Jackson Riles Business, Lawmakers With Carbon Rules
Author: Ayesha Rascoe
Lisa Jackson, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, listens to a question at a news conference at the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen December 9, 2009.
Photo: Bob Strong
From Texas lawmakers to top coal mining executives, a wide array of business and political interests would like to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ambitious and solo plan to tackle climate change.
But standing in the way is an energetic former chemical engineer who has vowed to press ahead with a raft of changes that only Congress or the courts can block.
The first African-American to head EPA, Lisa Jackson is now the poster woman for 21st century environmentalism and standing firm against critics who say her agenda is too radical for an economy emerging from a steep recession.
"I'm sick of the same old tired arguments," Jackson said in an interview with Reuters at her Washington office. "I don't buy into this idea that we can't have economic progress...and we can't have a strong environment. I believe it's a false choice."
Although the Obama administration has said it would prefer that Congress address global warming through legislation, Jackson's agency could play a sweeping role in transitioning the United States to a low carbon economy if Congress is unable to get its act together.
Just a few months into the new administration, EPA issued a historic finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health, which compels the agency to regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act.
But this doesn't sit well with groups such as the National Mining Association, who argue that the EPA is ill-equipped to handle the enormous task of limiting greenhouse gases.
The agency said it will "tailor" its carbon reduction rules to affect only the largest polluters, but many industry groups believe this narrow rule would not survive court challenges and the damage will be felt more widely.
"Once you start the truck down the hill, it's hard to stop it," said Carol Raulston, a mining association spokeswoman.
Critics warn that if the so-called tailoring rule is struck down by the courts, the EPA will be forced to impose cumbersome and costly rules on virtually every source of greenhouse gases -- from churches to schools and coal plants to farms.
And there is growing concern that Congress will not be able to pass a climate bill, because of the haggling between Republicans and Democrats.
Jackson, a self-described pragmatist with a master's degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University, disputes these claims. She said the point of the tailoring rule is to avoid the "nightmare scenario" envisioned by opponents where the agency regulates everything in sight.
"When it comes out you'll see that we're making good on our word," Jackson said of the rule to be released by May.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1962, Jackson was adopted and raised in the impoverished lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. She is no stranger to the energy industry, working summers at a big oil company in her youth.
"I'm an environmentalist who worked three summers in a row for Shell Oil Company in gas plants and oil field work. I don't see those in any way as mutually exclusive," she added.
As an engineer, Jackson said she strongly believes technological innovations can play a major role in helping to solve the clean energy problem.
Jackson worked at the EPA for 16 years before eventually becoming the Commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection.
JACKSON'S CHEERING FANS
After years of feeling like outcasts at the EPA, environmentalists say they have found a true champion with Jackson now at the helm of the EPA.
"It's so invigorating to see the Environmental Protection Agency back on its feet and doing it's job again," said David Doniger, a policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center.
Since coming to office, Jackson has impressed environmentalists by tightening standards for mountaintop mining, proposing new air quality rules, and approving California's request to crack down on vehicle emissions.
Doniger noted Jackson received a standing ovation last year when she spoke to environmentalists at the Copenhagen climate meeting shortly after finalizing the agency's greenhouse gas decision .
"I hadn't experienced anything quite like that," Doniger said. "She was a rock star at Copenhagen."
Green groups also herald the administration's effectiveness in pushing the nation's ailing auto industry to begin producing more fuel efficient vehicles, striking a deal with automakers last year to impose the first U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rules on vehicles.
EPA administrators have the challenge of following science and the law and keeping politicians happy, said Sierra Club chairman Carl Pope. "It is not easy and nobody has ever done it as well as she is doing it," he added.
(Editing by Russell Blinch and Alden Bentley)