Lisa Jackson’s exit as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency leaves her successor to combat global warming and set rules for hydraulic fracturing over the objections of businesses and Republican lawmakers.
Jackson yesterday said she will step down as EPA chief as soon as President Barack Obama begins his second term. During her four years, the 50-year-old chemical engineer issued multibillion dollar rules to cut emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants from power plants, industrial boilers and cement factories. The rules earned praise from health groups, which said Jackson moved to tackle pollution left unaddressed for too long, and criticism from manufacturers and Republicans that they endangered the economic recovery.
“The industries are going to continue the barrage that we’ve seen,” Patti Goldman, a vice president at Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based environmental group, said in an interview. “The concern is having someone who can get through the confirmation process and be as strong” as Jackson in defending the environment. There will be a lot of unfinished business for her successor, she said.
Topping the list are plans to address greenhouse gases from power plants for the first time and to issue findings on the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. Both issues carry the same political risks Jackson faced throughout her tenure.
Possible candidates to replace Jackson include Bob Perciasepe, the No. 2 official at the agency now; Heather Zichal, the top White House aide for energy and environment; Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator of EPA for air pollution; and Dan Esty, the top environmental regulator in Connecticut and a former Yale University professor.
Except for Zichal, each has worked at the EPA and has experience in managing a large organization. The agency has about 18,000 employees.
Jackson used a combination of technical expertise and political charm to try to ease complaints from Republicans, such as Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.
“Lisa Jackson and I disagreed on many issues and regulations while she headed the EPA; however, I have always appreciated her receptivity to my concerns, her accessibility and her honesty,” Inhofe said in a statement yesterday. “She was one of the few at the EPA that was honest with me.”
Even people who disagreed with Jackson’s policies “came to appreciate the way she handled herself in tough situations,” said Jeff Holmstead, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP in Washington who served as a senior EPA official under former President George W. Bush.
Jackson’s diplomacy didn’t always work. The Republican-led House of Representatives voted to strike down the major clean-air rules issued by Jackson. While Senate Democrats successfully defended those regulations, Obama himself scrapped her proposal in 2011 to cut smog pollution, after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups appealed to the White House for relief. A federal court struck down her landmark plan to cut pollutants from power plants that are carried by air currents across state lines, and that rule is still in limbo.
Under direction from Congress, Jackson initiated a comprehensive study of the effects on drinking water from hydraulic fracturing, the drilling technique responsible for the jump in natural-gas production in states such as Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas. As the study continues, the agency also faces legal pressure from states and environmentalists to regulate the methane emissions from fracking, a step it had dodged.
“The top issue on everyone’s radar right now is fracking,” Don Elliott, a former EPA official who is a lawyer and professor at Yale Law School, said in an interview. “How EPA weighs in on it is very important.”
On the one hand, the glut of natural gas has allowed power plants to shift away from dirtier coal-fueled production; on the other, local activists and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club complain that gas production is fouling the water, triggering earthquakes, and even causing global warming from the methane emissions that escape during production and transport.
EPA’s study on the impact of fracking on drinking water is scheduled for release in 2014. Analysts say it could lead Congress to rewrite federal rules for the oversight of the practice or the agency to issue further regulations. Fracking is now primarily overseen by state regulators.
Cap and Trade
At the outset of her tenure, Jackson worked with then-White House adviser Carol Browner to push for legislation to cap and trade carbon-dioxide emissions. That measure, which faced near-unanimous Republican opposition, never made it to the floor of the Senate for a vote, a failure that some environmental advocates pin on the administration.
Now many environmentalists are looking to the EPA to accomplish what lawmakers could not.
The combination of cheap natural gas, auto efficiency standards and regulations on power plants can accomplish the same greenhouse-gas reductions by 2020 envisioned by the failed cap-and-trade measure, according to Dallas Burtraw, a fellow at Resources for the Future.
The EPA is scheduled to release the final version of rules on greenhouse gases from new power plants in the coming months, and, if its initial proposal is maintained, it would effectively preclude the construction of new coal-fired power plants. The EPA is also under a legal requirement to issue those rules for existing plants, a step that it has avoided so far.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the EPA to issue the regulations for greenhouse gases, this month proposed model standards for existing power plants.
Jackson’s “successor will inherit an unfinished agenda that begins with the issuance of new health protections against carbon pollution from existing power plants -- the largest remaining driver of climate change that needs to be controlled,” Frances Beinecke, president of the NRDC, said in a statement.