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."
When Jackson was appointed in December 2008, some prominent environmentalists considered her the wrong person for the job. During her tenure as head of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, they pointed out, the state did such a dismal job of cleaning up toxic Superfund sites that even the Bush administration felt compelled to take them over. In a separate case, Jackson's unit discovered that a day-care facility housed in a former thermometer factory was exposing toddlers to mercury pollution, yet failed to alert parents for more than three months. "Under her watch, New Jersey's environment only got dirtier, incredible as that may seem," Jeff Ruch, president of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said at the time. "If past is prologue, one cannot reasonably expect meaningful change if she is appointed to lead EPA."
In the early going, Ruch's warning appeared prescient. Jackson kicked off her tenure at EPA by greenlighting more than two dozen permits for mountaintop removal coal mining that were held over from the Bush administration. "This mining is devastating Appalachia," warned Robert F. Kennedy Jr. "Everyone expected Obama to do something about it. Instead they're saying, 'We're going to let this happen.'"
Jackson herself now admits that those initial approvals were mishandled. "In hindsight, I certainly wish we could have gone through a longer process on some of those," she says. In September, the EPA put 79 permits for mountaintop removal on hold, pending a review to ensure that each complies with the Clean Water Act. In an unprecedented move, the agency also revoked a permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine, Appalachia's largest mountaintop-removal operation, observing that it would destroy seven miles of West Virginia streams already ravaged by mining.
In addition, Jackson tells Rolling Stone, the EPA is reviewing the infamous Bush "fill rule" that allows mining companies to bury streams and lakes with mining rubble in the first place. "Staff is working on it now," she says. "We haven't put anything about it out publicly." Jackson says the primary goal is to reform gold mining in Alaska — where miners have begun dumping toxic waste into a pristine lake near Juneau — but adds that the move may also "curtail" mountaintop-removal mining.
Today, environmentalists who fretted openly about Jackson's nomination are almost unanimous in singing her praises. "Parts of the environmental community were skeptical of her appointment," says Buck Parker, former executive director of the environmental-law firm Earthjustice. "But she's fantastic. Gutsy. Acts in accordance with what she says. She's proving to be one of the bright lights of the administration."
Most afternoons, you can find Jackson at EPA's headquarters in the old Post Office headquarters, a marble art-deco monument to an era when postmasters were kings. Her sprawling office is paneled, floor to ceiling, in old-growth walnut, and decorated with bright abstract art from the National Gallery. Near a copy of The Lorax, the Dr. Seuss environmental parable, Jackson keeps a photograph of Sen. James Inhofe, perhaps the most rabid anti-environmental zealot in Congress, surrounded by his grandchildren.
"We don't have rancor," Jackson says of the senator, who gave her the photo. "I keep it here to remind me that you gotta work with people. You gotta figure it out."
Jackson has a master's degree in chemical engineering from Princeton, and nearly two decades of experience directing the cleanup of toxic waste. But from her first day, she discovered, her most important skill was her ability to shift the attitude of staffers who remain stuck in the Bush-era mind-set that the EPA should weaken environmental enforcement to satisfy the demands of big polluters.
"Oftentimes we're in a meeting and somebody starts telling me, 'Well, we already know what this official — usually a local official — really wants.' I tell them I don't want to know that," she says. "I want to know what the science says. Even now they're surprised to hear me say that."
To shift the agency's culture, Jackson has moved swiftly to restore top career staffers who were shunted aside during the Bush years. "We call them 'cryogenically frozen,'" says a top aide to Jackson. "We've reactivated a lot of people who were known to disagree with the Bush administration's politics and were hung up in closets." Veteran staffers who have gotten their old jobs back say privately that they spent eight years under Bush "trying to do something good under the radar" — even as they were forced to design programs that "we all knew the courts were going to throw out."
