Lisa Jackson: The New Head of the EPA

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Stew Milne / AP

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, left, greets members of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

As the first African-American head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lisa Jackson is already a historic figure. Yet, it's her response to the threat of climate change that will ultimately decide her legacy. On April 17, Jackson's EPA issued an endangerment finding on greenhouse gases, concluding that carbon dioxide and other emissions posed a threat to public health and welfare. That potentially opens the door for the EPA to directly regulate greenhouse gases, which would represent the most far-reaching action in the agency's history. Jackson spoke with TIME's Bryan Walsh about the endangerment finding, balancing climate change action with Congress and why global warming isn't the only environmental issue on her plate.

I think it may surprise many people that the EPA is just now coming out and saying that greenhouse gases are dangerous. How important is the endangerment finding?

What makes this important is that this is the first time the U.S. government is speaking on the science of greenhouse gases and their potential to impact welfare and public health as well. This is a proposal to meet our responsibility. EPA has had an obligation to do this for over two years.(See the top 10 green stories of 2008.)

Both you and President Obama have said they would much prefer for Congress to take the lead on dealing with climate change — most likely through passing some kind of carbon cap and trade bill — as opposed to having the EPA act on its own. Why is that?

I want the legislation for a number of reasons. The first is that if you look at the discussion draft circulating in Congress [on cap and trade], it allows energy and climate to be considered together, and it allows an economy-wide approach to the climate issue in the context of renewable energy and energy efficiency. I think the legislative process is about allowing for the concerns that different regions of the country have because of their dependence on [carbon intensive] coal. Coal is still 50% of our electricity portfolio right now, and there are concerns about how to make sure that, especially at this time, the energy agenda moves us forward. All of these things can't happen easily through a regulatory dialogue no matter how open we make the process because those issues fall outside the Clean Air Act. (See who's who in Obama's White House.)

The Administration and Congress have to juggle a lot of priorities right now. What happens if Congress drags its feet on cap and trade and we don't see it passed in the near future? Is there any way regulation could step in if greenhouse gases really are a direct threat to public health and welfare?

You rightly point out that the findings obligate the EPA to regulate those pollutants. It is right to say that regulation is not off the table. The only way to take regulation off the table is with legislation that addresses greenhouse gases. And despite the characterization elsewhere, we are not looking to regulate wildly. I do think that you can regulate in a thoughtful fashion. But I would also be willing to bet that those regulations, when proposed, would be subject to all manner of lawsuits.

Should this move be seen as a bit of a prod toward Congress? As if EPA were saying: "We want you to act, but if you don't, we are obligated to take action ourselves?"

No. I can't say how other people will see it but EPA acts independently of Congress. The important thing to remember about the endangerment are that there are two signposts that compel the EPA to act. The first is the Supreme Court decision [Massachusetts vs. EPA]. The dispute over whether the Clean Air Act should be used to regulate greenhouse gases was settled by the highest court in the land. The court ruled over two years ago that EPA should determine whether or not greenhouse gases meet the test for criteria pollutants, whether they endanger public health and welfare. For two years the EPA has been compelled to act and for two years the EPA thumbed its nose at the Supreme Court. The other guardrail is the science, and in between [those two] is the road the EPA has to walk. The science on whether or not these gases are pollutants is clear. As the endangerment finding says, in both magnitude and probability climate change is an enormous problem. The way to change the road is to change one of those guideposts. People tend to think we're trying to compel folks, but we're just trying to do our job.

As you say, we don't want to move too fast. But at the same time science seems to indicate that if we don't cut emissions soon we could find ourselves passing a tipping point.

There is a sense of urgency. Clearly the science says that we are approaching a point where if we wait, things will get that much worse. But there is a bigger picture here that I think is really important to focus on. There are strong indications that our own industries and industries around the world see clean energy and the green economy as an enormous business opportunity, the next big thing for the economy. If we don't move to address energy and climate as two side of the same coin we will lose out. Our economy will lose those jobs to countries that are moving ahead. The clean energy revolution is coming.

You've said that under President Obama, the EPA is "back on the job." What does that mean practically? How will you show that your agency is different from the one we lived under for eight years?

I want to show that in a number of ways. The EPA is much broader than climate, though that's clearly an important issue. We have to get back to the basics. The Clean Air Act means that we have an obligation to address air pollution in this country, and we still have some significant challenges there. The Clean Water Act means we need clean water, and right now there are parts of the country where the water isn't getting cleaner, where people rightfully don't know who to turn to in terms of the chemicals that are used here, whether they are safe. So we have all that work to do. I Want my tenure to show a more activist EPA.

You're the first African-American head of the EPA. Environmentalism is often thought of as a concern for a narrow, well-off elite. How do you want to change that perception and broaden the green tent?

That's exactly how I would put it. This is moment when the face of environmentalism is changing. We want people to see the EPA and me and our staff and understand that they don't have to be on a mountaintop with a pristine view to be an environmentalist. You can live in a city. The air you must breathe and the water you must drink should be clean. You have the right to not live next to a polluted brownfield. I am hopeful that these changes are going to happen because young people today are growing up at a time when there is a green revolution underway. We can ride that wave at EPA and get a whole wave of young people energized about the environment.

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