Will Lisa Jackson stay or go if Obama wins Tuesday?

As head of one of the government's most politically divisive agencies, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has seen her photo splashed across campaign billboards and television spots as an enemy to everyone from coal miners to Rust Belt manufacturers.

And she has visited Capitol Hill so frequently to defend EPA's actions before Republican-led House committees that Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) suggested early on that she get her own parking space.

So with all that Jackson's gone through in President Obama's first term, will she stay if he is re-elected? It's anybody's guess right now.

"If I were her, I'd be probably tired at this point after four years on the job and want a change," said Frank O'Donnell, president of nonprofit Clean Air Watch.

But others say Jackson's pluck will keep her at EPA if Obama wins Tuesday.


Frank Maisano of the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani maintains Jackson would stick around. After the election, he said, the White House would let EPA complete regulations for ozone, sulfur from fuels, coal ash and other issues it failed to complete in the first term. EPA's air pollution standards for ozone, the main ingredient in smog, were scrapped by the White House last year. And the agency has not completed the so-called Tier 3 rule for sulfur in gasoline, a process that some environmentalists fear might have been delayed to satisfy petroleum interests (EnergyWire, Oct. 2).

"It's not often that EPA loses a rule mysteriously, and they've done that here with a bunch," Maisano said. "I think they'll feel like they've been freed up to do things that they wanted to do in the first term but haven't been able to do in terms of politics or whatever."

The Obama administration has also asked a federal appeals court to reconsider its decision to throw out a new rule for smog- and soot-forming emissions that cross state lines, which would otherwise have to be replaced by whoever is in office next year. And then there are the yet-to-be-crafted greenhouse gas rules for existing power plants and oil refineries that EPA has agreed to write under the terms of a settlement agreement with environmentalists, and future carbon rules for other sectors.

"If your definition of fun is solving tough problems, there's a lot of fun coming up in this next term," said Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach for the Center on Climate and Energy Solutions. "That may be the kind of thing that entices her to stay as well."

Environmental policy experts say Jackson has earned a second term for facilitating thoughtful rulemaking processes and defending their products. And they note that there is precedent for it; Clinton's EPA administrator, Carol Browner, served for eight years.

"We didn't have a lot of turnover," said Felicia Marcus, a former EPA regional administrator who is now a member of California's State Water Resources Control Board. Administrations that are committed to the mission of an agency like EPA tend to try to limit the lag time that comes with changing their staff roster, she said.

"It really takes two terms to get something done substantially," she said.

Confirmation 'could be bloody and lengthy'

Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at American Progress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said Jackson "has done a masterful job in developing public health safeguards for air pollution, which languished for eight years" under President George W. Bush.

"Optimally, Administrator Jackson would continue in that role in a second term," he added. "That would allow her and her team to continue the progress they've made without interruptions."

There could be another reason to avoid a changing of the guard, he said.

"If there is a new EPA administrator in a second Obama term," he said, "the confirmation process could be bloody and lengthy, regardless of who controls the Senate."

Jackson's 2009 confirmation was delayed by a few days while Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) sought additional information about the role that Browner -- whom Obama picked to be his climate and energy adviser -- would play in the new administration. Four years of heightened rhetoric on EPA and a more narrowly divided Senate make it likely that any new Obama appointee would face a far tougher confirmation process than the one Jackson experienced four years ago.

Bill Becker, executive director at the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said the Obama White House might choose a moderate Republican nominee as a way of defusing some of the partisanship surrounding EPA policies.

But Weiss said it would matter very little who is nominated. "Barack Obama could appoint Mitt Romney to be EPA administrator, and he would have a difficult confirmation process," he said.

Republicans would feel little pressure to confirm someone to replace Jackson at the helm of an agency that they have so sharply criticized, he said, and the post could stand open for months.

"So, the administration would have an interest in trying to convince her to stay," Weiss said.

Asked whether Jackson might leave because the White House has intervened in the ozone rule and other matters she cares about, Roy said that was unlikely.

"She understands how politics works," he said. "It seems to me that anybody who takes one of these jobs has to understand that they'll never be able to do everything that they absolutely want to do, and that it's always a question of the art of the possible."

If Jackson opts not to sign on for a second term, there will be intense interest on whom Obama picks to replace her.

"The type of person the administration selected should Jackson decide to leave would indicate the philosophical and political bent of the White House view of EPA going forward," said Paul Bledsoe, a consultant who has worked on energy issues on Capitol Hill and in the Clinton administration.

If the White House fields a candidate with a business background, he said, that may indicate an interest in approaching rules from a market-based perspective. But he said that no matter who the White House offers up, there is no way to insulate EPA from controversy altogether.

"No matter who they chose, that position is going to be highly politicized by elements on both sides," Bledsoe said. "They are going to draw fire from the right almost no matter who they choose, and they may well draw fire from the left."

Possible replacements

Becker said that if the president wants to court Republicans, he might float a nominee who is more of a career bureaucrat who has a history of working with industry groups. If the president wants to reprise his first-term efforts to enact more comprehensive legislation or to make stringent regulation a centerpiece of his last four years, he said, "that might dictate a different type of person."

Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe is viewed by observers as perhaps the least controversial option to replace Jackson. EPA's second in command is seen as more of a career staffer than a political operative, and he served in turn as EPA's chief for air quality and water issues during the Clinton administration. He has held the top public works post in Baltimore and the top environmental post in Maryland.

Marcus, who worked at EPA with Perciasepe during the Clinton administration, called him a practical problem solver. His time working on capital projects in Baltimore means "he knows how to fill a pothole," she said.

"He arguably is the most qualified person in the country for the job, based on his experience and knowledge," Clean Air Watch's O'Donnell said. "I doubt even the industry groups would oppose him."

Another frequently mentioned name is that of California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, whom Marcus called a "state treasure." Nichols served as EPA air chief during the Clinton administration and was an architect of California's air and climate policy programs.

"She has a history in California on air quality that goes back, if not to the beginning, pretty darn close to the beginning," Marcus said.

Marcus and others described Nichols as a pragmatist who considers the economic consequences of rules, but there is little doubt that if Obama nominates the head of the nation's largest greenhouse gas regulatory program he will raise the hackles of members of Congress who oppose a mandatory response to climate change.

Asked whether the nomination of her former EPA colleague would signal Obama's intent to double down on carbon policy in the second term, Marcus said, "Maybe."

But Marcus added that Nichols offers more than just unique expertise crafting and implementing greenhouse gas programs.

"I wouldn't limit her to carbon. So if you're going to say she's a carbon signal, you're minimizing the full breadth of her skill," she said. Among other things, Marcus said, Nichols would bring an understanding of how EPA collaborates with state governments.

Another possible contender is the current assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, Gina McCarthy.

McCarthy once served as a senior environmental official for Massachusetts under Obama's opponent, then-Gov. Mitt Romney, when the Republican championed the commonwealth's involvement in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative trading system.

She later headed Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection.

"She's a committed public servant," said Rob Sargent, energy program director of Environment America, who worked as a state-level advocate in Massachusetts during McCarthy's tenure there.

Other names mentioned for the top EPA post: former Pennsylvania environment secretary and former Clinton Council on Environmental Quality director, Kathleen McGinty, and Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty.

Esty, who has also been floated as a possible replacement for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, was instrumental in creating Connecticut's Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority, which helps finance low-carbon energy.

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Request a trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines