LISA JACKSON, the outgoing administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, stood up to intense industry pressure in announcing that carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to global warming should be viewed as pollutants, and thus subject to regulation by her office. Her finding did not lead to a blanket rule demanding the reduction of carbon emissions in power plants and other factories, an outcome that President Obama, among others, clearly felt would harm the economy. But her decision at least established the possibility of greater carbon regulations in the future, and arguably set the stage for one of Obama’s great achievements: Setting new emission standards for vehicles, doubling fuel efficiency in the coming years to 54.5 miles per gallon.
While there were other times when having an avowed environmentalist as EPA administrator chafed the White House — including Obama’s decision to delay Jackson’s proposed new anti-smog standards for ozone pollution — it was far better to have an activist EPA that could be curbed by the president than one that put political considerations ahead of protecting the environment. In choosing a successor, Obama should look for another official like Jackson, someone who takes the EPA’s core mission deeply to heart.
In addition to ruling that carbon was a pollutant, Jackson issued the first national standards on mercury pollution, put new limits on soot, and launched a host of other initiatives from curbing nutrient pollution in bays to assuring that stimulus funds would go to major toxic cleanups, such as New Bedford Harbor.
That still leaves plenty of major issues for the new administrator to weigh in on: What are the risks of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas? To what extent should coal ash be declared hazardous? What are the environmental implications of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline? Obama originally came into office pledging an unprecedented commitment to the environment, and Jackson was the strongest symbol of it. The most important sign of Obama’s intentions is whether he chooses an equally energetic successor.