EPA chief Lisa Jackson announced yesterday that she will be leaving her position as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. She said she has discussed her departure with the President and will step down after the January inauguration.
Jackson, the first African-American to hold the post, was a strong advocate for the environment and for the public health that depends on it. When she accepted the appointment four years ago, she was expecting an opportunity, as many of us were, to reclaim much of the ground lost during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration.
Bush, as you might recall, reneged on his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants, and then withdrew U.S. support from Kyoto Protocol, a move that his EPA administrator, Christy Todd Whitman later called, “the equivalent to ‘flipping the bird,’ frankly, to the rest of the world.”
Bush will also be remembered for gutting the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, dismantling the Endangered Species Act, opening millions of acres of previously protected lands and seas to commercial exploitation and weakening enforcement efforts at the EPA.
The Obama administration has thus far not been able to move forward nearly as quickly or effectively as the Bush administration moved backward on these issues. Early efforts to institute a cap and trade program for carbon dioxide actually passed the House but became mired in the Senate as the impact of the financial crisis became clear.
There were several important victories during the first Obama term, most notably the endangerment finding, which reclassified carbon dioxide as a pollutant allowing it to be regulated by the EPA. Other major wins include the new fuel economy standards raising the fleet average mileage to 35.5 mpg by 2016, which were then updated last year to 54.5 mpg by 2025. There was also an important ruling regulating mercury emissions from coal plants, which certainly has helped to seal the fate of coal as an energy source going forward. Jackson was also influential in helping to persuade the president to hold off on approving the Keystone XL pipeline.
But after the Republicans took control of the House in 2010 things took a significant uphill turn. From that point on, the administration often found itself shifting from offense to defense as Republicans went on the attack trying to limit the powers of the EPA.
Since then, the EPA has been unable to move forward on new regulations to control smog, despite clear evidence of health impacts. Regulations of toxic coal ash are also yet to be finalized some four years after the Kingston disaster.
Some of Jackson’s proposals, such as the need for tighter ozone controls only got as far as the White House before facing stiff resistance. The President rejected the proposal, claiming it would be too costly for industry and government to comply with in times of economic distress.
This brings us to the question of why Ms. Jackson is leaving. She has said little thus far except that, “the ship is sailing in the right direction.”
Could it be that is concerned that President Obama is planning to change that direction? There has been speculation that he is planning to approve the XL pipeline. The idea of the U.S. becoming energy independent is one that he seems to be fond of, never mind the fact that most of the oil from XL would be shipped directly to China.
Despite the fact that Republicans still control the House, there are a number of executive actions that can be completed through the EPA, within the scope of laws already passed by Congress, such as the Clean Air Act.
The EPA has a number of critical new rules pending that are expected to be implemented during this term. Among them are regulations on sulfur in gasoline, ozone, emissions from cement plants and boilers, and perhaps most important of all, the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Truth be told, I think environmentalists are still waiting for the real Barack Obama to stand up. There is no question but that he fell short on promises he made in his first campaign. Many are now hoping that in his second term, with no re-election to be concerned about, he would be free to focus on what was right rather than what was popular, and stand up more forcefully on difficult issues like climate change. But the fact that the subject was never even raised in any of the debates has caused some consternation.
However, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the president indicated that climate change was one of his top three priorities, along with immigration and the economy.
He told TIME, in an interview after being named person of the year, that his daughters have influenced his thinking on this. “[O]n an issue like climate change, for example, I think for this country and the world to ask some very tough questions about what are we leaving behind, that weighs on you.”
It will certainly be interesting to see who President Obama names as Lisa Jackson’s successor.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
RP is currently competing for a spot at Sustainbility Week in Abu Dhabi. You can vote for him here.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.