Who Will Succeed Lisa Jackson at EPA?

by Bill Chameides | January 24th, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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President Obama has yet to name Lisa P. Jackson’s successor as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Let’s take a look at some possibilities.

First, Assessing Jackson’s Tenure as EPA Head

On December 27, Lisa Jackson announced her resignation as EPA administrator, effective sometime in early 2013. In reviewing her record at EPA, some expressed disappointment that her nearly four-year tenure in the position fell short of the lofty expectations many had for the environment when Obama took the reins of government in 2009.

But others, myself included, don’t buy into that narrative. True enough that environmentalists’ high hopes of passing a comprehensive climate bill were dashed during her tenure. But that legislative train was derailed by the Senate when it failed to respond to the House’s passage of the Waxman-Markey bill. I’m not sure fingers can be pointed at the EPA administrator for that. Others in the administration, yes. Jackson, I don’t think so.

More importantly, once the legislative pathway for addressing climate change was blocked, Jackson very effectively led the charge on Plan B: using EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate the emissions of greenhouse gases. Her work on this actually began straightaway when she took over as EPA chief and led the scientific review (which had languished under Bush’s EPA) to find whether or not greenhouse gases were a threat to human health and welfare. In April 2009, EPA announced its “endangerment finding”: “the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) — in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”  (See my post.)

Her other accomplishments include helping broker a deal with the automobile industry to boost fuel efficiency standards for the nation’s fleet of light duty cars and light-duty trucks to 54.5 mpg by 2025 and proposing new CO2 emission rules on new power plants that will effectively allow no new coal-fired power plants without carbon capture and storage capability.

In Obama’s estimation:

“Under [Jackson’s] leadership, the EPA has taken sensible and important steps to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, including implementing the first national standard for harmful mercury pollution, taking important action to combat climate change under the Clean Air Act, and playing a key role in establishing historic fuel economy standards that will save the average American family thousands of dollars at the pump, while also slashing carbon pollution.”

Who Might Be Tapped to Fill Her Shoes?

In his inaugural address on Monday, Obama pointed to climate change as a key issue in his second term. Since it’s unlikely that  significant legislation can be passed, EPA is where the action will be, and that means, as I pointed out on Tuesday, Obama will need a strong, effective leader to helm EPA.

Quite a few names have been floated on this front. Today I look at five.

Chris Gregoire, Washington State attorney general (1993-2005) and governor of Washington (2005-2013)

Gregoire cut her environmental teeth in 1988 when appointed as the state’s top environmental regulator.

At the end of her tenure as Washington’s governor,  the Washington Environmental Council produced a list of Gregoire’s “top ten environmental achievements” They included getting the state to adopt California’s clean car standards, advancing the cleanup of the Puget Sound, getting toxics such as flame retardants out of consumer products sold in the state, and playing an instrumental role in closing the state’s last coal-fired power plant.

All well and good but the Seattle Post Intelligencer adds this minus to her lists of plusses: Gregoire allied herself with “shipping, agriculture and economic interests in the struggle over what the federal government will be required to do in restoring salmon.“

While speculation continues to swirl about who the actual nominee will be, reported that “according to a very private source,” the president “is about to nominate … Gregoire as the new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” It’s hard to vet the veracity of a very private source, so we’ll have to wait and see. Certainly Gregoire’s administrative experience running a state government has got to be a plus. My question is, is her environmental record strong enough to carry the Adminstration’s climate agenda forward? And there’s a complicating factor: Gregoire name’s has also been floated for Secretary of the Interior.

Bob Perciasepe, deputy administrator of EPA since 2009

Perciasepe has a long track record at EPA, serving as the agency’s top water official  (1993-1998) and top air official (1998-2001) and now as the EPA’s No. 2.

Before his work on the national level, Perciasepe, who has a bachelor degree in environmental science and a masters in planning and public administration, worked in Baltimore’s city planning department (1976-1987) before serving as Maryland’s secretary of environment  (1990 to 1993). From 2001 to 2009, during the Bush II era, Percaisepe worked outside of the federal government, holding top positions at the National Audubon Society, an environmental advocacy group. Shortly after Obama took up residence at 1 Pennsylvania Avenue, Perciasepe returned to EPA, this time as the agency’s deputy administrator.

Called a “key EPA utility player” by the National Journal, Perciasepe is on tap to be the pro tem EPA administrator until the Senate confirms Jackson’s successor.

As for his heading the agency for the long haul? Perciasepe would be a telling choice. There is precedence for a deputy administrator to assume the leadership role at EPA. Most recently Stephen Johnson made the step up during George W. Bush’s 2nd administration. (Clearly Peciasepe’s leadership would be quite different from that of Johnson who opposed any movement on the climate front.) In Perciasepe’ facvor, he would certainly know the ropes at the agency.

