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EPA head Lisa Jackson to step down

NEW YORK — Lisa P. Jackson is stepping down as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency after a four-year tenure that began with high hopes of sweeping action to address climate change and other environmental ills but ended with a series of rear-guard actions to defend the agency against challenges from industry, Republicans in Congress, and, at times, the Obama White House.

Jackson, 50, told President Obama shortly after his reelection in November that she wanted to leave the administration early next year. She informed the EPA staff of her decision Thursday morning and issued a brief statement saying that she was confident ‘‘the ship is sailing in the right direction.’’

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She has not said what she intends to do after leaving government and no successor was immediately named, although it is expected that Robert Perciasepe, the EPA deputy administrator, will take over at least temporarily.

Jackson’s departure comes as many in the environmental movement are questioning Obama’s commitment to dealing with climate change and other environmental problems. After his reelection, and a campaign in which global warming was barely mentioned by either candidate, Obama said his first priority would be jobs and the economy, and that he intended only to foster a ‘‘conversation’’ on climate change in the coming months.

That ambivalence is a far cry from the hopes that accompanied his early months in office, when he identified climate change as one of humanity’s defining challenges. Obama put the White House’s full lobbying power behind a House cap-and-trade bill that would have limited climate-altering emissions and brought profound changes in how the nation produces and consumes energy.

But after the effort stalled in the Senate, the administration abandoned broad-scale climate change efforts, instead focusing on smaller regulatory actions largely though the Clean Air Act.

White House and EPA officials said Jackson’s decision to step down was her own and the timing had been negotiated with the White House.

Obama praised her in a statement, calling her ‘‘an important part of my team.’’

‘‘Over the last four years, Lisa Jackson has shown an unwavering commitment to the health of our families and our children,’’ the president said. ‘‘Under her 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.’’

After Republicans seized control of the House in 2010, Jackson became a favored target of the new Republican majority’s aversion to what it termed ‘‘job-killing regulations.’’ One coal industry official accused her of waging ‘‘regulatory jihad,’’ and she was summoned to testify before hostile House committees dozens of times in 2011. She was frequently subjected to harsh questioning that at times bordered on the disrespectful.

Jackson, the first African-American to head the EPA, brushed off that treatment as part of the territory and a reflection of the new partisan reality in Washington. More difficult for her was the lack of support she received at times from environmental groups, who saw every compromise as a betrayal, and from the White House, which was trying to balance worries about the economy and the president’s reelection campaign against the perceived costs of tough environmental policies.

Despite a number of disappointments, however, Jackson has achieved some notable firsts, including the finding that carbon dioxide and five other gases that contribute to global warming meet the definition of pollutants under the Clean Air Act. That so-called endangerment finding, which has survived federal court challenges from industry, allowed the agency to negotiate strict new emissions standards for cars and light trucks, the first time the federal government has limited global warming pollution.

Jackson, a native of New Orleans who holds chemical engineering degrees from Tulane University and Princeton, has spent most of her professional career at the EPA. She led the Department of Environmental Protection in New Jersey from 2006 to 2008 under Jon S. Corzine, then governor, who named her his chief of staff in late 2008, shortly before Obama chose her to head the federal environmental agency.

This month, the EPA’s inspector general, prodded by Republicans in Congress, announced that he was opening an inquiry into Jackson’s use of a secondary e-mail account to conduct business inside the agency. Jackson has said she used the second account because her public e-mail address was widely known and that her e-mail alias — ‘‘Richard Windsor’’ — derived from the name of her dog and her former home in Windsor Township, N.J.

It is not known when the inquiry will be completed.

In a brief interview Wednesday evening, Jackson said she hoped to decompress after four intense years running the EPA, which has 17,000 employees and an $8 billion annual budget. She said she would probably do some consulting and public speaking but has not begun looking for a new job. She is thought to be a candidate for the presidency of Princeton.

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