09/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Conversation with Nancy Sutley, Head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality

During the first months of the Obama administration, we have observed a 180-degree turn in the country's environmental direction.

We have gone from disregard and neglect of those communities punished by environmental degradation, from the close ties with the energy industry and other polluters, to restoring and cleaning the effects of this unholy alliance, to starting to shake off our oil addiction and working toward a future of clean, renewable energy.

"At the Obama administration, we all believe that everybody has the right to live in a clean, healthy environment and a prosperous economy," says Nancy Sutley, Head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). "We can't afford to ignore communities, whether it's things that are threatening their health or threatening their wallet."

As head of the CEQ, Sutley --the daughter of an Argentine mother and one of the most renowned environmental experts in the country-- coordinates the administration's environmental policy and works closely with other White House offices to develop policy and environmental initiatives.


As a Latina, she is also aware of our community's disproportionate suffering from the consequences of environmental degradation. According to a national Sierra Club survey, 66 percent of Hispanics live dangerously close to a toxic site.

"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," says Sutley in an exclusive interview with Sierra & Tierra. "For Latinos, that means a focus of having regulators and enforcers back on the job."

But it's not only regulators that need to get back to work. The Hispanic unemployment rate, 12.2%, is much higher than the general population's, 9.5 percent. In California, the rate is 15.7 percent, and it is feared that a year from now it will grow to 18 percent. Getting good jobs has become an absolute priority among Hispanics, and the new clean energy economy promises the creation of millions of jobs in the industries that employ the most Latino workers.

"One of the things CEQ is doing [is putting] together a strategy on how to make these green jobs more sustainable, so when the recovery money is spent [...] we will have helped create an energy efficiency industry that's sustainable," Sutley says. "And also we need to make sure that the jobs we are creating are good green jobs."

But even for employed Hispanics, getting health insurance becomes especially difficult. Forty-one percent of Latino workers lack health insurance. If we consider the health dangers that environmental degradation and pollution represent, the situation is particularly critical for our community.

"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," says Sutley. "It also has the benefit of providing for better access to cheaper health care cost for Latino communities."

With all these problems is mind, we often forget that our planet has a fever. The global warming issue has been relegated to the backburner, even though Hispanics will be one of the communities who will suffer its consequences the most, such as droughts, wildfires and more unhealthy levels of pollution.

But for the administration, this issues remains on the front burner.

"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," she says. "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."

The administration, guided by the conclusions of the world's most prestigious scientists, has set the course to establish the foundations for our country to reduce its global warming emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050.

Sutley says the Obama administration wishes to involve the Hispanic community in energy, environment and economic issues, adding that "this is a real opportunity for the Latino community to have its voice heard and to speak up on these issues."

Coming from a Latina, the invitation becomes irresistible.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. For a complete transcript of the Sutley interview, visit