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Our environment: a conversation with President Obama's principal environmental advisor Nancy Sutley

Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
(Courtesy of the White House Council on Environmental Quality)
Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Nancy Sutley is President Obama’s principal environmental advisor and the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

She was recently in St. Louis to speak with high school students and utility regulators.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra caught up with Sutley between speaking engagements to talk about what the Obama Administration is doing to address some of the environmental issues facing our region.

LACAPRA: Missouri is heavily reliant on coal for our electricity production. I think about 80 percent of our power comes from coal. What is the Administration doing to either push or incentivize states like Missouri to move away from coal and towards renewables?

SUTLEY: Well, I think part of what we’re doing is focusing on the technology and on incentives to ensure that the costs come down. So for example the Department of Energy has been working on something they call the SunShot Initiative, which the goal is to get solar energy basically to parity with fossil fuel-fired power plants to produce electricity.

And we see states around the country investing in solar and wind and geothermal and other sorts of renewable technologies, and some of the tax incentives and tax credits are helping to bring the costs down. And generally we think diversifying energy sources is a good thing, and diversifying our portfolio.

LACAPRA: Can you talk a little bit more about that cost side, what’s being done to make it cost effective for people to transition to solar or wind?

SUTLEY: Well, we’re seeing already in many parts of the country that some of these technologies are cost-competitive with other forms of energy production. We’ve had some programs with tax incentives for manufacturers, and we’ve seen manufacturing facilities being built around the country.

The other thing that we’ve been working on which is a benefit to everybody is really on looking across the board at how do we use energy more efficiently. Because the cleanest and cheapest unit of energy is the one you don’t have to produce.

So there’s a lot we can do not just with our cars, but with our buildings, off-the-shelf technology that’s very cost-effective, that will save money. And if the U.S. became 20 percent more energy efficient by retrofitting buildings, we’d save $200 billion a year. That’s money that can be invested in growing our economy.

LACAPRA: One other issue I’d like to touch on is industrial pollution which is a big problem in the St. Louis area and across our region. Missouri has dozens of Superfund sites, some of them right here in the St. Louis area.

Across the river in Illinois there are a lot of communities that are also dealing with high levels of environmental contamination from either current or former industrial sites.

The cleanup of many of these sites just seems to be dragging on in some cases for decades with very little progress. What is the Obama Administration doing to strengthen enforcement of industrial pollution and clean up existing contamination?

SUTLEY: Well, we know this is an important issue around the country, dealing with [the] legacy, in some cases, of very toxic pollution. And trying to do things to speed the cleanup, because it is true that in some cases it has taken decades to get sites identified and cleaned up.

We were able through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to put some additional dollars into the Superfund program specifically for cleanups. And we have proposed in our budget every year to reinstate the Superfund fee, which stopped being collected a few years ago.

LACAPRA: What is that?

SUTLEY: It’s basically a polluter-pays fee that helps to fund cleanups.

The other thing I’d mention just to go back to energy for a second is that in some cases these Brownfields – these formerly contaminated, former industrial sites – make great sites for renewable energy.

We were in Sacramento, California, a few weeks ago, and at an old Army depot. They have one of the largest solar installations in northern California on this formerly contaminated site. It’s been cleaned up and now been put back to productive use.

So we think that’s a good model for places around the country, and really the point is to get the pollution away from people but also to try to put some of these places back to productive economic use.

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