sharing, Javier!

July 31, 2009

Nancy sutley
Q: There is a theme that resonates throughout the Obama administration’s environmental agencies: environmentalism has to do not only with protecting nature but also with protecting communities and their health. Can you please elaborate on this?

A: I think that this is very true. I always thought that people care about the environment that they experience… and they’re concerned about the environment they experience. So for people who are Latinos or anything else […] what's going on around [them] and are now confronting the climate change that puts us all at risk. It's important to remember that the environment affects us all; whether it's confronting pollution in our cities, or harm to our watersheds. It affects our water supply, for people or for agriculture, things like that, there's a way that the environment affects us all every day. And another thing, I think that the President believes and the administration believes that the environment and the economy and our energy future are all tied together. Our prosperity in the 21st Century is linked to our ability to move to a cleaner energy economy, and that’s good for an economic future and good for the planet.

Q: Latinos are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation. According to a Sierra Club national survey, 66 percent of us live dangerously close to a toxic site. What initiatives is your office putting in place to address this terrible problem?

A: Across the administration and the President as well have the strong initiative that our environmental policies must be based on science and the law. Not on who it may [effect more]. We should base it on science and the law. For Latinos, that means a focus of having regulators and enforcers back on the job, I think [Environmental Protection Agency's] Lisa Jackson said that on many occasions. That EPA is back [is] very good news for Latinos and other people who live in areas in which they face significant environmental and public health risks. So for example, in the recovery act, we put money for the Superfund program to accelerate the clean up of Superfund sites. This has been a long-standing issue: toxic sites not being cleaned up. We are reinvigorating EPA’s brownfields program, which also provides for economic development in areas where an industry has picked up and moved and left behind a mess and there’s no opportunity to bring the economic development back. There’s a lot going on at the EPA and the government which really does focus on this. The science and law are going to guide us, really going to guide us to a place where we’re doing a better job of protecting people’s health.

Q: The Clinton administration was the first one that identified environmental justice as a civil rights issue. His executive order 12898 instructed his entire administration to treat this problem as such. Is the Obama administration also treating environmental justice as a civil rights issue? (Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964)

A: I think at the Obama administration we all believe that everybody has the right to live in a clean, healthy environment and a prosperous economy. And we’re working towards that. We need to reach out to communities whose voices have been ignored and where there are disproportional impacts, whether it’s environmental protection or promoting [a] clean energy economy. We held, in the spring, a Latino leadership summit on green jobs, for example, because we can’t afford to ignore communities, whether it’s things that are threatening their heath or threatening their wallet. And again, the recovery act money was a very large investment in greening our economy, and working very hard within CEQ and within the administration to make sure that we’re reaching out to all communities to ensure that they know that this economic assistance is available and that will help to improve life in their communities.  

Q: Is your office or other agencies in the administration communicating that these efforts are being made, making sure the Latino community knows that this is going on?

A: I think that is a challenge that the government always faces in terms of being able to communicate directly with communities where they live. We are making sure we are doing outreach on the Recovery Act, on the Energy Bill, on environmental programs within communities that we know their voices where largely ignored over the last eight years, including Latinos. I have been to a number of national conferences of NALEO and LULAC. And [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson and I appeared together at LULAC’s. We reached [out] to specific agreements with LULAC to do outreach with the Latino community to bring Latinos into the government. So I think this is a very positive step at a very high level.

Q: Environment and health are so intimately related. A new study is now telling us that 44 percent of Latinos do not have health insurance, the worst percentage of any community in the country. The current health care debate taking place in Congress makes this statistic and this relationship between health and the environment even more current, doesn’t it?

A: I think it’s not only the interaction between health and the environment, but also health and the economy. One of the reasons that the President is pushing forward in this economic time with both trying to reform our health care system, and also with the clean energy initiative is that this is all part of our growing a stronger foundation for our economy in the 21 century. And in the case of health care reform and clean energy, and in addition to this very important economic link, it also has the benefit of providing for better access to cheaper health care cost for Latino communities among others and for the opportunity for the growth of these clean energy jobs and clean energy businesses that will also protect the planet and help the environment. I think that in this time of economic crisis, the President believes that it's very important to move forward on all these fronts because they are so important to our economy and also have the benefits of helping communities and people across the country that deal with health and environmental challenges.

Q: With an unemployment rate much higher than the general population, jobs have become an overwhelming priority for Latinos. The new clean energy economy promises the creation of millions of new jobs mostly in sectors of the economy that employ the most Latinos. Is this promise being fulfilled, especially for Latinos?

A: We have a lot of work to do, the recovery act was passed not quite 6 months ago and with some of the programs some of the money is starting to go out the door. One of the very important programs is the weatherization program. A lot of money, much more than in the past, has been put into weatherization and that money is going out the door.  And [the program] has really two benefits, one is that it helps people, particularly low income people, to save money on heir energy bills to make their houses more comfortable in weather extremes, whether it’s in cold winters or hot summers, but also there’s real opportunity to get people trained, for these are good paying jobs, and get them trained in doing these jobs. One of the things that CEQ is doing is that we were asked by the vice President to put together a strategy on how to make these green jobs more sustainable, so when the recovery money is spent and whatever happened with weatherization, we will have helped create a weatherization industry and an energy efficiency industry that’s sustainable and also to make sure that the jobs that we’re creating are good green jobs as a result of these programs.  And that effort is underway with a lot of agencies working together and I think it’s always good news for the American people when federal agencies are working together, coordinating together, working with state and local governments and with community-based organizations in a coordinated way.

Q: The Sierra Club national survey among Latinos found out that our community is very much aware of the existence of global warming and that they are more vulnerable than the general population to the effects of global warming. But Americans apparently have put this issue on the backburner. Are we playing with fire by neglecting this terrible threat to our planet?

A: I agree with you, it’s a terrible threat, especially a threat to Latino communities. Threats about drought, wildfires and more days of unhealthy levels of pollution, a number of these impacts are going to the Latino community in particular. This issue is very much on the front burner for the Obama administration. Since the President’s focus on energy really gets to how fundamentally interconnected our energy, our energy use, our energy production are with the environment, and that if we can get to this clean energy future, where we are taking advantage of new technologies or creating new jobs, we will lower our contribution to global warming and in calling for the Congress to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation, the President has been very clear that we have to create this clean energy economy, to create jobs, to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and to deal with the threat of global warming. Our posture has changed 180 degrees when it comes to the international arena, where the President and the secretary of state have made this a priority in discussions with foreign leaders. All this is leading towards the discussions in Copenhagen in December and we all don’t know where all this will end up.  But the US will be in a very different place in Copenhagen then where we were a year ago.

Q: Are you going to be in Copenhagen?

A: At this point I think so.

Q: Scientists tell us we must reduce our carbon emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050 if we are to have a viable planet to live. The Obama administration has taken a number of initial steps to meet this deadline. But the Waxman-Markey bill in Congress is having a very hard time in the Senate. Will we have a strong bill for President Obama to sign?

A: The President said that he was very encouraged by the House taking the action they did. He continues to believe that it’s important for the United States to enact energy and climate legislation. He has said that the 80-percent goal by 2050 is a very important one. I think the normal debate of these issues in Congress is very important to make sure that it’s known that this is a big deal. We are trying to push our energy economy, which is so much of our economy, on a new course that is cleaner, more sustainable. It’s going be the economy of the 21st Century, so it’s important to get it right, and the debate in the House and the debate in the Senate is very important to make sure we get it right. The Senate hasn’t really started its formal debate. The majority leaders have indicated that they intend to have the Senate work on this. We’ll see how things go.

Q: And finally, do you have any special words for Latinos, a community committed to preserving our natural heritage but also a community disproportionately punished by environmental degradation?

A: This is a community that the Obama administration wants to engage with on these very important issues of energy, the environment and our economy. And also I think this is a real opportunity for the Latino community to have its voice heard and to speak up on these issues. I have been very heartened to see many Latino organizations trying to focus on what this clean energy economy means for Latinos, how it helps in terms of prosperity for this very important sector of American population, and how it helps to address the challenges that Latinos are facing in their communities. I moved back here from Los Angeles where the Latino community is very engaged in all facets of public policies at the local level, at the state level. And in Washington, sometimes the voices of communities can get lost. So it is important that the Latino community continues to be engaged in having their voices heard.


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