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The Eco-Warrior: Lisa Jackson's EPA

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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]

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