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Lisa Jackson Resigns at EPA: What Exactly Did She Accomplish?

This morning, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Chief Administrator Lisa Jackson announced she was stepping down. Big industries will be excited to see her go. Environmental groups will miss having a strong ally. Jackson leaves with cheers and jeers from the same groups that did so when her appointment was announced. Her record helps explain why.

Clean Air and Global Warming

Arguably the most significant programs Jackson heralded are the two new increases to Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. The first one requires cars and light trucks to reach 34.5 mpg (miles per gallon) by 2016. The second raises them to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Collectively, they’re projected to save 13.8 billion gallons of oil and prevent 6.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. That latter part is particularly important when you realize that Jackson also instituted the 2009 endangerment finding. The finding for the first time lists carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases as pollutants that may be regulated under the Clean Air Act — thus justifying actions taken to address global warming.

Most recently, on December 14, the EPA finalized an update to its national air quality standards for harmful fine particle pollution like soot. This was followed on December 21 by the EPA finalizing changes to Clean Air Act standards for boilers and incinerators. Together they will reduce air pollution from mercury, toxic metals, and particle pollution and are projected to prevent upwards of 8,000 premature deaths a year.

But it would be unfair to ignore the one major failure of Jackson’s clean air policies: smog and ozone reduction. In a large reversal from George W. Bush’s EPA Chief Stephen Johnson, Jackson considered the EPA’s acceptable level of 84 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone an atrocity to public health and the EPA’s own science, which argued it was too high. After lobbying and pushing hard for a reduction of the acceptable level to 60 ppb and then rumors of her capitulating to 65 ppb and then 70 ppb upon pushback directly from Obama, himself. Finally, the EPA announced that it wouldn’t change the standards at all much to the dismay of the environmental community. 

Chemical Regulation and Exposure

In 2009, Jackson led the effort to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act. This move shifted the EPA’s focus to address high-concern chemicals and further collect data on widely produced chemicals used in commerce. This included both bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates, two toxic chemicals that were largely found in toys and baby products.

Then in 2011, Jackson established the nation's first-ever Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants. By 2014, mercury and power plants that release mercury will finally be forced to conform to stringent regulations that will help reduce asthma, birth defects, and other ailments. This comes after 24 years of environmental lobbying and two Bush administration terms where the EPA sought to even stall studying the environmental impacts of mercury let alone regulating the chemical.

Jackson also made significant headway in progressing the Superfund program that went largely ignored under the Bush administration. In addition to meeting goals to increase the number of Superfund sites that were contained enough to prevent human exposure to toxic chemicals, in September 2012 the Superfund program released a new strategy to expand and optimize practices that will improve the speed of the efficacy of the program.

What’s Unfinished?

Jackson’s resignation may heavily impact at least two high-profile issues: hydraulic fracturing (fracking) rules, and the fate of the Keystone XL Pipeline. With the U.S. set to lead the world in both oil and natural gas production by 2020, the outcome of these two issues could have enormous influence over the energy agenda for decades.

Fracking, the process of using water and toxic chemicals at high-pressure to release deep-seated oil and gas, is one of the environmental hot topics right now. Many environmentalists have been calling for a fracking ban until the process is proven safe. Jackson sought to demonstrate a link between fracking sites and local groundwater contamination, but had been unable to convincingly do so. Ultimately, new fracking rules were postponed until 2015. Meanwhile, Jackson’s lobbying efforts were effective in convincing the Obama administration to postpone deciding the fate of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would create an oil pipeline from Alaska to Texas, until his next term. The next EPA chief administrator will likely decide the fate of both issues.

Ultimately, Jackson leaves behind a mostly successful record on air pollution and toxics regulation, but her resignation also leaves some lingering questions for the challenges to come in Obama’s second term. With so much more on the line, expect to hear an array of groups lobby the Obama administration hard for a new EPA chief administrator that will be more sympathetic to their respective points of view.

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