Fighting climate change

Fighting climate change

Rhea Suh might hold a record for having the most Senate confirmation hearings for a nominee who, in the end, did not even get a vote on the Senate floor.

Suh, now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee three times for her nomination as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, a promotion from her previous job as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget.


Republicans hammered Suh repeatedly for her previous work at environmental groups like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which advocated against increasing natural gas development, among other positions the GOP disagreed with.

The Senate committee approved Suh’s promotion along party lines in March 2014. But after six months with no vote on the Senate floor — despite a rule structure that requires only a simple majority to approve nominees — Suh decided in September that five and a half years in the Obama administration was enough. She accepted an offer to lead the NRDC, a position she took on in January.

“It was a lot to go through,” Suh said in an interview with The Hill at the downtown Washington office of the NRDC.

“Having to go through three confirmation hearings and becoming an incredibly polarized figure, that was a hard thing to go through,” she said. “Many of the objections to me were not actually about me.”

It’s unclear if Suh’s confirmation process actually set a record, because there is no definitive source that tracks such information.

Suh maintains that the position for which she was nominated, with authority over the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, is the most important conservation job in the federal government, and her past environmental work ought to have been an asset.

“It’s a little odd that folks wouldn’t want somebody with a conservation background to lead those agencies,” she said.

Plus, the position would not have had much of a direct role in natural gas or other energy production on federal land.

Suh’s move to the NRDC only reinforced Republicans’ objections to her.

Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterThe biggest political upsets of the decade Red-state governor races put both parties on edge Louisiana Republicans score big legislative wins MORE (La.), then the top Republican on the Energy Committee, called the move part of a “revolving door” between the Obama administration and environmental groups.

“Ms. Suh’s transition into the political, private sector route to shut down energy development is unsurprising,” Vitter said in a statement.

Suh, 44, is the third president of the NRDC, which, with just over $700,000 spent on federal lobbying last year, ranks third in spending among environmental advocates, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

She manages the group’s 500 employees from the organization’s New York City headquarters, although she has spent much of her time in Washington recently while she has been moving.

Her priority for the foreseeable future will remain what the NRDC’s goal has been in recent years: to fight climate change and defend President Obama’s major responses to it, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) carbon dioxide limits for power plants.

“It’s one of our biggest priorities, if not the biggest, to ensure that the single most important thing the U.S. federal government can do on climate is done,” Suh said, referring to Obama’s power plant rule proposal, which aims to slash the power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030.

“They have through the summer to promulgate the final rule, and we’ll continue in the way that advocacy organizations do to make sure that that rule is as strong as possible and as clear as possible in terms of the responsibilities of the states,” she said.

The NRDC’s role in the climate rule is unique in that the organization largely formulated the approach that the Obama administration adopted.

While many details of the proposed regulation, along with its overall emissions target, were different from what the NRDC wrote, the framework came from its counsel. The group’s plan also would allow states to meet the emissions targets with actions unrelated to the power plants themselves, like increasing energy efficiency or augmenting wind and solar power.

That led to sharp criticisms from Republicans, and GOP leaders in two congressional committees are investigating what they have called the NRDC’s undue influence on the EPA.

But to Suh, the group’s staff just did its job.

“What’s hard to figure out about it is exactly what point they’re trying to make. The reality is that we’re an environmental advocacy organization. We promote policies to further our objectives around a sustainable planet,” she said.

“If we’re guilty of anything, we do that well.”

Suh is a Colorado native and daughter of Korean immigrants. She studied environmental science at Barnard College and didn’t get involved in policy until after college, when she got bored with waiting tables and skiing in Colorado.

She worked for then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-
Colo.) starting in 1993 on his energy and natural resources portfolio before leaving to work at green groups like the Hewlett Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

She played a leading role in Hewlett’s successful effort to designate and protect the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, Canada, which she lists as one of her proudest accomplishments.

“Not only were we able to get nearly 22 million acres protected … but we were also able to develop and endow a foundation that supported the economic opportunities for these communities,” she said. “It was not only a win from a conservation perspective, it was a win from a local community perspective.”

Suh’s position atop one of the largest environmental organizations gives her a major opportunity to change the face of the green movement.

Aileen Lee, who directs the environmental program at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, said Suh has made waves within green circles with her pleas for more diversity.

“The first time that I remember hearing about Rhea was when I was having my own concerns about being new to this field and being an Asian-American woman, and I wasn’t seeing a whole lot of people who looked like me in this field,” said Lee, who worked closely with Suh during her time at the Hewlett and Packard foundations.

“She is creative, tenacious and not afraid to push,” Lee said.

Suh returned to Washington in 2009 for the Interior position, largely analogous to that of a chief financial officer.

Suh said her Interior work is helping her in her new position, even if ethics rules limit her ability to lobby the administration. The department oversees a quarter of the nation’s land mass and observes many effects of climate change.

“The issue becomes how do you adapt to that, how do you create resilience for species, for ecosystems, in the face of what is happening, catastrophic fire seasons, lingering droughts,” she asked.

“These are real, tangible things that are affecting the places that we love. The confrontation between climate change and what it looks like, I felt like I was on the front lines of that, working for the Department of Interior.”