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Next up for new agency director question time is the District Department of the Environment’s Christophe Tulou, who’s actually been in charge for nearly a year now, but was one of the few Fenty administration picks to survive into the Vince Gray era. Last week, we sat down at DDOE’s NoMa offices to talk solar grants, parking lots, and where the environmental movement is headed.

Hard at work! (Lydia DePillis)

So, why did you get to keep your job?

I got to show my stuff in the context of DDOE showing its stuff. We’re very proud of the agency, I think we’ve got a great track record. And I think that kind of gives people comfort. It was pretty explicit in the process of transition, working on an interim basis, that directors were being assessed. And I think it’s a perfect way to apply for a job. It was a great way to road test some of the old guard and make sure that everybody was on the same page.

You’ve now worked under two former rivals. Is your job different in the Gray administration than it was under Fenty?

This was a perfect opportunity for me to assess whether or not there was the same level of environmental commitment in the new administration. It’s very clear to me that the kind of direction an agency like this would be looking for from a mayor is the kind of direction we’ll be getting from Mayor Gray. We did a ribbon cutting for the restoration of the Watts Branch a couple of weeks ago. And it was just a wonderful meeting of interests and visions in that what we’re able to demonstrate is a commitment by the District to neighborhoods that have felt less than adequately recognized in the past. It is very much in line with the Mayor’s priorities in that the Anacostia is no longer the moat that separates the city, but a river like the Seine or the Thames that unites the city. One of the key ways we can see that happens is to make sure that it is a safe, clean, healthy environment. And I think that one of the things that would give any mayor confidence is the fact that we are aggressively going after the folks who are causing the pollution and have the ability to clean it up. The CSX settlement of $8 million recently is a perfect example of that.

The issue of the week is solar grants being unexpectedly cut, after people had made investments in solar installations expecting a rebate. Why did that happen? Do you think the Council understands the damage that does to solar development?

We had a hearing with councilmember Yvette Alexander’s committee on the solar carve out and renewable portfolio standards. And it was an opportunity for the whole community, basically, to come out and express their broader vision. … The bottom line there, as far as I’m concerned, is that we’re all on board with regards to solar. What we had to do for budget cutting purposes is be a little bit less on board. And what happens is, people think we’ve reneged on a commitment. Well, we’ve reneged on a portion of the commitment in that regard. And what we’re doing right now is seeing whether we can restore the amount of money that would get 51 people who were not able to get the rebates that the were expecting the financing that they need this year. If they can’t get that this year, then we have assured them they’ll be at the top of the list in FY ‘12.

Do you think we’ll ever get to a point where financial returns created by the market for solar credits makes rebates unnecessary?

This kind of program is intended not to be a forever support of the solar industry. What we’re doing is enabling the development of this industry, and what we fully expect is that it will get its feet on the ground and subsidies can eventually be phased back, and the market itself can carry that process forward.

What keeps you up at night as far as how federal budget trimming could affect the District’s environmental priorities?

I spent 10 years on Capitol Hill, so I have a good feel for how these political decisions are made. In the big picture, what I see happening is not the House Republican proposal that was passed by the House a couple weeks ago. They’re doing what they’ve pledged to their constituents they would do, and aggressively going after spending at the federal level. What they don’t realize yet is the magnitude of those cuts are going to hurt the people that they represent dramatically. And so what it is to me is a guarantee that the political pendulum will swing back and smack ‘em. My sense is, is on lifeline programs like Low Income Energy assistance, we won’t see dramatic cuts. Some of the other funding that we receive to help with clean water, clean air activities, we’ll probably see some reduction.

To stay on the federal level for a second: It seems like the movement for a big international climate treaty—or even a meaningful climate bill in the U.S.—has lost a lot of steam. Has that action been transferred to cities?

I think the answer to that is yes. Climate change legislation is a perfect example of a train that completely ran off the tracks over the last couple years. And I think a lot of people are realizing, as I did personally in taking this job in the first place, that the real action is in our localities. And that has always been the case. But what has become abundantly clear to me as I’ve worked on federal policy, in some cases global policy, is that is an extremely frustrating prospect. I think the U.S. track record on climate policy is absolutely abysmal, and what I see happening are the things that the District is doing really leading the way, in terms of demonstrating that cities can take the lead, and even though they are constrained by a lack of federal support, they can make investments and create market opportunities. We’re a city that has nearly 30 acres of green roofs on its buildings already. We don’t have any business being in that position as a city of 600,000 people, and yet we are. If we can’t get our neighbors in Congress to be as progressive as we’d like from an environmental perspective, then why don’t we take those reins right here in the District, and push and pull and fight and force things to happen, in spite of the fact that we’re not getting the federal support that we need?

