Council on Environmental Quality Blog

  • State of the Union: Investing in our Nation's Youth

    As President Obama noted on Tuesday in his State of the Union address, "the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy." It's also true that the cleanest energy in the world is energy that we don't use at all. Last week, I traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to visit North High School, where the school district's energy upgrades have saved them 20 percent on their energy bills even as air conditioning in their classrooms has increased by 40 percent. Overall, Des Moines Public Schools saved $370,000 in energy costs last year alone – enough to pay the salary of almost 10 first-year teachers. At North High I met an outstanding group of students busy preparing for the future. They were clear that their renovated and upgraded school was creating a better learning environment.

    Chair Sutley at North High School in Des Moines, Iowa

    Principal Matt Smith presents Chair Sutley with a Polar Bears jersey. (Photo Credit: Des Moines Public Schools)

    North High's example is exactly the kind of smart investment in clean energy the President proposed in his State of the Union last week. He laid out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last—an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values. No American value is more fundamental than living up to the promise of our Nation's youth. We will continue to push for investing in modern, healthy school environments for our students, and training and programs that will help them succeed in the 21st century economy.

    Chair Sutley at Iowa Student Roundtable

    Chair Sutley engages with North High School Advanced Placement students on the President's clean energy goals for the Nation. (Photo Credit: Des Moines Public Schools)

    Nancy Sutley is Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality

  • A Shining Example from the Sunshine State

    This week, CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley joined Mayor Jeri Muoio in West Palm Beach to tour Northboro Elementary School – a recently modernized LEED Gold certified school that's gaining attention as a model for smart investment in sustainability. Northboro is a great example of how investing in modernization helps schools direct money to their classrooms instead of their energy bills. The elementary school has saved more than 16 percent in energy costs -- enough to pay for at least one teacher each year -- through upgrades including advanced lighting and ventilation systems. 

    Schools spend more than $6 billion annually on their energy bills -- more than they spend on computers and textbooks combined. The average public school building in the United States is more than 40 years old, and many struggle with old, inefficient, or broken heating and cooling systems and a host of other challenges, from crumbling roofs to outdated textbooks. As the President said: "We can't expect American kids to do their best in places that are falling apart. This is America. Every kid deserves a great school -- and we can give it to them."  That's why, in the American Jobs Act, the President proposed a $25 billion investment in school infrastructure to modernize at least 35,000 public schools across the country. The funds would provide for a range of emergency repair and renovation projects, energy efficiency upgrades, asbestos abatement and removal, new science and computer labs, and internet-ready classrooms – and put 16,000 Americans back to work making those upgrades.

    Modernizing our schools makes sense for American students, and makes sense for schools' bottom lines. Northboro Elementary is a clear example of how this investment would create jobs, improve classrooms, and bring our schools into the 21st century. 

    Northboro Elementary School

    Chair Nancy Sutley meets with school leadership at Northboro Elementary School in West Palm Beach, Florida.

    Taryn Tuss is Acting Communications Director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality

  • View of a Healthier Future

    Editor's Note: Howard A. Learner is President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center based in Chicago, IL.

    Recently the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) and a group of Chicago-area public health and environmental leaders sat down with Chair Nancy Sutley and Representative Danny Davis (IL-7) to discuss the Administration's work to protect clean air, the Great Lakes and our environment. From the ELPC's office in downtown Chicago where the meeting was held, we have a view of the Chicago River, the blue-green waters of Lake Michigan, and the smokestacks of an old coal plant along the shoreline on the Illinois/Indiana border.

    Many Midwest coal plants were built back in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, and have not yet been retrofitted with modern pollution control equipment. These plants continue to emit large amounts of pollutants that harm public health. In particular, coal plants are the largest source of mercury pollution in the Great Lakes. Public health officials have issued "mercury advisories" for almost every river, lake and stream in the Midwest/Great Lakes states. It's become the reality that people are warned not to eat the fish they catch.

    Mercury is a neurotoxin that, when ingested by pregnant women who eat contaminated fish, enters the bloodstream, crosses the placental barrier and impairs fetal brain development, thereby causing mental and physical harms. Installing modern and widely-available pollution control technologies can reduce more than 90% of the mercury pollution that is harming both children's health and our environment. 

    At our meeting, Chair Sutley discussed the importance of EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, issued last week, that provide both economic and environmental benefits while protecting public health and the Great Lakes. These are the first national standards to require use of modern control technologies to reduce mercury, arsenic, lead, hydrochloric acid and other hazardous air pollutants from coal plants. These standards were called for by the Clean Air Act Amendments more than 20 years ago and level the playing field for the many utilities that have already invested in modern mercury pollution control technologies. 

