Opinion: The Vindication of Lisa Jackson, Embattled EPA Chief

Despite political roadblocks and smoke screens, Jackson scores major victory with new soot rules.

By Michael Catania

In the late summer of 2011, many folks were ready to write off Lisa Jackson, the former New Jersey DEP commissioner tapped by President Obama to head federal EPA at the beginning of his first term.

Following an unusually public White House directive to back off on proposing tough new ozone regulations, many observers began writing her political obituary. Some enviros openly suggested that she had no choice but to resign in protest.

At that time, I and others urged her to stay and to try to parley her good relationship with Obama and her willingness to be a good soldier on ozone issue into some real chits that she could cash in when she needed White House support on other matters.

And that is exactly what the able administrator has just done, announcing a tough new standard for particulate air pollution (soot), this time backed by the White House.

But this is much more than another comeback story. By any reckoning, it is a major environmental victory at a time when such wins are few and far between. It is also the most significant air pollution and public health advance in many years.

Let’s put this into perspective. The typical Congressional reaction lately to the recommendations of EPA scientists and outside scientific advisors for costly new regulations has been just shy of book burning. The typical White House response to Tea Party Republicans and a sluggish economy has been to put new initiatives on hold, regardless of how clear and compelling the science is for taking action.

As a result, the political prospects for new environmental regulation have been dimmer in recent years than at almost any time since the first Earth Day in 1970.

So this new proposed new rule is a genuine win for science-based rulemaking. Based on studies that clearly demonstrate a direct link between particulate emissions and serious health issues -- from asthma to heart and lung problems -- scientists recommended that the new standard be set somewhere between 11 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The EPA chose the mean, 12 micrograms, estimating that the new rule would save up to $9 billion a year in medical and healthcare expenses, while costing the regulated community somewhere between $53 million and $350 million annually to comply.

Just as impressive, the new regulation also represents an important victory for the rule of law; the EPA had been under federal court order for some time to reduce the standard in order to better protect public health.

This is clearly a win for the environment, for society, and for the more vulnerable members of our communities. But it is hard not to see it as personal victory for Lisa Jackson, and as an outright vindication of her decision to remain as EPA administrator. No one can seriously think that this rule would have been proposed had she given in to the calls for her to resign last year.

How did Jackson pull this off? First, she resisted the temptation to go out with a bang and blast the White House for leaving her high and dry on the ozone rule. Instead, she chose to remain loyal to her President, to give him the benefit of the doubt, and to keep her powder dry and her options open.

[Michael Catania is a former Deputy Commissioner of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection who served in that position under two Governors and three Commissioners in both Republican and Democratic administrations. He is also the author of many of New Jersey’s landmark environmental laws (including several of the Green Acres Bond Acts) and is currently the President of Conservation Resources, a non-profit conservation intermediary organization. The opinions expressed in this commentary are entirely his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of any other individual or any organization.]

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NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.


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