We’re about to award a contract for the Sustainable Energy Utility, which will take on a lot of the functions that DDOE now handles. How is the agency adjusting to this new entity?

The thing to keep in mind is that the SEU, as it’s configured right now, is still an agency of the District. They’re not so much a policymaking entity. What SEU is is a body that’s charged with implementation, and leveraging the good policy and the resources that the District provides to them, to make sure we get maximum bang for the buck. So what that means for us is that some of our functions will be going over to them. For example, the renewable energy incentive program essentially ends as a formal matter for DDOE in 2012. And that’s a really good thing. We have the oversight, but what we have is a team of experts who will be making sure the appropriate education, marketing, creative financing, and ultimately the work itself is done. And they are working on a performance-based contract. So they will have to perform certain things in order to continue to be the contractor, and there are bonuses that will be awarded if they continue to meet those benchmarks.

“Utility” is good, because in a sense it is pulling together resources, has a defined job to do, to provide services to the citizens of the District. But they’re not providing energy, per se. What they are providing is less energy, or more efficient and better energy. The sort of things we can’t depend on Pepco or Washington Gas to provide.

As we look at proposals for new Walmarts, and contemplate the prospect of a huge suburban-style shopping mall in Fort Lincoln, I wonder: Can you ever call a development with a gigantic surface parking lot “green”?

Our attitude about water is going to be something totally foreign five years from now to how we think about water today. Then, we’re going to be a water hospitable city, and when mother nature gives us water, we’re going to say thank you instead of trying to design some way to get that water out of our face as quickly as possible. And it’s going to have huge implications for what parking lots are going to look like, sidewalks are going to look like, parks are going to look like.

Parking lots, the big traditional parking lot thing, are a problem for two reasons. One, it shows that we’re overly dependent on automobiles for transportation. I think that’s one thing that the city is taking great strides to undo. The second thing those kinds of parking lots demonstrate is a tired and old and soon-to-be-forgotten idea about what we do with the vehicles that we have. A large paved area in the city is an inappropriate use of space, there’s no two ways about it. Can we mitigate that? Yes, we can design them in such a way that they’re less of an environmental threat. One of the things, for example, that people will see with Dakota Crossing, is that there are some incredible things that can be done to manage the water that kids a parking lot like that. It’s not what we advocate, and it’s not what we’ll be advocating for the future. It’s not the right kind of development. [Ed. note: Tulou meant that he doesn’t advocate large parking lots, not that he doesn’t advocate mitigation measures for large parking lots.]

Parking is a planning decision, largely. Does DDOE have a role to play in other decisions about how the District is shaped that have a profound impact on the quality of the environment? Or do you leave that up to Harriet Tregoning?

I think that what we are all talking about, in the final analysis, is how do we make this a livable, sustainable city, and a competitive city as well, and that’s huge in terms of the political value of being able to say, yeah yeah yeah you’re right, Mayor Nutter, Philadelphia’s doing a lot of great things, and you’re right, Mayor Bloomberg, New York is big and it’s got all sorts of great ideas. But it’s what’s the city that can point to the whole suite of things that it’s doing to say that this is a far better place for me to live than any of the competitors.

We’re working with ICLEI, which is a global nonprofit that works with local governments on sustainability issues, as a pilot city in something called the STAR community sustainability index. What that is is a very earnest, very intellectual way of measuring all of those indicators—environmental energy, economic, social—so that we can tally up, for the entire city, what its LEED certification is.

[long discussion of energy benchmarking, and public disclosure of building performance, which will allow us to understand where improvements need to be made and allow consumers to make informed decisions about where they want to live and work]

Sitting in my position at DDOE, there’s nothing better in the world than to have a market that’s predisposed to doing the right thing, and we can say okay, how can we make you go further than you think you can do. And it’s infectious. I had a developer lean over to me and say, you know Cristophe, LEED isn’t good enough anymore. And this is a developer who’s putting LEED buildings up like they’re candy. And you have other cities in the country that are celebrating their first LEED building, and we’ve got 300 in the pipeline. It’s just so incredibly exciting. I’ve worked at the federal level, I’ve worked at the state level, and I haven’t had the same kind of tangible excitement in those roles that I have now, and I’m feeling that way in spite of the fact that we’re facing some incredible budget problems. There’s a lot that we can do with the resources that we have.