    In 2006 the Illinois Pollution Control Board adopted mercury pollution standards of its own, which required all coal plants to install technologies to reduce mercury pollution by 90% or more by 2009 and 2013. As expected, some coal plant owners made the same overblown arguments about reliability threats, costs and so forth that we are now hearing again. What then happened in Illinois? The coal plant owners complied, mercury pollution dropped significantly, the lights stayed on, utility rates didn't go up, and there was no a wave of plants shutting down. Most importantly, the health and safety of our children was protected. 

    A broad coalition of medical, public health, outdoor recreation, environmental, faith-based and community organizations have come together to support the Administration's adoption of the EPA Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. Implementing these pollution reduction standards are proven to improve public health, create new jobs, drive technological innovations and transition our nation to a cleaner energy future. 

    Simply put, it's time to move forward with these common sense standards to protect children's health and our rivers and Great Lakes for all.

    Howard A. Learner is President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center based in Chicago, IL

  • At Treasury, Green is Our Favorite Color – But We'll Take (LEED) Gold!

    Editor’s Note: This blog was cross-posted from the U.S. Department of the Treasury Blog.

    When you think about a “green” building, you probably don’t picture a centuries-old National Historic Landmark that’s lined with columns and made of thousands of tons of granite.

    Well, maybe that’s about to change. I'm pleased to announce that the Treasury Building – which dates back to the 19th century and is located right next door to the White House – received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) at a ceremony today in our historic Grant Room.

    According to the USGBC, the Treasury Building is believed to be the oldest building in the world to receive LEED certification. The fact that the home of much our nation’s financial history has achieved this distinction for environmental leadership really adds new meaning to the term ‘green’ building.

    LEED is a leading international standard for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings. The Treasury Building received its LEED Gold certification based on a number of green construction and operation features, including:

    •Increasing the use of natural day lighting to reduce energy consumption;
    •Establishing sustainable cleaning and landscape programs;
    •Developing and implementing advanced control and management of the heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems;
    •Conducting waste stream audits to benchmark recycling programs and identify opportunities to maximize material conservation;
    •Creating a green procurement program for materials, equipment and services purchased
    •Increasing occupant space utilization;
    •Augmenting alternate transportation means; and
    •Establishing enhanced utility metering for improved systems management

    These improvements are paying big dividends. Not just for the environment, but also for the Department’s bottom line – because going green saves green for taxpayers. Project results, which are producing an estimated $3.5 million in energy and lease cost savings annually, include:

    •A 43 percent decrease in the use of potable water
    •A 7 percent decrease in electrical usage
    •A 53 percent decrease in the use of steam
    •The addition of 164 additional workstations within the building

    The fact that we’ve been able to achieve those types of results is particularly significant given the unique historical and architectural features of the Treasury Building.

    The Treasury Building is more than two city blocks long and was constructed over a period of 33 years between 1836 and 1869. The east and center wings – which comprise the oldest portion of the structure – were designed by Robert Mills, architect of the Washington Monument, and were built between 1836 to 1842. It’s the third-oldest federal building in Washington D.C., after the White House and the U.S. Capitol, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1972.

    We’re proud of the improvements we’ve made around the Treasury Building – both big and small – to help reduce our environmental footprint and save taxpayer dollars. They’re part of a broader Administration-wide effort, which includes President Obama’s recent $2 billion commitment to energy upgrades of federal buildings using long term energy savings to pay for up-front costs, at no cost to taxpayers.

    But Treasury’s environmental initiatives represent just a few of the steps we’ve taken to cut waste and improve efficiency.

    •We’re continuing to transition to electronic payments for federal beneficiaries and retirees, which will save more than $500 million over the first five years. That also has a significant environmental benefit by converting approximately 135 million paper check payments to electronic payments per year.
    •Last week, Vice President Biden and Secretary Geithner announced that the United States Mint is suspending production of surplus Presidential $1 Coins for circulation, which will save at least $50 million annually over the next several years.
    •The Department’s work to increase e-filing of tax returns will save more than $100 million over five years.
    •A set of projects we’re implementing to consolidate IT services will save an estimated $125 million over five years.
    •Earlier this year, Treasury received “green” ratings across-the-board on its energy and sustainability scorecard from the Office of Management and Budget and White House Council on Environmental Quality.

    Of course, we’re not satisfied with those initiatives alone. And, moving forward, we’ll continue to work to identify additional ways to save money for taxpayers and improve our Department’s environmental efficiency. (As you might be able to tell, we’re pretty competitive when it comes to our environmental sustainability efforts here at Treasury.)

    For now, though, receiving LEED GOLD certification is a certainly welcome achievement and represents the culmination of a lot of hard work by a number of dedicated public servants here at the Department.

    At Treasury, green is our favorite color – but we’ll take gold!

