11.01.11

Obama's Big Green Gun

EPA chief Lisa Jackson won’t apologize for forcing polluting industries to clean up their act.

Alone at the congressional witness table in her nubby black jacket and feathery, leopard-print skirt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson calmly thumbs her briefing book and pours a cup of water. Her cherubic face doesn’t flinch as the Republican onslaught begins.

Even before Jackson is sworn in to testify, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas suggests she’s an “evil genie.” Rep. Brian Bilbray of California accuses her of running the “Economic Destruction Agency.” As the hearing stretches toward three hours, lawmaker after GOP lawmaker seizes the mike to portray Jackson as the leading edge of a Democratic effort to destroy the American economy with reckless, job-killing environmental regulations.

No matter how antagonistic the question or the barb, Jackson keeps a low voice and a respectful tone. There are a lot of “no sirs” and “yes ma’ams” from this Ivy League-educated New Orleans native. But don’t expect any apologies for her ambitious anti-pollution agenda.

“Anyone who assumes I’m going to let this one go without the fight of my life is underestimating me,” Jackson tells The Daily Beast when asked about GOP efforts to curtail her agency’s authority to enforce the Clean Air Act, the primary regulatory tool to address air pollutants.

Jackson, the first African-American to head the EPA, has emerged as this administration’s fiercest, and arguably most effective, business bully: a hard-charging eco-warrior unafraid to pick fights with the mostly white, mostly male business lobby or use regulatory fiat to do what Congress won’t. (Her efforts to regulate greenhouse gases have already spurred some utilities to consider accelerating the close of old, coal-fired plants.) In many ways, she is the antithesis of President Obama’s aloof, pointy headed image as compromiser-in-chief.

Even in this town, she observes, “one-on-one, very few people can really be mean to you.” But those who confuse friendliness with weakness are misreading Jackson.

The smiley, 49-year-old mother of two may seem an unlikely chief antagonist of America’s industrial polluters and the designated punching bag for their Republican allies in Congress. But Jackson has very clear ideas about what should be done to protect public health, at time outpacing even her administration colleagues.

Cut back greenhouse emissions? Check. Compel old coal-burning power plants to clean up their mercury emissions? On it. Take on water pollution from strip mining? In progress, despite political opposition in West Virginia. Toughen ozone pollution standards? Well under way until her boss, President Obama, ordered her to stand down. And for the past year, Jackson’s EPA has been pushing back against efforts by Hillary Clinton’s team at the State Department to bring oil sands crude from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.

In a city where political murkiness and obfuscation often reign, Jackson’s positions are as clear as a glass of spring water.

“I think her aggressiveness has really been unprecedented when you consider the regulations she’s put out just this year,” says Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), a key antagonist on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Jackson’s numbers indeed stand in dramatic contrast with the more laid-back Bush administration: According to the liberal OMB Watch, her agency issued 42 “significant rules”—those with a price tag upward of $100 million—on air pollution and finalized 30 during Obama’s first 18 months in office, compared with 16 proposed and only six finalized during the same period under Bush.

But in an era of political meanness and vendetta, Jackson also stands as a rare model of politeness in the often uncivil debate over climate change and the economic consequences of regulating the environment and protecting public health.

“I’ve always liked her,” says Sen. Jim Inhofe, ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and perhaps Congress’s biggest skeptic of the global warming Jackson is trying to curb through clean air regulations. “There’s something about her. She’s very lovable—a very personable person.”

And while the two could not be further apart ideologically, Inhofe respects Jackson’s honesty. “A lot of people in the Clinton and Obama administrations don’t tell you the truth,” he says. “She always does.”

Jackson has even sat down to breakfast a couple of times with Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donahue, one of her agency’s chief antagonists. The administrator says she’s told Donahue “to his face” that this long-standing tango in which “the EPA does something and the Chamber comes out against it” serves no one well.

“There must be more enlightened conversations to have,” she says with evident frustration. “On the other hand,” she smiles, “he’s fun to have a meal with.”

Not even Jackson’s harshest detractors question her qualifications for the job.

With a B.S. in chemical engineering from Tulane and a master’s in the same from Princeton, Jackson spent 16 years as a staff scientist for EPA, before serving six years as deputy commissioner and then commissioner of New Jersey’s  Department of Environmental Protection. The woman knows her science, and she knows how to take a political punch.

“She took a lot flak from Republicans in New Jersey,” says former Gov. Jon Corzine, her one-time boss.

But even that state’s bare-knuckle politics couldn’t fully prepare Jackson for what awaited her when she took over as Obama’s top environmental cop in 2009.

“I can’t say that I understood what it was going to be entirely,” she admits, kicking back in a hotel room in late September after a day of speeches, press conferences, and site tours that started in Chicago and wound its way north to Milwaukee. “I thought that I had sort of seen rough and tumble,” she says. “But, in my mind, this is more partisan.”

A glass of pinot grigio at her elbow and the TV tuned to a recap of the previous night’s Emmys, Jackson sighs to recall how quickly the optimism surrounding Obama’s presidency fell to partisan nastiness.

“I think there’s been any amount of people who are disappointed and maybe a little surprised at how quickly the climate—bad word—but the atmosphere—bad word—of the place kind of changed around,” she says. “It has taken a while for people to realize that the atmosphere on the Hill is not conducive to getting anything done there.”

