Council on Environmental Quality Blog

  • Reducing Wildfire Risk and Protecting Our Drinking Water in a Changing Climate

    Americans are all too familiar with the devastation catastrophic wildland fires can wreak on the landscape. Fire takes lives, destroys homes, impacts wildlife, and devastates millions of acres of valuable forests and grasslands every year. But what is lesser known is that these fires also severely damage watersheds—the very lands that provide clean and abundant drinking water for millions of Americans every day.

    To address this problem, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell this week announced an historic agreement between the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation to focus on proactively restoring forest lands around important watersheds and preventing costly, destructive wildfires in these areas. 

    The partnership is included in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan as a means to reduce wildfire risk, protect critical infrastructure, and lessen the impacts of climate change, which include higher risks of large and destructive wildfires. The damage caused to rivers, dams, and irrigation systems after a wildfire can be tremendous. Clearing out the sediment and ash left behind is costing the nation millions of dollars every year, and the impacts of climate change are expected to continue to intensify.  Climate change also exacerbates dry conditions, which can slow the natural recovery time after a wildfire. 

    Wildfire Sediment Deposit

    Heavy rains after a wildfire caused this heavy sediment deposit (Photo Credit: R. H. Meade, U.S. Geological Survey)


  • Cutting Costs and Modernizing Buildings through Performance-Based Contracting

    Editor’s Note: On June 19th, the White House Council on Environmental Quality brought together leaders from government, private industry, non-profits, and academia at a White House event to highlight President Obama’s $2 billion commitment to improve the energy efficiency of Federal buildings through performance contracting.  Below, U.S. Department of Transportation Assistant Secretary Brodi Fontenot shares some of the innovative ways his agency is using performance-based contracting to conserve energy, cut waste, and save taxpayer dollars.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) operations encompass more than 10,000 buildings in all 50 states, from air traffic control centers and research facilities to our regional offices and headquarters. That kind of range complicates our efforts to green our internal operations and infrastructure, yet over the last two years, DOT has improved its sustainability performance across all seven measures of the OMB Sustainability and Energy Scorecard.

    To achieve those results and continue to move forward on sustainability, we are trying to use every tool available.  One tool that has served us well is Performance-Based Contracts (PBCs). A PBC is a tool where a company makes improvements at little to no upfront capital cost and is paid through the savings from the project over many years. It is a win-win-win for government, industry, and the environment.

    These contracts are an important vehicle for meeting our energy and water goals. PBCs are attractive because they are a low-cost tool with limited upfront capital investment that emphasizes performance. DOT has dedicated sources of funding for some building improvements, but PBCs present a vital tool to stretch the value of taxpayer dollars.

  • Happy National Bike to Work Day

    As the spring weather is upon us, more and more people are taking to their bicycles to get to work. Bike commuting reduces pollution and promotes health and well-being by incorporating active outdoor time into the workday.  In the Obama Administration, that’s something we encourage.

    Last year, some innovative Federal employees in Portland and Seattle decided to challenge each other during the month of May to increase the number of riders in their community.  As part of the White House’s GreenGov Spotlight Community Initiative, we worked with those innovative leaders and challenged the rest of the Federal government to the Federal Bike to Work Challenge for May 2013. All across the nation, Federal employees are straddling their bikes and achieving some exceedingly impressive results.

    There are currently 148 Federal teams and 1,097 riders, of which 260 are new bike commuters. We’re only halfway through May and already these riders have logged 66,000 miles, and more than 5,000 rides commuting to and from work. The Executive Office of the President, with 9 teams made up of 72 riders, has already commuted over 2,644 miles by bike.

    As the Federal Environmental Executive, I am proud of these teams that are reducing pollution and becoming healthier in the process as we burn not gasoline but calories instead.  We hope to continue the growing momentum. Happy National Bike to Work Day!

    Learn More about the GreenGov Spotlight Communities:

    Jon Powers is the Federal Environmental Executive.

  • Building Infrastructure and Healthy Communities

    When President Obama signed an Executive Order last year to improve Federal review and permitting of infrastructure projects, he did so based on the belief that the Federal Government can work smarter and faster on projects that grow middle class jobs and maintain strong environmental protections for our communities.  We can already see the results of this initiative.  A progress report released today shows how Federal agencies have cut red tape to speed the review and permitting of dozens of major bridge, transit, railway, waterway, road and renewable energy projects, promoting jobs and strengthening our competiveness – and without compromising the important health and environmental protections Americans expect and deserve. 

