2 insiders take the reins on Obama’s climate effort

Source: John McArdle, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, July 1, 2013

After President Obama laid out his sweeping climate change plan Tuesday, he turned over the keys to two women who will oversee its implementation.

Obama climate and energy adviser Heather Zichal, who works out of the White House Domestic Policy Council, appears to be taking the lead on the higher-profile component of the plan, involving efforts to lower carbon emissions.

And White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley is taking charge of efforts to adapt and respond to the climate effects that Obama noted are already coming.

Administration officials stressed that enacting the new plan is going to take a group lift involving all parts of the executive branch that work on energy and environmental issues. One White House official this week used the uniquely bureaucratic phrase “mixed partnership effort” to describe the undertaking.

For example, one major component of the plan involves the White House promoting international efforts to address climate change — and that task will fall across several offices.

But Zichal and Sutley are the leading figures inside the White House.

In a brief interview the day after Obama’s speech, at an event to promote children’s involvement in the outdoors, Sutley acknowledged that Zichal is “doing a lot, particularly on the mitigation section” of the president’s plan.

“We all work together on this,” she said. But she also noted that CEQ has a big role to play in efforts to prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change.

“A lot of the preparedness and resiliency stuff [in the plan] is kind of built on the work we’ve done with the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force,” she said.

Obama announced new goals Tuesday for directing agencies to support local climate-resilient investment efforts and helping to strengthen communities against future extreme weather and other climate impacts. But those were also the less headline-grabbing components of the speech.

Sutley has worked on those preparedness and resiliency issues for years since the formation in 2009 of the interagency task force that she co-chairs with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sutley also noted Wednesday that part of the president’s plan includes coordinating agency activities to ensure the federal government is doing everything it can to cut its own carbon footprint.

“Our Office of Federal Environmental Executive will work on making sure we’re staying on those goals,” she said.

The fact that Zichal appears to be taking the lead on the cornerstone component of the president’s plan isn’t exactly surprising.

Since taking over the role that former EPA Administrator Carol Browner played when she worked as head of the now-shuttered Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, Zichal has become the point person for high-profile White House energy and environment issues.

For example, shortly after Obama unveiled his plans earlier this year for a new Energy Security Trust to fund $2 billion worth of research and development into alternative fuels for the transportation sector, Zichal went to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to promote the new effort.

This week, it was Zichal whom the White House put on Twitter to answer questions immediately after the president’s speech at Georgetown University.

And when she appeared yesterday to talk about the plan at an event hosted by New York University and the National Energy Policy Institute, NEPI President Tony Knowles, the former Democratic governor of Alaska, called Zichal “the person of the hour.”

“She is the go-to person for the White House energy and environment issues,” Knowles said in introducing Zichal.

One environmental group official, who spoke on background in order to speak candidly, said today that when it comes to working with the administration on high-level climate and energy issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions reductions and clean energy solutions, the environmental groups don’t see CEQ as the most effective office to go to within the White House.

But the quiet-spoken Sutley, who once served as an assistant to Browner at U.S. EPA, seems more comfortable working behind the scenes.

Since the president’s speech, Sutley has promoted Obama’s new plan at an alternative clean transportation exposition, at her appearance at the children in the outdoors event on the National Mall, and while participating in a conference call yesterday on environmental justice issues.

A CEQ official said this week that Sutley played a key role in working with stakeholders leading up to the president’s announcement.

The official said Sutley hosted or co-hosted a series of calls and meetings in the days ahead of the climate speech, including one with environmental and progressive groups, one with business leaders, one with local elected officials, and one with science and technology leaders. She also participated in a climate meeting with the leaders of public health organizations including the American Lung Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, American Thoracic Society, National Association of County and City Health Officials, and Trust for America’s Health, the official said.

But as they look at the plan that has now been released, some in the environmental community say they are less concerned about trying to figure out who in the White House can claim which parts of the effort.

“From my perspective, it’s a great announcement,” said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America. “I’m not worrying about who is the author of what particular pieces; I think it’s great that we had it happen.”

She added, “There’s finally a climate action plan with a timeline; you can’t beat it. … [If] that whole team is able to pull this off, [then] I’m for it.”