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Opinion: The Vindication of Lisa Jackson, Embattled EPA Chief

Despite political roadblocks and smoke screens, Jackson scores major victory with new soot rules.

In the late summer of 2011, many folks were ready to write off Lisa Jackson, the former New Jersey DEP commissioner tapped by President Obama to head federal EPA at the beginning of his first term. Following an unusually public White House directive to back off on proposing tough new ozone regulations, many observers began writing her political obituary. Some enviros openly suggested that she had no choice but to resign in protest.

At that time, I and others urged her to stay and to try to parley her good relationship with Obama and her willingness to be a good soldier on ozone issue into some real chits that she could cash in when she needed White House support on other matters.

And that is exactly what the able administrator has just done, announcing a tough new standard for particulate air pollution (soot), this time backed by the White House.

But this is much more than another comeback story. By any reckoning, it is a major environmental victory at a time when such wins are few and far between. It is also the most significant air pollution and public health advance in many years.

Let’s put this into perspective. The typical Congressional reaction lately to the recommendations of EPA scientists and outside scientific advisors for costly new regulations has been just shy of book burning. The typical White House response to Tea Party Republicans and a sluggish economy has been to put new initiatives on hold, regardless of how clear and compelling the science is for taking action.

As a result, the political prospects for new environmental regulation have been dimmer in recent years than at almost any time since the first Earth Day in 1970.

So this new proposed new rule is a genuine win for science-based rulemaking. Based on studies that clearly demonstrate a direct link between particulate emissions and serious health issues -- from asthma to heart and lung problems -- scientists recommended that the new standard be set somewhere between 11 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The EPA chose the mean, 12 micrograms, estimating that the new rule would save up to $9 billion a year in medical and healthcare expenses, while costing the regulated community somewhere between $53 million and $350 million annually to comply.

Just as impressive, the new regulation also represents an important victory for the rule of law; the EPA had been under federal court order for some time to reduce the standard in order to better protect public health.

This is clearly a win for the environment, for society, and for the more vulnerable members of our communities. But it is hard not to see it as personal victory for Lisa Jackson, and as an outright vindication of her decision to remain as EPA administrator. No one can seriously think that this rule would have been proposed had she given in to the calls for her to resign last year.

How did Jackson pull this off? First, she resisted the temptation to go out with a bang and blast the White House for leaving her high and dry on the ozone rule. Instead, she chose to remain loyal to her President, to give him the benefit of the doubt, and to keep her powder dry and her options open.

Second, she continued to do her job, trudging weekly up to Capitol Hill for endless sessions with cranky conservatives who berated her agency for over-reaching and destroying jobs. Watching her at any number of these hearings, she serenely confronted her tormentors, remaining professional and personable under withering attack. It's what we call “taking one for the team” -- and then some.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she let her staff and outside scientific advisors do their jobs, reviewing epidemiological studies, crunching cost-benefit numbers, and building the case for the new rule.

This is not to say that adopting the new rule is going to be a piece of cake. Already, the usual industrial lobbyists and their allies in Congress have protested. And maybe it is just me, but it seems as if even these folks are less than wholehearted in their opposition this time around. I guess they know that in this round, Lisa Jackson has a recently re-elected President -- not to mention science, the public health, the federal courts, and commonsense -- on her side.
I suspect that we will all be able to breathe a bit easier as a result.

I have no idea how much longer Lisa Jackson will agree to remain as EPA Administrator. It's not an easy job to do for four years, much less eight. But whether she announces that she is leaving tomorrow or stays for the next four years, you have to admire this tough-as- nails woman who took everything that the good old boys had to dish out, and still found a way to do what needed. I can only hope that is half as satisfying for her as it is for me.

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