    Dan Tangherlini is Assistant Secretary for Management, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Performance Officer, and Director of the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

  • The Role of Women in Combating Climate Change

    Editor's Note: Ambassador Melanne Verveer is U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues

    Last week I traveled to Durban, South Africa to participate in the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to highlight the critical and largely untapped potential of women to combat climate change. Studies have shown that it is often women who are on the frontlines of, and suffer disproportionately from, the impacts of climate change. This is certainly important. But we must remember that women are also a powerful force for finding solutions to climate change across the board, including in areas such as agriculture, sustainable forest management, and energy access. 

    Agriculture, which accounts for approximately 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a sector that can be particularly sensitive to climate variability and change, is one key area where women can play a major role. A recent FAO report shows that women, in many places, are the main producers of the world's staple crops, particularly in developing countries and regions likely to be adversely affected by climate change impacts.  However, globally, only a small minority of women farmers have access to land tenure. This is a problem for many reasons – including that it limits women's potential to combat climate change. Studies have shown that women with the right to property are significantly more capable of investing in climate-smart agricultural productivity; we have a lot of work to do to unlock women's potential in this area. 

    Women also have untapped potential for increasing energy access, which directly relates to climate change. For example, nearly 3 billion people globally still rely on traditional cookstoves and open fires to prepare food for their families. In most instances, women are responsible for cooking – not to mention also spending many hours per week collecting fuel, which often puts women at risk of gender based violence. The resulting smoke exposure causes an estimated two million premature deaths annually, with women and young children the most affected. Cookstoves also impact the climate through emissions of greenhouse gases and short-lived particles such as black carbon. Engaging women is critical to tackling this problem. As we work to build a global market for clean cookstoves, integrating women into the cookstoves supply chain will help increase clean cookstove adoption rates while also creating new economic development opportunities. And as Secretary Clinton has noted, women create a multiplier effect in local communities because they disproportionately spend more of their earned income on food, healthcare, home improvement, and schooling.   

    The United States recognizes the power of women's potential in these areas and many others, and is investing in major initiatives including Feed the Future and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, where women's role in generating transformative change is front and center.  

    I went to Durban to highlight the critical role of women in combating climate change. While there, I worked with U.S. negotiators on the Durban texts and participated in public engagement events. Our efforts to build on the gender equality and women's empowerment language in the Cancun agreements are reflected in several crucial institutional developments, including language on gender balance related to the composition of the board of the new Green Climate Fund, the Standing Committee, and the Adaptation Committee. We also worked to reflect gender considerations in the mission of the Climate Technology Center and Network. USAID Assistant Administrator Eric Postel and I solicited input during a meeting with leading non-governmental organizations working on gender and climate issues, and I hosted a high-level side event at the U.S. Center focused on unlocking women's potential to combat climate change. The level of enthusiasm among my fellow panelists and the audience at the event was inspirational. 

    We made progress in Durban, but we can't stop here. To achieve the future we all seek, we must do more. As the late Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and ground-breaking advocate on women and the environment said, "We must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist." The future of not only women, but our planet, depends on it.

    Ambassador Melanne Verveer is U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues

  • Building Partnerships, Conserving Lands

    Editor's Note: Michael Rouse is Vice President, Philanthropy and Community Affairs at Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., which together with CEQ, EPA and the nonprofit National Environmental Education Foundation, announced grant funding today for community-based organizations around the nation that are supporting public lands.

    As part of Toyota's commitment to our nation's environment and public lands, today we announced that we have made a $3 million grant to the National Environmental Education Foundation to improve the capacity of community-based organizations, often called "friends groups", who are helping to protect and preserve our public lands. We made our announcement today at Baltimore's Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, joined by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley, NEEF President Diane Wood and Baltimore students and residents who are proud to have this public land in their city.

    The organizations that support parks and other public lands are invaluable to maintaining and promoting them in their hometowns, but they often lack the resources they need for this critical work. The Toyota grant will support these local organizations in becoming as effective as possible in their work on public lands, whether it's a small city green space or one of our treasured national parks.

    Supporting these groups' efforts in communities across the country makes us proud. Their dedication and initiative are tremendous. We have seen this interest in protecting our public lands grow with more than 170,000 volunteers participating in NEEF's annual National Public Lands Day, of which Toyota has been the national sponsor for what will be the 14th consecutive year in 2012.

    The public-private partnership that this grant represents echoes President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative, which encourages grassroots, community-based conservation. We hope other members of the business community will join us in supporting the great work of these groups and their volunteers, who exemplify the spirit of this nation.

    For more information about the Toyota grant and NEEF's Every Day Grants program for these organizations, please visit www.neefusa.org.

    Michael Rouse is Vice President, Philanthropy and Community Affairs at Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.