But I wonder if he would have the gravitas on the Hill needed to carry out an ambitious agenda. I’ve had a few occasions to interact with Perciasepe while he was heading up EPA’s Air and Radiation office and found him to be knowledgeable, effective and fair-minded. While he seemed tailor-made for the deputy administrator’s role. I frankly never saw him as a candidate for the EPA administrator.

I worry that a choice like Perciasepe might be interpreted to mean that Obama does not expect much to happen at the agency.

Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator for Air and Radiation since 2009

An EPA-insider, McCarthy has built an impressive resume that includes significant work at the federal and state levels and with both Democratic and Republican governors.

After getting a masters in Environmental Health Engineering and Planning and Policy, McCarthy worked at various levels of Massachusetts government from 1980-2004. Starting out as a health agent for the town of Canton, she moved to the state’s Hazardous Waste Facility Site Safety Council during the Dukakis years, then served in Mitt Romney’s administration as a deputy secretary of operation.

Her decades of work show experience with a wide range of environmental issues including hazardous waste, pollution prevention, the preservation of open spaces, farmlands and forests, promoting smart growth and combatting climate change. In “coordinating the policies, programs and investments of the state’s environmental, transportation, energy and housing agencies” during Romney’s administration, McCarthy oversaw the development and initial implementation of the state’s ambitious Climate Action Plan [pdf] and helped develop the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade program for power plant emissions from the New England states that was abandoned by the would-be presidential hopeful Governor Romney at the end of his governorship.

In 2004, McCarthy jumped the Massachusetts ship for Connecticut where, as the state’s commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, she played a significant role in getting the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative up and running.

At EPA since 2009, she has worked closely with Jackson, carrying out “much of the heavy lifting of writing, structuring, and implementing the rules,” according to the National Journal.

Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate policy at the Center for American Progress, says that McCarthy is “quarterback” to Lisa Jackson’s coaching when it comes to rolling out new clean air regulations: “She’s running the plays, improvising on the line,” Weiss told the National Journal.

With that kind of endorsement, one could argue that she would a natural to take the reins from Jackson. I’d mark her down as a serious contender.

Kathleen McGinty, former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection

McGinty is no stranger to Washington, the White House or the climate science community.

Trained as an attorney, she began her career in government as an aide to then Senator Al Gore whom she followed into the Clinton administration in 1993 to first chair the Council on Environmental Quality and then direct the White House Office of Environmental Policy. McGinty left Washington in 1999 for international waters, moving to New Delhi for a year-long fellowship with the Tata Energy Research Institute, a think tank whose director, Rajendra K. Pachauri, is the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

McGinty returned to Washington to work on Gore’s presidential bid, then worked in private equity focusing on the development of clean tech and clean energy. In 2003, she became Pennsylvania’s top environmental official. During her tenure there she put in place alternative energy portfolio standards, and set state mercury standards that were more rigorous than federal ones.

According to the Washington Post, in this capacity “she earned respect from green groups for helping push a rust-belt state to both clean up its polluted air and water, and to move toward renewable energy sources… At the same time, she has also been lauded for her record of working with the industry and utilities in the fourth-largest coal-producing state in the country.”

During her time in the Clinton White House, I had an opportunity to meet McGinty and hear her speak on climate change. Like many of my colleagues at that meeting, I was impressed. She’s smart, very knowledgeable when it comes to science, passionate and hard-charging. I think her appointment would be greeted with enthusiasm by many in the scientific community. And she’s almost certainly got Al Gore in her corner. Perhaps she’s not a frontrunner, but I would not count her out.

Bradley Campbell, commissioner of New Jersey’s Environmental Protection Department (2002 to 2006)

Campbell “currently heads a private law and consulting practice focused on environment, energy, and entrepreneurship in New York, but his résumé does include extensive experience in Washington,” reports Before this, Campbell served as a Mid-Atlantic regional administrator, where he was the chief enforcer for federal environmental laws in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. He was also associate director of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality during the Clinton administration.

And Campbell has at least one very persuasive credit on his resume: He was Jackson’s boss before she left to head the EPA.

Other possibilities

Other possibilities for EPA’s next administrator include Heather Zichal, the White House’s top aide on energy and climate issuesMary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board; Ian Bowles, the former secretary of energy and environmental affairs in Massachusetts and  associate director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality in President Clinton’s White House; and Daniel Esty, the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

So who will it be? One of these? I suspect that no one, not even the president knows yet. And here’s another interesting question to ponder: how long will it take for the administration to make up its mind?

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