Under Jackson, the agency is once again basing decisions on science rather than politics. "The science is not something the Obama administration feels they have to guard themselves against," says one clean-air staffer who was sidelined under Bush. "Because they are not trying to protect their industry buddies from environmental regulations."
"They have freed up agency employees to do what they're supposed to do: protect public health and the environment," says Jeremy Symons, the EPA's former climate-policy adviser. "And God knows there's a lot of pent-up work behind the dam that needs to be unleashed."
Much of Jackson's first year at the EPA, in fact, has been eaten up by reversing the worst of the Bush legacy. "It requires that we use our time and resources to look back," she says, "when we absolutely need to be moving ahead."
In one of its final acts, the Bush EPA effectively barred new oversight of oil refineries with a regulatory trick: It covered up the overall impact of a refinery's pollution by measuring every smokestack separately, as if each were operating in isolation. "Imagine if you had 10 smokers in a room and a baby in the middle," says Schaeffer, the former enforcement director. "You're trying to figure the impact on that baby's lungs, but you model the smoke from each cigarette and assume that's all you have in the room. There wasn't any science behind it."
Jackson summarily revoked the oil-friendly rule in October. She also jettisoned lax smog rules set under Bush that flouted the unanimous recommendation of independent scientists and allowed higher pollution levels — effectively sentencing hundreds of people a year to premature death. "This is one of the most important protection measures we can take to safeguard our health," Jackson said in sending the rules back to the drawing board. In January, the agency proposed strict new smog limits that are expected to be finalized later this year.
After having its budget sharply curtailed under Bush, the EPA now has its biggest budget in history — thanks to an increase of $3 billion under Obama. The additional resources have enabled Jackson to put dozens of new federal cops on the environmental beat, and to crack down on states that fail to enforce the law. Chief among those states is Texas, where Gov. George Bush shifted the state to a system of "flexible permits" that allow oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial polluters to increase toxic emissions as they modernize their facilities. Last summer, Jackson lowered the boom on Texas — first by sending an order to Gov. Rick Perry that rejected key elements of the state's regulatory implementation plan, then by descending on the state EPA office in person, accompanied by top enforcement officials from Washington.
"It was an army of people — I've never seen anything like that," says Neil Carman, director of clean-air programs for the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club. "We've got the attention of the highest level of people at the EPA, and they're going after it. We've waited 15 years to see this happen."
Advocates of environmental justice are also thrilled by Jackson's emphasis on protecting vulnerable communities that lack lobbying clout. She has started by filling the EPA, long a bastion of whiteness in Washington, with young aides who represent minority groups hard hit by pollution: the nearly three-fourths of Hispanics who live in communities that fail to meet clean-air standards, African-Americans who are more than twice as likely as whites to die from asthma, Native Americans whose homes lack clean water at almost 10 times the national rate. For Jackson, who grew up in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, near the toxic corridor known as "Cancer Alley," such realities are a major reason she joined the EPA right out of grad school.
"What I'm trying to do is bring the agency back to being closer to the communities that are fighting for environmental protection," she says. "Because that's how environmental protection gets done — it usually comes from the communities up."
The shift to a more community-focused approach is already having an effect. When Emily Enderle, an environmental-health advocate with Earthjustice, recently petitioned the EPA to protect children exposed to dangerous pesticides, she was amazed to see the agency respond in only three weeks by initiating the process to create a new regulation.
"We didn't have any of the big green groups supporting this," Enderle says. "But they were very supportive of protecting rural kids who've been poisoned by nerve-toxic pesticides."
Jackson has moved with equal dispatch to clean up the nation's drinking water. After a storage facility loaded with coal ash collapsed in Tennessee in 2008 — creating a toxic spill 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez — the EPA quickly disclosed previously secret information about 44 other "high hazard" storage facilities. The agency has also targeted 104 chemicals to be added to the Safe Drinking Water Act — a move that would more than double the 91 toxic substances currently subject to regulation.
