White House Veteran Discusses Environmental Work

“It’s important, as you sit here, to think about what role one person can play in helping to ensure that we have a clean and healthy environment for generations to come,” said Nancy Sutley, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) chief sustainability and economic development officer, to a group of 5C students March 24 in Pitzer College's Benson Auditorium. 

Sutley has played a major role in environmental policy at the federal, state and local levels. A daughter of Argentinian immigrants, she grew up by the water in Queens, New York, where she saw the effects of water pollution firsthand. As a kid, she could not go near the water because of all the sewage dumped from New York City, essentially untreated, into the Long Island Sound. This was before Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, which, according to Sutley, required communities to treat sewage to make bodies of water safe for recreation. 

“Now, Little Neck Bay is a great spot where people find relief from living in the most crowded city in the US, where you can fish, and you can swim and you can boat,” Sutley said.

Sutley graduated from Cornell University with a degree in government in 1984, and then the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University a few years later. She got her first job as an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official under the Clinton Administration but decided to leave after several years. 

“[Washington, D.C.] wasn’t where change was happening," she said. "Change was happening in places like California."

She moved to the EPA’s California branch in San Francisco, where she served as deputy secretary for policy and intergovernmental relations. In 1999, she left the EPA altogether and went to work for Governor Gray Davis, where, she says, she applied many of the lessons she learned in D.C. to government on a smaller scale. For example, she helped put into effect the Zero Emission Vehicle Program, which was designed to reduce emissions from mobile sources.

“Even if it wasn’t a smashing success, it still, I think, pointed the way to what we’re seeing today,” Sutley said.

As she reiterated throughout the lecture, Sutley believes “that something is always better than nothing,” and she took this philosophy back to Washington, D.C. in 2009, when President Barack Obama appointed her to chair the Council for Environmental Equality, which coordinates federal environmental efforts and works with agencies outside of the White House. During her five-year tenure, Sutley helped formulate Obama’s June 2013 Climate Action Plan. 

As part of the Department of Energy's demonstration project showing that American solar technologies are available, she led plans to install solar panels and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House, according to the New York Times. She also promoted the installation of low-flush toilets, added sensors that automatically turn off lights in unused areas and introduced the use of recycling bins to the White House.

Now, at the LADWP, her main focus is finding ways to cope with the state’s drought. The utility, she says, is doing this primarily through aggressive conservation policies. She also emphasized the importance of finding better ways to catch the rain when it comes, recycling wastewater and making better use of water basins.

Khalil Johnson PZ ’17 and Nancy Hernandez PZ ’17, the two students who brought Sutley to speak at Pitzer, hope to enact such policies themselves someday. Both environmental policy majors, Johnson and Hernandez recently started Super PAC, a club whose mission is to combine environmental and social justice interests with the political process to enact change. Though, for the most part, they liked Sutley’s talk, they took issue with a few things she said, as well as the things she didn’t say.    

They had previously asked her, among other things, what it was like to be a woman of color in a white-male dominated field, but Hernandez pointed out that she didn’t even address that topic until someone asked her about it during the Q&A. They were also dissatisfied with her response to a question about LADWP’s patronization of the hydraulic fracturing industry.

“She gave a really political answer … She didn’t touch on the fact that there was a federal exemption on hydraulic fracturing … I would have liked her to have gone a little further on that point,” Johnson said.

At the same time, he understands why she might have held back.

“You can’t have the ‘Pitzer mindset’ and expect to get to where she was … I understand why she seems so reserved about [hydraulic fracturing],” Johnson said.

Despite the perceived holes in content, Sutley ended her talk strongly, emphasizing the fact that there are many jobs that can help improve the environment. Students interested in conservation efforts need not follow a specific path, as many different perspectives strengthen environmental problem solving. 

“There’s no single way to help the environment," she said. "You can do it by being a community organizer; you can be a scientist; you can be a lawyer; or, if you’re interested in business and finance, you can help to develop the new businesses and technologies that help us do things more sustainably … Maybe you’ll inherit my job someday."