Jackson announcement spurs talk about possible successors

Source: Lawrence Hurley and Paul Voosen, E&E reporters • Posted: Monday, December 31, 2012

U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced yesterday that she is stepping down after four years in office, a move that is likely to spark a tough confirmation battle over her eventual successor.

Jackson said in a statement that she was awaiting “new challenges,” having made “historic progress” on various issues, including air pollution, toxic chemicals and children’s health issues. She will depart after President Obama’s State of the Union speech next month. Bob Perciasepe, the deputy administrator, will serve as acting EPA administrator, assuming no one is confirmed by the time Jackson departs. He is also a possible contender to replace Jackson permanently (Greenwire, Nov. 1).

With Republicans controlling the House, whoever replaces Jackson is likely to spend as much time defending the agency’s agenda as she did for the last two years.

Obama said in a statement that Jackson has shown “unwavering commitment to the health of our families and our children” during her term of office. Under her leadership, the agency has taken “sensible and important steps to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink,” he added.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Jackson’s “ability to develop strong working relationships with congressional colleagues on both sides of the aisle — despite a very partisan atmosphere — made her a very effective advocate for the environment and public health.”

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) described Jackson yesterday as “a very good public servant who cares about her job, her country.”

Jackson insisted in her statement that the actions taken on her watch mean “the ship is sailing in the right direction.”

Highlights of her tenure — as summarized in an EPA fact sheet distributed yesterday — include the first greenhouse gas regulations, new vehicle fuel economy standards, and new air standards for industrial boilers, incinerators and cement kilns announced last week.

But, as Jackson made a passing reference to in her statement, the high hopes when she first came into office that significant action on climate change could be accomplished did not come to fruition. Those hopes were dashed in 2010, when Congress failed to enact carbon cap-and-trade legislation and Republicans took control of the House in the midterm elections.

EPA went ahead with its first efforts to regulate greenhouse emissions under the Clean Air Act. Those regulations were recently upheld by a federal appeals court following challenges by industry groups and some states.

Despite the setbacks Jackson faced — including the White House decision in 2011 to nix stricter ozone rules and a appeals court decision invalidating the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule — environmental advocates were full of praise for her yesterday.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said Jackson has been a “steadfast advocate for clean air, clean water, a stable climate and public health.”

Her job was made harder by “very vocal and forceful detractors,” he noted, in reference to political foes in Congress.

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement that “every American is better off today than when she took office nearly four years ago.”

The American Lung Association was similarly effusive in its statement, making reference to Jackson’s “tremendous leadership.” The group cited the new soot standard as an example.

“This new standard will help ensure that this lethal pollutant is cleaned up all across the nation,” the statement said.

The renewable fuel industry also gave Jackson a warm farewell, grateful for EPA’s approval of E15, a new gasoline blend that includes 15 percent ethanol.

Jackson “cleared the way for E15, giving consumers more choice and savings at the gas pump,” said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association.

Those representing other interests were less complimentary.

“From an energy and consumer perspective, it had to be said that the Jackson EPA presided over some of the most expensive and controversial rules in agency history,” said Scott Segal of Bracewell & Giuliani. “Agency rules have been used as blunt attempts to marginalize coal and other solid fossil fuels and to make motor fuels more costly at the expense of industrial jobs, energy security, and economic recovery.”

The coal industry, which battled Jackson over EPA regulatory crackdowns on Appalachian mountaintop mining and power plant pollution, portrayed her announcement as an opportunity for a change in energy policy.

“America heard strong bipartisan support for coal in the 2012 election dialogue, and they deserve a nominee for EPA Administrator that would be truly supportive of ‘all of the above’ energy policies,” the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity said in a statement.

Bruising confirmation battle

Jackson’s replacement is expected to face a bruising confirmation battle in the Senate, where Republicans have long pilloried the agency’s efforts to stem air pollution and climate change, citing the possible damage such proposals could have on the economy.

While praising Jackson’s honest dealings with him, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, warned in a statement that her departure presented an opportunity for the Obama administration to shift course and soften its regulatory approach.

“This provides President Obama with an opportunity to appoint an EPA administrator who appreciates the needs of our economy,” Inhofe said. “I have recently highlighted the regulatory cliff, which has been delayed, but which would further slow our nation’s economic growth. Although I take a skeptical view, this appointment would provide this administration an opportunity to change its regulatory course.”

Those hopes were echoed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a strong coal supporter.

“We’re hoping for more of a balanced approach at EPA,” Paul said yesterday on Capitol Hill. “There has been a zealousness toward overburdensome regulations without really understanding what it does for job creation.”

President Obama’s nomination will also help make clear his goal for the agency over the coming four years. A moderate or technocratic pick could signal a continuation of Jackson’s plans; a candidate with a business background could indicate openness to market-based rules; or a liberal reformer could be a sign of aggressive moves to come.

“No matter who they choose, that position is going to be highly politicized by elements on both sides,” said Paul Bledsoe, an energy consultant who worked on energy issues in the Clinton administration, to Greenwire earlier this year. “They are going to draw fire from the right almost no matter who they choose, and they may well draw fire from the left.”

The environmental and business lobbies will especially focus on the largest remaining regulatory bullet in the agency’s arsenal: potential rules covering the greenhouse gas emissions of existing power plants.

“Lisa leaves giant shoes to fill,” NRDC’s Beinecke said. “And her successor will inherit an unfinished agenda that begins with the issuance of new health protections against carbon pollution from existing power plants — the largest remaining driver of climate change that needs to be controlled.”

The list of likely candidates to succeed Jackson begins with her top deputies within the agency, Perciasepe and Gina McCarthy.

Perciasepe is viewed by observers as the least controversial option to replace Jackson. EPA’s second in command is seen as a technocrat, not a political operative, and he served as EPA’s chief for air quality and water issues during the Clinton administration. He has held the top public works job in Baltimore and the top environmental post in Maryland.

“He arguably is the most qualified person in the country for the job, based on his experience and knowledge,” Clean Air Watch’s Frank O’Donnell said. “I doubt even the industry groups would oppose him.”

The administration might also try to avoid a confirmation fight altogether by leaving Perciasepe in the acting administrator position for the medium term. Several other EPA officials are currently serving in an acting capacity.

McCarthy, the current assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, once served as a senior environmental official for Massachusetts under Gov. Mitt Romney, when the Republican championed the commonwealth’s involvement in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative trading system. She later headed Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Outside the agency, the chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, is frequently mentioned as a candidate. Nichols served as EPA air chief during the Clinton administration and was an architect of California’s air and climate policy programs, including the state’s pioneering cap-and-trade rules for carbon emissions (ClimateWire, Nov. 14).

Nichols’ experience extends far beyond air rules. She’s known as a pragmatist who considers the economic consequences of rules, and would bring along intricate knowledge of EPA’s relations with state regulators. But still, her nomination would likely be seen as a sign of the administration’s commitment to greenhouse gas rules, raising hackles from members of Congress who oppose a government-led response to climate change.

Other names mentioned for the top EPA post: Kathleen McGinty, former environment secretary of Pennsylvania and former chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality under President Clinton, and Daniel Esty, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Esty, who has also been floated as a possible replacement for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, was instrumental in creating Connecticut’s Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority, which helps finance low-carbon energy.

Whoever Obama picks, though, will likely face a grueling nomination process, as longtime EPA opponents air their grievances. It’s possible the post could stand open for many months, Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at American Progress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told Greenwire earlier this year.

“Barack Obama could appoint Mitt Romney to be EPA administrator,” Weiss said, “and he would have a difficult confirmation process.”