Lisa Jackson spent 16 years enforcing pollution standards at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and two more running New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). So with that background in both administration and enforcement, and perspectives on environmental issues from both the federal and state level, it’s not surprising that President Obama chose her to head the EPA.
Jackson already has made it clear that the three core values articulated by Obama–that science must be the backbone for EPA programs, that the EPA must follow the rule of law and that the agency must be transparent–will shape what she does. She also has highlighted five priorities that will get her personal attention: reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, improving air quality, managing chemical risk, cleaning up hazardous waste sites and protecting America’s water.
By early March, there was already evidence that Jackson was moving ahead in several key areas. For example, at Obama’s direction she prioritized agency review of the 2007 EPA decision that blocked California from implementing its proposed curbs on GHG emissions. The agency is expected to reverse the decision and allow California and 13 other states to set strict limits on carbon emissions from motor vehicles. She also was reviewing the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, which requires the EPA to determine whether GHG emissions “endanger public health or welfare”–if so, they could be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
But whatever she attempts to do, Jackson will be doing it in a charged atmosphere widely regarded as placing environmental compliance and economic efficiency in conflict. Her track record in New Jersey, which won her friends and foes on both sides of the fence, is being scrutinized to discern how she will impact environmental policy.
“There have been some mixed reviews from both business and activists,” says Radha Curpen, an environmental partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt.
On close analysis, however, mixed reviews may be inevitable for someone who appears to have tried to strike a balance between competing interests.
Lisa Bromberg, a Porzio Bromberg and Newman principal who represents real estate developers in New Jersey, dealt with Jackson on DEP programs and appeared before her at tribunals.
“I found Jackson to be an excellent administrator, generally available to the constituency she served, eminently practical and more than willing to listen to all sides–private industry as well as special interest groups–before making a decision,” Bromberg says. “I thought she made the DEP work well, and I have confidence she’ll do the same at the EPA.”
Still, the New Jersey business community reaction to Jackson’s appointment as EPA chief has been reserved.
“For reasons that are not clear to me, private industry believed Jackson was not as open to its concerns as she might have been, and I think that may have been a misinterpretation that arises from the fact that she is a truly dedicated environmentalist,” Bromberg says.
But Jackson’s perspective doesn’t translate into an anti-business mentality. “She has never, to my knowledge, expressed negative opinions on private industry,” Bromberg says. “[At the DEP] she always supported environmentally responsible development and welcomed my clients’ activities in the state.”
Indeed, it’s not as if environmentalists were unanimous in praise of Jackson’s appointment. While the Sierra Club and many other environmental organizations have endorsed her, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility criticized her record in New Jersey, claiming she relaxed hazardous waste cleanup standards and failed to warn parents about mercury contamination at a daycare center built on the site of a former thermometer factory.
The fact that neither business nor environmentalists in New Jersey were unqualified supporters may speak to Jackson’s even-handedness.
“The information I have is that Jackson managed the DEP in a way that struck a balance between the regulated community and public policy environmental interests,” says Joseph Stanko, head of government relations at Hunton & Williams.
One of Jackson’s advantages in her new role is that she is experienced not only in environmental programming and administration but in enforcement as well.
“Before she left for New Jersey, Jackson enforced hazardous waste and Superfund issues at the EPA,” Stanko says. “So she understands the interplay between the regulatory side and enforcement.”
And with 16 years at the EPA under her belt, Jackson returns to Washington with an understanding both of senior career types at the agency and of how the EPA works in the Capitol’s dynamic.
“For an agency that has become demoralized, having one of their own at the top is important,” says Kyle Danish, an environmental member at Van Ness Feldman.
Finally, Jackson has grappled with the issues at the federal and state levels.
“Congress may have to think about the role of state programs in cleaning up the environment, especially if the vacuum at the federal level persists,” Danish says. “And because Jackson, while at the DEP, was a core participant in the regional GHG initiative, she might well be sympathetic to the states playing their part.”
When all is said and done, the assessments of Jackson frequently come down to a simple weighting of competence and political chops.
What remains to be seen is to what extent Jackson has the President’s ear–and that’s where her lack of heavy duty political acumen could be a serious barrier to achieving her policy objectives. She will inevitably run into Carol Browner, who served eight years as EPA administrator during the Clinton administration and who has an undefined but clearly powerful role as energy and environmental czar in the Obama administration.
“It’s clear that Lisa Jackson is a talented and capable administrator, but given Carol Browner’s position as energy czar, the issue becomes how much policy will be set at the EPA and how much at the White House,” says Stanko.
Indeed, Jackson may well be reporting to Browner rather than to the president, a hierarchy that would have been intolerable to more politically oriented EPA administrators such as Christine Whitman, who was governor of New Jersey before she headed the agency.
“But Browner understands the EPA and the administrator’s position, and Jackson and Browner have worked together before at the EPA,” Danish says. “All that bodes well for a spirit of cooperation and coordination.”