When it comes to passing major legislation — reforming health care, reining in Wall Street, curbing climate change — the Obama administration is under fire from all sides for bowing to special interests and conducting government business behind closed doors. But there's one agency where the hope and hype of the campaign trail have transitioned seamlessly into effective governance: the Environmental Protection Agency.
With a minimum of fanfare, new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has established herself as the agency's most progressive chief ever — and one of the most powerful members of Obama's Cabinet. In her first year on the job, Jackson has not only turned the page on the industry-friendly and often illegal policies of the Bush era, but has embarked on an aggressive campaign to clean up the nation's air and drinking water. Under her leadership, the EPA has sought stricter limits on toxic pollutants like mercury, moved to scrub emissions of arsenic and heavy metals from coal-fired plants, and revoked a permit for the nation's largest mountaintop-removal coal mine. "The American people can be outraged when we're not living up to the P part of our name," Jackson says. "The protection part."
Even more striking, Jackson has expanded the EPA's mandate to include sweeping new powers to crack down on climate-warming pollution from cars and industry. The move, which has the full backing of the White House, could prove to be the only viable way to stop Big Oil and Big Coal from overheating the planet — especially after the disastrous collapse of climate talks in Copenhagen in December. "If Congress doesn't pass legislation on climate change," says Carol Browner, Obama's climate czar, "EPA will follow through under the requirements of the Clean Air Act."
Taken together, Jackson's efforts represent a sweeping attempt to revitalize an agency that was gutted during the Bush years. The goal, as she sees it, is to once again base environmental regulations on science and the law — not on the demands of well-connected industries. "Under Jackson, it's a whole new ballgame," says Eric Schaeffer, who resigned as the agency's director of environmental enforcement in protest over Bush policies. "You now have an EPA administrator who has White House support but is still tough enough to provide an independent voice for the environment."
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