    Today, the President signed a Presidential Memorandum that takes the next step by institutionalizing the time- and cost-saving tactics the agencies have identified over the past year. These best practices range from expanding use of information technology to cut paperwork and provide agencies with better information faster, to making time-saving collaboration the norm. For example, by having multiple agencies review a project at the same time, instead of one after the other.  The Administration is also working to expand innovative tools to improve environmental outcomes; develop more targeted and relevant environmental reviews; provide more opportunities for public input; and improve collaboration with State, local, and Tribal governments.

    This modernization effort reaches across the Federal Government and will shave months or even years off of project review and permitting decisions, allowing States, local governments and private developers to get started sooner on projects that grow jobs, fix our Nation’s infrastructure, and are good for communities.  It will also protect the health of our communities and give Americans a greater voice in Federal decisions on projects that impact them.  Moving forward, you can track the results of specific projects on the Administration’s Infrastructure Permitting Dashboard, which provides an unprecedented level of transparency into the Federal permitting and review process.

    This work is all part of the Administration’s effort to make America a magnet for jobs by building a 21st Century infrastructure. At a time when we must do more with less, we must operate more nimbly to continue to deliver on jobs and resilient infrastructure for our communities.  Ultimately, we can meet the President’s goal of cutting the timeline in half for major infrastructure projects and create better outcomes for communities and the environment. 

    Nancy Sutley is Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality

  • Protecting Our Interests in the Arctic

    Today, the Obama Administration released the National Strategy for the Arctic Region that outlines our Nation’s priorities in the rapidly changing area over the next 10 years.  The Strategy unifies Federal efforts across these broad goals: advancing U.S. security interests, pursuing responsible Arctic region stewardship, and strengthening international cooperation. The United States is an Arctic nation. As new challenges and opportunities emerge in the region as the result of a changing climate, this strategy builds on the significant work that has already been done by Federal agencies, the State of Alaska, and area Tribes over the past years and decades. 

    One of the many building blocks of the Arctic Strategy is the Administration’s recently released National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan.  The Implementation Plan translates the Administration’s National Ocean Policy into on-the-ground actions to better leverage Federal resources, streamline decision-making, and encourage collaboration among Federal agencies, states and marine stakeholders on ocean issues. A key focus of the Implementation Plan is the Arctic.  Federal agencies are targeting their work in the Arctic on monitoring the impacts of changing conditions, developing better mapping and charting to aid in safe navigation, improving Arctic sea-ice forecasting, and coordinating readiness for environmental incident response – all actions that support the priorities of the National Strategy for the Arctic Region. 

    The United States has broad interests in the Arctic, from national security to energy development, commerce, environmental protection, scientific research, and preservation of a rich cultural heritage.  All of these interests must be addressed in the context of dramatic changes to the environment and accessibility of the region. Through better Federal coordination, improved access to science and information, and more efficient decision-making, the National Ocean Policy will help achieve the priorities laid out in the Arctic Strategy.  I look forward to the National Ocean Council’s continued contribution to this effort, for the benefit of all Americans.

    To read the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, click here.

    Nancy Sutley is Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality

  • Open Data for Climate and Health Insights

    Ed. note: This is cross-posted from the Office of Science and Technology Policy blog

    Today, in conjunction with a series of landmark steps announced by the Obama Administration to unleash troves of useful data from the vaults of government, the interagency US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) launched a new online tool that promises to accelerate research relating to climate change and human health—the Metadata Access Tool for Climate and Health, or “MATCH.”

    The Administration announcements made today include an Executive Order signed by the President declaring that information is a valuable national resource and strategic asset, and a new government-wide Open Data Policy requiring that, going forward, data generated by the government shall be made available in open, machine-readable formats. The move will make troves of previously inaccessible or unmanageable data more readily available to entrepreneurs, researchers, and others who can use open data as fuel for innovation, businesses and new services and tools.

    MATCH is one such tool, driven by open data, which could open the door for new scientific insights in the public health and climate science communities. It is a publicly accessible digital platform for searching and integrating metadata—standardized contextual information—extracted from more than 9,000 health, environment, and climate-science datasets held by six Federal agencies.

    MATCH Metadata Tool

    Screenshot of the Metadata Access Tool for Climate and Health (MATCH), the US Global Change Research Program's online tool for researchers that offers centralized access to metadata ‐ standardized contextual information ‐ about thousands of government-held datasets related to health, the environment, and climate-science.