There's no separating energy and the environment for Christine Todd Whitman, and she's made the two her business — and cause — since leaving government.
Whitman, who earned recognition for her green ways as a two-term Governor of New Jersey and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, founded the Whitman Strategy Group, a business consulting firm that specializes in government relations and such environmental and energy issues as climate change and green development.
Clients include companies such as Gale International, which is building New Songdo City, a master-planned business and residential development outside of Seoul, South Korea, billed as the world's most environmentally friendly city.
She also serves on the boards of S.C. Johnson and Son, Texas Instruments and United Technologies.
Whitman and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore chair Clean and Safe Energy, which promotes the use of nuclear energy.
Having grown up on a farm in western New Jersey, (Oldwick in Hunterdon county), Whitman says she's always felt connected with the environment. "You're so close to nature, you see the impact," she says.
Recycling is the rule at her 231-acre, 240-year-old farm, where you won't find any air conditioning but you might notice not one but two Toyota hybrids parked on the grounds. Whitman's been driving a Prius since 2005.
Whitman is a big proponent of the Energy Star program, a joint program of the EPA and the Energy Dept., which promotes energy-efficient products and practices.
Here's a sampling of her views.
Do we need more of programs like Energy Star?
They need to put more money behind it. I used to do ads every holiday season. I was out at Sears and all those places talking about the benefits of buying Energy Star and what it could mean for you over time. That’s all well and good, but sometimes to get your message out what you need to do is paid advertising. Its something the government hasn’t been doing of late. It’s a program that is easy to get behind.
With gasoline prices tumbling from $4-a-gallon in the summer, there’s talk of the usual knee-jerk reaction, wherein sales of hybrid and other alternative vehicles suffer. Given the ebb-and-flow of sales based on energy prices, do we need more government policy to incentivize people?
While people may go back on bad-driving habits and drive more than they should, I would doubt they’ll go back to their bad-buying habits, like SUVs and light trucks because I think they have it in their mind that this can happen again, that prices can go back up again.
We do need a more consistent policy. For instance, to me it didn’t make sense—I know why they did it but I don’t think it was right—when the Congress passed the energy bill and put in the provision that gave people the incentive to buy hybrid cars (but) ... only from manufacturers who hadn’t already sold a certain number of cars. It was meant to protect Detroit; it was aimed directly at Toyota and Honda because they’re the ones who’d sold the most hybrid cars. And that’s not a way to encourage hybrids….We need to say this is important for the country. Even though they are getting more competitive price wise they are still more expensive in general and not everyone can afford it...Many states, by the way, are providing their own incentives.
What’s the best way for the new president to get the country behind a new energy policy that makes a difference?
The first thing the new president can do to emphasize the importance of the environment is to get behind a bill to make the agency [EPA] a department and say: "Look, these issues are going to be very important to me going forward. They are going to take up our time and going to take our focus because, guess what gang, energy is tied into this and energy is tied up in national security and we have to take this all seriously." And that will direct the public's attention to the initiatives that will be taken up. Energy is No.1. That’s the major issue the new president is going to have to deal with.
What sort of initiatives would you recommend?
I’d like to see the next president get behind a carbon cap. Some sort of cap and trade would be my preference. We need to do that. The important thing for the new president is to start out on that energy initiative right away and to remind people that this is something that we just can't ignore and hope will go away or deal with from crisis to crisis. We can’t wait for the next crisis to deal with. We have to start putting in place our answers to the challenges.
What’s the biggest mistake companies make in dealing with green?
The basic mistake is not taking that look and not thinking that they can do anything that will positively affect their bottom line. Another mistake companies make is that they overlook the advantage that being able to say they are doing some of these things gives them an advantage in the marketplace. Consumers are now looking for businesses like that.
The big companies can see the bigger returns. United Technology has reduced its energy consumption by 19 percent and that’s saved big dollars and now they’re looking at other things.
You do a lot of public speaking. What’s the message that you take to consumers?
While they may not think it makes a big difference to them and while they might not see a huge impact on their electricity bills from the smaller things right away, cumulatively it has a huge impact—like when you change your light bulbs to energy efficient ones.
Finally, back to the farm. You've done some interesting things there, as well.
We got my parents to dedicate the development rights to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and subsequently since my husband and I have taken over the farm, we put the hay fields into what’s called the Grassland Reserve Program, a bird preservation program, where you guarantee you will not harvest your hay until after the 15th of July and that means the grassland birds have an opportunity to hatch out and fledge out and you only get one cutting of hay.
When you are that close to nature and you have crops in the field and a river running through the property, you get an appreciation for nature and how fragile it is and how easily it is to change the balance. So you become a little bit more sensitive to leaving things cleaner than how you found them. And that was always a big thing of my father’s: you should always leave a place better than you found it.