At first blush, Lisa Jackson seems an unlikely target for vitriolic political attacks.
Over the past year, the White House has made a point of putting the head of the Environmental Protection Agency front and center in the public debate over energy, in part because Jackson seems to deflect political fire so well. A respected chemical engineer with a knack for explaining complex science in layman’s terms, and a middle-aged mother who often talks (and sometimes tweets) about her two teenage boys, Jackson has a warm, accessible persona that has endeared her to lawmakers of both parties during her frequent appearances on Capitol Hill. She has even won kind words from Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, the Senate’s loudest climate-change skeptic, who says that he likes Jackson personally even though he disagrees with the Obama administration on global warming and that he respects her work on other environmental fronts.
But in the coming months, Jackson will lead EPA during an unprecedented expansion of environmental and economic regulation, when the agency will be rolling out a host of controls aimed at combating climate change, smog, acid rain, water pollution, and toxic chemical emissions. Far and away, the most controversial of these rules will deal with climate change: Starting in January, EPA will for the first time have the power to clamp down on the carbon emissions that cause climate change and are ubiquitous in the economy, from vehicular tailpipes to power plants to factory smokestacks.
And that has put the agency and its affable chief at the heart of a brewing political storm. On one side: tea party activists and the fossil fuels industry attacking what they label an Orwellian takeover by the environmental agency. On the other: green groups who see Jackson and EPA as the last line of defense in their fight to save the planet from climate change. Caught in the middle are coal-state and Rust Belt Democrats, who are deeply uneasy about the prospects of an EPA with new command-and-control power over their districts’ factories and power plants. As the fight heats up against the backdrop of a struggling economy, people on both sides of the debate say that the battle could become as incendiary as the one over abortion rights.
“The huge challenge EPA faces is, they will be caught in a crossfire between environmentalists turning to them as the saviors of climate action, and groups on the right who want to distort it into their narrative about government and power,” says Joshua Freed, director of the clean-energy program at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank.
Republicans agree and say that their attacks on EPA will come from every flank: legal, political, and legislative. “If the EPA opponents are successful in communicating the idea that Lisa Jackson is stopping construction with the new regulations, she will come under a deluge of attack,” says Jeff Holmstead, an assistant EPA administrator during the George W. Bush administration who lobbies on behalf of the energy industry for Bracewell & Giuliani.
And if Republicans win control of the House in November, that chamber will lead the way, Holmstead says. “In a GOP House, she will become the focus of a lot of oversight hearings and investigations. They can’t bring in the president, but they will bring in Jackson for show trials. She will be a target of the GOP and a hero to her base for standing up to tea party members.” Leading tea party groups are preparing their attacks on Jackson and EPA, set to roll out in concert with the new climate-change rules. The groups have already joined with industry in filing dozens of lawsuits against the rules.
Here’s what those attacks will sound like, predicted Phil Kerpen, vice president of policy at Americans for Prosperity, the tea party activist group founded by oil billionaire David Koch: EPA officials “believe they can regulate everything that moves — and a lot of things that don’t move. This is the first step toward shutting down all construction activity in the U.S. It’s regulatory and bureaucratic overreach the likes of which we’ve never seen in the history of the United States. The sheer scale of what this would entail would be a massive expansion; it would give the EPA a far greater scope than every other agency.”
Coal and oil groups are lining up with—and helping to fund—the tea party in the anti-EPA fight. “There is going to be an aggressive intervention of EPA’s reach into the economy,” says Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association. “Regulating, as they eventually intend to, many sources of greenhouse gases will put them in the position of being like a second economic ministry.” Of Jackson, Popovich says, “She’s been an aggressive administrator — a lot more than someone who’s an executive placeholder. She’s done the administration no favors with labor unions and business. I think that the policies are so conspicuously aimed at industries like ours that it’s prompted some in our industry to say the EPA is declaring war on coal.”
Jackson counters that those accusations are merely a refrain of industry complaints ahead of every new environmental regulation issued over the past 40 years. At a September 14 event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, Jackson took on the assaults against her agency’s soon-to-be-expanded power: “This broken record continues despite the fact that history has proven the doomsayers wrong again and again,” she said.
“True to form, lobbyists have recycled their predictions of job loss and economic catastrophe with regard to each and every one of these actions,” Jackson said, noting that utilities and coal plants also predicted that controls on ozone and acid-rain emissions would cause their industries to collapse. “There have been claims of EPA’s bureaucratic power grabs — despite the fact that our actions are guided by extensive science…. There have been claims about job-killing regulations — despite the fact that cost-effective strategies to reduce air pollution should spark clean-energy innovation and help create green jobs.” Major environmental groups, such as Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, are planning media and lobbying campaigns to defend that message.
All this is complicating things politically for many moderate Democrats, who don’t relish defending the agency’s new power — or alienating the party’s environmental base. Part of the problem is that no one ever wanted this to happen. Since taking office, President Obama has pushed for Congress to take the lead in enacting climate-change legislation, hoping that lawmakers would pass an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill that would cut carbon pollution but also create enough nuanced exceptions and carve-outs for regions and industries to make it politically palatable. Last year, the White House took a calculated gamble to prod Congress to act: Jackson announced that EPA has determined that carbon dioxide is a dangerous pollutant, triggering a legal requirement under the Clean Air Act that the agency would have to regulate it without action from Congress.
To be sure, a 2007 Supreme Court decision obliged the agency to make a ruling on carbon emissions. But Jackson and Obama made clear after last year’s announcement that any enactment of the onerous EPA rules was meant as a backstop — a worst-case scenario should Congress fail to act. In the end, the worst-case scenario will become reality, and it’s hard to find Democrats in Congress who will defend it. In fact, it’s a coal-state Democrat — Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia — who is leading one of the first legislative attacks on the EPA’s power, introducing a bill to delay for two years the agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions.
At a September 15 pro-coal rally on Capitol Hill, Rockefeller told miners that Jackson “doesn’t understand the sensitivities economically of what unemployment means. Her job is relatively simple: Clean everything up; keep it clean; don’t do anything to disturb perfection. Well, you can’t do coal and do that at the same time. God didn’t make coal to be an easy thing to work with.”
Rockefeller’s bill has the backing of many moderate Democrats, including Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who characterized EPA’s move to regulate carbon a power grab by the executive branch. “It wouldn’t surprise me, with the arrogance of the EPA, that [Rockefeller’s bill] is gaining momentum,” Nelson said.
Although both sides agree that the agency’s broader reach will signify a powerful new role for EPA, experts say that for now, it’s hard to know which side is right about just how much the new rules will affect the economy. Under the broadest interpretation of the Clean Air Act, the EPA would regulate every source of carbon emissions—which are produced by nearly every human activity. That interpretation would mean an extreme scenario of EPA control over houses, schools, churches, farms, commercial buildings — the nightmare landscape laid out by EPA’s tea party opponents. To avoid such an outcome, Jackson issued a “tailoring” rule, limiting her agency’s control over carbon emissions to large, industrial sources — coal-fired power plants would be subject to the new rules, but not a coal-burning commercial building.
Experts say that the rule — crafted to thread the needle in controlling a new kind of pollutant — is legally vulnerable, and several groups have filed court challenges. “The amount of control over the economy depends on the tailoring rule. If they keep the tailoring rule and then tell big polluters, ‘You have to do XYZ’ to limit emissions, it will be a sensible way to regulate,” said Holmstead, the former Bush EPA official. “If the tailoring rule is struck down, the result will be so outlandish — the EPA would have to control churches, schools, commercial buildings. And no one, not even EPA, can tell you how it’s going to play out.”
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