Lisa Jackson and the coming fight for America’s environment


With President Obama’s second term less than three weeks away, there’s been a lot of focus on a slew of high-profile cabinet picks, such as Sen. John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. But there’s another transition that’s received a lot less attention in the flood of year-end news — even though its importance cannot be understated.

Lisa Jackson has announced her departure as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and the future of fracking in America, of the Keystone XL pipeline and other schemes to increase our dependence on foreign oil, and of how seriously we treat the looming crisis of climate change all depend very much on who gets picked as her replacement for the next four years.

Here on the Gulf Coast, we’ve watched Jackson over the course of Obama’s first term with very mixed feelings. We took a certain amount of pride in the success of a native daughter; Jackson grew up in the Pontchatrain Park section of New Orleans, was valedictorian of Saint Mary’s Dominican High School and earned her undergraduate degree at Tulane before heading off to New Jersey, where she became that state’s top environmental official. When the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe struck roughly as year after she was tapped to run the EPA, there was relief that someone with such deep roots on the Gulf Coast was on the case.

But the results were not always what we hoped for. EPA first allowed the widespread use of the toxic dispersant Corexit, then ordered its use curtailed some six weeks into the spill — but its order was routinely ignored by BP and the Coast Guard. Local environmental activists who met with Jackson said she was responsive and promised to be helpful, but when they visited the spill response center it seemed clear that it was BP — the company that caused the massive disaster — that was calling the shots, and not the EPA, which is tasked with regulating the industry.

That seemed an apt metaphor for the broader environmental legacy of Jackson’s EPA and the first Obama term. Unlike previous GOP administrations, Washington listened to environmentalists and seemed to share our concerns, but positive actions were rare. Key decisions on issues such as fracking regulations were punted to the second term, and nothing was done at all regarding global warming, with the White House more willing to point the finger of blame at congressional Republicans than to take unilateral action.

When Jackson announced her departure, there was instantly speculation as to the reason why. Republicans in Congress were quick to blame it on the fact that Jackson kept a second email account in the name of her dog, and while we’d agree that government officials should be as open and as transparent as possible, it seems dubious that that’s the main reason. It’s more likely that Jackson shared our frustrations that the Obama administration is not living up to its liberal promise on the environment.

President Obama’s chief environmental official departed in part over her opposition to a controversial plan to pipe oil from Canadian tar sands to Texas refineries, two sources familiar with the situation told BuzzFeed Thursday.

Environmental Protection Administration Administrator Lisa Jackson, who had served as New Jersey’s top environmental official, had been handed a far less ambitious agenda on issues surrounding climate change after opposition from states reliant on burning coal for electricity proved a damaging political issue for Democrats in 2010. The pipeline project, bitterly opposed by environmental activists, was one of environmentalists’ largest disappointments.

Jackson “left as a matter of conscience,” said Jeff Tittel, the director of New Jersey’s Sierra Club chapter and a longtime friend of Jackson’s. The EPA Administrator “has too much principle to support [the pipeline], between the climate impacts of it and the water quality impacts of it.”

President Obama initially delayed Keystone’s progress, but this March authorized the construction of its Southern portion over howls from his former allies in the movement to stop carbon emissions.

This is disturbing news, indeed. The truth is that there’s been two basic moves in the Obama playbook so far when it comes to environmental policy: Kowtowing to industry — as BP sought to evade its responsibility for the environmental carnage in the Gulf, or while the fracking boom has spread unabated across the American heartland — or kicking the can down the road. The good news is there’s still time to craft better policies on the key issues over the next four years.

The biggest fight is going to be over fracking:

The top issue on everyone’s radar right now is fracking,” Don Elliott, a former EPA official who is a lawyer and professor at Yale Law School, said in an interview. “How EPA weighs in on it is very important.”

On the one hand, the glut of natural gas has allowed power plants to shift away from dirtier coal-fueled production; on the other, local activists and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club complain that gas production is fouling the water, triggering earthquakes, and even causing global warming from the methane emissions that escape during production and transport.

EPA’s study on the impact of fracking on drinking water is scheduled for release in 2014. Analysts say it could lead Congress to rewrite federal rules for the oversight of the practice or the agency to issue further regulations. Fracking is now primarily overseen by state regulators.

Indeed, for the hoopla about the looming changes at the Pentagon or the State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom, the decisions faced by EPA will be some of the toughest of the new term. In addition to fracking, the agency may look for ways to regulate greenhouse gases, since Congress seems unwilling or unable to enact cap-and-trade legislation or any other measures to deal with climate change. Likewise, there will hopefully be a second shot at another dream deferred from Obama’s first term, which is greater federal aid for alternative energy sources such as solar or wind.

It’s quite clear that two things need to happen in the wake of Jackson’s departure. For starters, we need another visionary with the same commitment to reducing our addiction to fossil fuels and not increasing it, a fighter for the little guy and not for Big Oil and Gas. But that person is also going to need support from on high — especially from President Obama.

Freed from the pressures of seeking re-election, the president needs to be that advocate for a cleaner future that he promised us he’d be in 2008. I do not believe that’s an unrealistic dream — but it’s going to require help…from us, the people. We need to remind the White House — day in and day out — that America’s not-loud-enough majority doesn’t want the risky Keystone XL pipeline crossing our aquifers, but it does want strict safety rules on fracking and a government that will do something about global warming in the name of future generations.

But Step One is getting the right person at EPA. We’ll be on the case.

For more background on Lisa Jackson and her biography, please read:

To read about Jackson ordering BP to curtail its use of toxic Corexit in the Gulf, please read:

To learn more from Buzzfeed about Jackson’s discontent over the Keystone Pipeline, please read:

For a preview of the fracking fight and other issues before the next EPA administrator, please go to:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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