EPA Chief Lisa Jackson’s Not Done Yet

by Bill Chameides | December 8th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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When Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, visited Duke this week as the 2011 Distinguished Lecturer on Environment and Society, her emphasis was on conversation. (Duke Photography)

She’s got clean air and water in mind.

As Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, though water is more critical to human survival, diamonds are more valuable. This so-called paradox of value helps explain our propensity to focus on the economy over the environment. But that may be a foolish choice: the state of the environment can profoundly affect every facet of our lives, including the economy. And that’s not just in the case of high-profile challenges like climate change. Even environmental events that are locally contained can have global ramifications.

Consider two recent news items. If you’re in the business of making or selling computers, the global shortage of hard drives resulting from Thailand’s recent floods has no doubt affected your livelihood. And if you were traveling internationally this week, you may have been slowed down by a shutdown of operations of the world’s second busiest airport because Beijing had a bad case of air pollution

Because the environment can so profoundly intersect with our everyday lives, the Nicholas School instituted the Environment and Society Lecture Series to bring environmental thought-leaders to Duke to help us understand how these intersections occur and what they mean for our families, communities, and governments. So far, we’ve had former Vice President Al Gore and energy guru Amory Lovins. On Tuesday, Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, joined the esteemed ranks.

A Challenging Time to Head EPA

Agree or disagree with her policies, you’d be hard-pressed not to admit that her tenure as EPA chief has been unusually rocky, tasked, as she is, with administering our nation’s environmental laws in the midst of a highly partisan (some might say toxic) political environment, and with purse strings tied to a confrontational (some might say hostile) Congress.

On Tuesday Jackson shared an illustrative factoid: The House of Representatives, under Republican leadership, has voted 170 times this session against environmental protections — that’s roughly one vote for each day the 112th Congress has been in session. I would bet that no other Congress in EPA’s 41-year history came even close to matching that record. I’d also wager that that number of 170 will rise in the coming months.

Not surprisingly, Administrator Jackson believes these votes are misguided and premised on a myth: the myth that EPA regulations weaken our economy and that wiping them out will create jobs. Riffing on an economic colloquialism, she calls this the “too dirty to fail” premise, and highlighted statistics and reports that show it’s a losing proposition. To add fuel to her non-partisan fire, Jackson quoted Bruce Bartlett, an economist in the Reagan administration, who bluntly debunked the well-publicized regulation-job myth with: ”It’s just nonsense, it’s just made up.”

Jackson’s Visit Emphasized Discussion and Student Interaction

EPA chief Lisa Jackson lunched with some students and faculty. (Duke Photography)

In accepting our invitation, Jackson had one main request: She wanted her visit to include lots of student interaction and conversation. We tried to comply during her four hours on Duke’s campus.

The visit began with a roundtable discussion over lunch with about 15 graduate and undergraduate students and a few faculty. Following this wide-ranging, off-the-record chat, Jackson delivered her public lecture but in something of an unusual format. Speaking for about 20 minutes, she spent the remaining time answering questions, making for a kind of town hall meeting.

One memorable question from the Q&A session sought to know how the agency would respond to potential lawsuits opposing the administration’s decision to not tighten the air quality standard for ozone. It had to be an uncomfortable moment for Jackson as that decision was reportedly made by the president against her own recommendations (see here and here). Yet, as would be expected from a Cabinet member, she showed diplomacy and restraint in her response and expressed great pleasure and pride in the fact that the tough question came from a former EPA worker.

“Ozone standards are … supposed to be reviewed every five years,” she began. “In making the determination to wait until 2013 for the next review, the president looked at the very real fact that … the new science on ozone is going to start to be … in the public domain as early as next year. … In the meantime EPA has to implement the current standard, which is 75 parts per billion.” She went on to say that the current standard could change in 2013. (See her full response about 53 minutes into the video.)

On Meeting Administrator Jackson

EPA Administrator Jackson spent about four hours at Duke, meeting with students, touring the campus, and discussing the challenges of heading EPA in the current climate. (Duke Photography)

Popular impressions of Jackson point to the influence and importance of the Louisiana native who graduated from Tulane University before earning a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Princeton. A dear friend of mine, but one who is not exactly a like-minded one, has referred to her as “the second most powerful person in the United States because she makes the rules” (he did not mean this as a compliment).

But if power is her prowess, her persona is pretty low-key and approachable — very relaxed in a New Orleans sort of way. When I asked her how she keeps such an easy-going, friendly outlook with all the rancor swirling around, she pointed to two things:

  • She is hopeful about the future and has high expectations for benefits the current batch of regulations will bring to Americans’ quality of life.
  • She also believes that, although the political pendulum has recently swung away from supporting EPA’s mission, it will swing back sooner rather than later. She pointed to the numerous polls showing that a major
    ity of Americans and even Republicans support EPA’s efforts to safeguard our health, water and air and so, she believes, it’s just a matter of time.

And the subject of time was where she began her remarks at the town hall — with a quick review of EPA’s beginnings. EPA came about, she said, because “back then American people from all walks of life stood up to demand a new mechanism for preventing pollution. They didn’t do it because pollution was far away; they did it because it was right there in their faces, sometimes in their noses, in front of their eyes.” The challenge before us now, she later opined, is to educate people about the less visible but still risky pollution to which Americans are still exposed.

At the end of her visit, as we said our good-byes, Jackson got into her car and waved. As the car left the curb I saw Jackson turn her attention away from us and to her cell phone. No doubt catching up with her e-mails in preparation for getting back to the challenges of the pressure-cooker that is life inside the Beltway.

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