The Troubled Tenure of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

On Dec. 27, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson stepped down after nearly four years in office. “I will leave the EPA confident the ship is sailing in the right direction,” she said in a written statement, “and ready in my own life for new challenges, time with my family and new opportunities to make a difference.”

Environmentalists praised Jackson’s efforts to regulate air quality and set standards for automotive fuel economy, while Republican politicos and industrial groups criticized her stances on key environmental issues and questioned the economic viability of many of the policies she spearheaded. She leaves behind a mixed bag legacy that will undoubtedly influence the position in years to come.

Prior to her appointment as EPA Administrator, Jackson – a Tulane alumnus – enjoyed a long, fruitful career in the environmental sector. She served with the EPA for 16 years (1986-2002), during which time she worked with the Superfund to regulate toxic site clean-up projects throughout the Tri-State area. A charismatic, driven leader, Jackson was promoted to the title of deputy director, and later acting director, of the EPA’s regional enforcement division.

Then, in 2002, she took an assistant commissioner of compliance and enforcement position with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). She was involved with numerous programs related to land use regulation, water management and air quality, and she was instrumental in the passage of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act. She also conducted more than 1,000 compliance checks in Camden and Paterson, two cities with long-neglected pollution management programs. She was appointed to replace Bradley Abelow as Chief of Staff for the organization in December 2008, but stepped down two weeks later when newly elected President Obama tapped her for the EPA Administrator job.

She began her tenure by tackling the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, a law she viewed as heavily outdated and in desperate need of reform. Her efforts led to a cap-and-trade carbon emissions reduction act that required power companies to buy – and then sell – pollution rights. Democrats passed the act through the House in 2009; however, the measure was ignored when addressing the economic recession became a top priority for the Senate.

When the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill occurred in 2010, Jackson attempted to tackle the various environmental and health concerns that resulted. Her agency monitored water and air, tracked wildlife and natural resource destruction and explored strategies for amending the catastrophic damage to the Gulf Coast. However, she also (controversially) supported BP’s use of Corexit, a dispersant used to clean up the vast oil deposits generated by the blast. She later defended the use of Corexit before the Senate Appropriations Committee; she referred to use of the dispersant as an “environmental trade-off”, acknowledging that Corexit posed threats to marine plant and animal life but also noting that oil was much more hazardous to these natural resources. A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the EPA following Jackson’s testimony.

In 2011, Jackson authored a plan to reform the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Though the EPA’s Science Advisory Board supported the proposal – which set the NAAQS between 70 and 64 parts per billion — the Obama Administration opposed the measure. The president ultimately rejected Jackson’s plan, which led to many protests from environmentalists. Jackson remained tight-lipped about the president’s dismissal, vowing to remain with the agency and respect his decision.

That same year, she spoke out against the 2,147-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which (when completed) would shuttle crude oil and bitumen from Alberta to refineries as far south as Texas and Louisiana. The pipeline, which would create thousands of jobs and generate billions of dollars of revenue for the U.S. economy, has also been criticized for its presumably detrimental environmental impact – particularly on fragile sand flats regions scattered throughout the Midwest. “We’re not going to use the current economic crisis to roll back the health and safety people have come to rely on for a decade,” she told an audience of students at Howard University in October 2011. “It would be tragic if we took one step forward, and we end up taking four or five steps back.” Despite her concerns, President Obama has since approved the project and called for its construction; many media outlets speculate her resignation was fueled by the president’s about-face, as he previously opposed the pipeline for environmental reasons.

Others have posited the theory that Jackson stepped down in response to an audit by the Assistant Inspector General, which was announced just weeks before she forfeited the position. The audit stemmed from roughly 12,000 emails Jackson apparently sent to various parties under the moniker, ‘Richard Windsor’. On Jan. 14, the Justice Department will begin releasing these emails at a rate of 3,000 per week.

While Jackson’s tenure was marked by criticism and missed opportunities, there were a few bright spots. She spearheaded a successful measure that effectively doubled the required fuel economy of cars and trucks; if successful, the will mandate all automobiles to achieve a rating of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. She also became the first person to effectively rein in toxic pollutants emitted by power plants. And as the first African-American woman to serve as EPA Administrator, she brought unprecedented diversity to the position.

It is unknown at this time who will succeed Jackson as EPA Administrator, or when they will take office. Some speculate she will run for Governor of New Jersey, while others have theorized that she will become president of Princeton University.

By Brad Nehring