In addition, Jackson is working with Congress to require all chemical manufacturers to prove that their compounds are safe before they enter the environment. "Safety standards cannot be applied without adequate information," says Jackson, "and responsibility for providing that information should rest on industry."
The biggest fight that Jackson faces, however, is her effort to regulate auto exhaust and other climate pollution under the Clean Air Act. While friends of industry have tried to paint Jackson as an unhinged eco-vigilante, her approach to regulating carbon emissions has been as serious as the Bush administration's was slapdash. Jackson has moved incrementally to make sure the agency's rulings stand up to inevitable legal challenges. "One of the worst of the legacies left after the eight years of the Bush administration was the number of regulations that were overturned," she says. "I am not a lawyer by training; I am an engineer. So I am very, very careful about getting good legal advice on the decisions that I am entrusted to make."
In one of the first decisions that Obama entrusted to Jackson, she reversed the Bush EPA and granted California the authority to curb carbon pollution from auto exhaust. That alone, she says, was enough to bring the automakers to the table to negotiate national limits on emissions, rather than face a patchwork of conflicting state regulations. "Once you get to the point where industry asks for regulatory certainty," Jackson says, "that's always a watershed moment in environmental protection." Spurred by the threat of regulation, automakers agreed to raise the fuel efficiency of cars to 35 miles per gallon by 2016, an accord that will reduce future carbon pollution by nearly 1 billion tons.
The EPA followed up in December by issuing an "endangerment finding" that gives the agency the authority to cap carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. The move was required, Jackson says, by the Supreme Court decision in 2007 that greenhouse gases are a pollutant subject to regulation — a ruling ignored by the Bush White House. Jackson would prefer to curb carbon pollution with the kind of cap-and-trade system being considered by Congress: "Economy-wide, market-based legislation would be a better path," she says. But in the absence of legislative action, Jackson insists that she alone now has the tools to place America on the path to President Obama's target of reducing carbon emissions by 83 percent by 2050.
In January, the EPA began tracking the emissions of the large industrial polluters responsible for 85 percent of America's carbon pollution. That inventory will be completed within a year, paving the way for a first-ever cap on carbon emissions. In the meantime, polluters that want to expand their operations will be required, beginning this spring, to incorporate the "best available methods" for controlling emissions. "I've tried very hard to make sure regulation is common sense," says Jackson. "Not with an eye to developing some doomsday, all-powerful regulatory scenario, but to show folks once again the tremendous power of the Clean Air Act."
Jackson's critics say it's too soon to judge her true commitment to change. Ruch, who denounced her nomination, downplays the EPA's early accomplishments, saying many hard decisions are simply being "ducked or delayed." Case in point: the agency's extended review of permits for mountaintop-removal mining. On January 5th, the very first mine to make it through the process was approved.
Still, the greatest evidence that Jackson is serious about environmental protection may be those who are trying to curb her power. These days, pro-industry Republicans aren't the only ones trying to stymie the EPA. In a move designed to gain support from coal-state Democrats, the climate bill passed by the House would strip the agency of its authority to restrict climate pollution. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat from North Dakota, has introduced stand-alone legislation that would do the same. And Rep. David Obey, the powerful and progressive chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, recently added a last-minute rider to a spending bill that exempted Great Lakes shippers from strict new curbs that the EPA has imposed on diesel emissions from ships. The move — a transparent favor for Murphy Oil, a diesel-fuel refinery in Obey's district — undercuts a rule aimed at saving 12,000 lives a year.
Such maneuvers reveal how difficult it will be for Jackson to move forward on her commitment to craft environmental regulations based on scientific reality, not political favoritism. As with health care reform, a handful of Democrats in Congress could prove influential in undercutting the Obama administration's efforts to defend the environment and safeguard public health. "When it comes to something that threatens the pocketbooks of their own region," says Parker, the former head of Earthjustice, "traditional friends may turn out to be just as bad as Republicans."
[From Issue 1097 — February 4, 2010]