Undeterred, Jackson is not shy about using executive powers to get the job done. Under her command, EPA has issued the first new sulfur-dioxide standards in 40 years, pushed for tighter limits on emissions from industrial boilers, begun the first regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, and dramatically raised fuel efficiency standards for both passenger vehicles (54.5 mpg by 2025) and the trucking industry.

The courts have backed her up, especially on the issue of regulating greenhouse gases as a matter of public health. Even the conservative-leaning Supreme Court sided with the EPA.

The more Jackson pushes, the quicker the counterpunches come. She has been sued countless times by business challenging her regulatory agenda. Both the business lobby and its congressional allies have cast her as a jobs-busting zealot, so consumed with slashing pollution she is willing to destroy entire industries and derail the fragile economic recovery. Since reclaiming the House in the 2010 midterms, thanks in part to its anti-regulatory message, the GOP has used its new investigative powers to unleash a new wave of fury on Jackson and her agency, summoning her to testify 16 times in the past year.

And still the administrator sticks to her message: public health and pollution can be addressed without hurting the economy.

For Jackson, the link between the environment and public health is more than academic. One of her two teenage sons has asthma, a condition that led to some heart-stopping moments when he was young.

“I will never forget how it felt to be in the hospital with my child wondering if he was going to breathe,” she recalls. Even now, hearing a child struggling with that croupy rattle hits her in the gut. “I will never forget that sound.”

Jackson also has raised environmental protection as an issue of racial and economic fairness. The first African-American to head the EPA, Jackson grew up in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. She knows the environmental challenges faced by poor communities, and she has made environmental justice a priority, calling attention to it with a series of bus tours in hard-hit urban and rural areas. She is eager to dispel the notion that the environment is something only rich white folks should care about.

“If our young people and particularly young people of color don’t come to embrace it and have a passion about it, we’re going to lose progress,” she asserts. People laugh when she talks about “spending my time modeling that you can be fly, smart, black, and an environmentalist,” says Jackson, “but it’s important. We have to break through to the next generation.”

To some degree, the firestorm Jackson has faced was to be expected, says one of her most famous predecessors. Even in good economic times, “the people impacted always say the world is coming to an end,” chuckles William Ruckelshaus, who served as the agency’s first chief under President Nixon and then did a return tour under Reagan. During a downturn, notes Ruckelshaus, things get downright ugly. “People who are opposed to what the EPA is doing can paint it as the environment versus the economy.”

This summer, however, Jackson ran headfirst into a more surprising obstacle: her own boss. Facing fierce opposition from GOP lawmakers and the business lobby regarding Jackson’s efforts to tighten ozone emissions, Obama ordered the plan shelved. It was a stinging defeat for the administrator and stoked speculation about her departure.

Jackson and her staff spent the next several weeks pushing back against the rumors.

“I’m a big girl,” she tells The Daily Beast. “I try not to be overly emotional. I understood and understand today and respect the decision that the president made. I’ve moved on, and part of the reason is that the pressures of the day have moved on.”

The day after Jackson’s House subcommittee testimony, House Republicans passed the TRAIN Act, a bill aimed at gutting EPA’s authority to regulate pollution under the Clean Air Act. In addition to pushing ahead with new regulation, Jackson finds herself defending existing rules from rollback attempts.

The perpetual battle with Republicans and big business might leave one with the impression that Jackson is all fight and no compromise. But her grandest achievement was the result of behind-the-scenes negotiations that resulted in a pair of unprecedented increases in the fuel efficiency of American vehicles. By 2025, the average auto will need to drive 54.5 miles per gallon, nearly double the limit when Obama took office.

The deals required not only beating back political opposition, but critical negotiations with automakers, the Department of Transportation, and various state agencies, most notably the formidable California Air Resources Board. Getting all those groups pulling together was “huge,” marvels Tom Linebarger, president of engine maker Cummins Inc., who notes that “government departments are historically not that good at finding common ground on these things.”

Sociability is part of Jackson’s nature. “She has a wonderful Southern charm,” says Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, a friend and fellow Louisianan.

It is also smart politics. “One of my sort of mantras from the beginning of my career is that we can’t stop talking to each other,” Jackson says. Even in this town, she observes, “one-on-one, very few people can really be mean to you.”

But those who confuse friendliness with weakness are misreading Jackson.

Case in point: In mid-September, the Texas power company Luminant announced that it was closing multiple facilities in response to air pollution rules being proposed by EPA. Word around the state and in the business press, however, was that Luminant had been in bad financial shape for years, for reasons unrelated to regulatory burdens.

Aware of the company’s PR plans, Jackson and her people put together a mini war room. A handful of staffers were assigned to track every statement issued by Luminant—both in the press and on the web site the company had set up to fight the rule—and issue a point-by-point response. Similarly, during Jackson’s subcommittee appearance, when Rep. Barton cited Luminant as a victim of EPA overreach, the administrator came back at him with details of the company’s troubled history.

“We are determined to put the facts out there,” Jackson asserts. “People or institutions that think they can win the skirmish by putting forth bad information, we’re going to put forth the correct information.”

Jackson seems set on sticking around for more of the battles—despite the looming presidential election promising to make the political climate ever trickier.

“We’re going to have to fight,” she says of upcoming regulatory issues. “But I don’t think we’ll be fighting with the president or his White House.”