Lisa HeinzerlingLisa Heinzerling.Photo: Select CommitteeNews of Lisa Heinzerling’s departure from her position as head of the EPA’s Office of Policy and Planning doesn’t need to mean the winding-down of aggressive action at the EPA.

While Heinzerling, whose role put her in charge of the agency’s economic unit, has no doubt been an important voice within the administration in favor of deeper and faster cuts in carbon, the EPA can and should continue on the path that she helped set. Heinzerling saw historic progress on greenhouse gases during her tenure: Delinquent for two years under George W. Bush, the agency finally responded to the Supreme Court’s Massachusetts vs. EPA decision by submitting its finding that greenhouse gas pollution is in fact a danger to public welfare, setting the stage for regulation under the Clean Air Act. Strong new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards were adopted; greenhouse gas reporting requirements have come into effect, and the EPA is moving forward with standards for power plants and other larger emitters. All this while the agency has cleared a significant backlog of regulations on everything from conventional air pollutants to coal ash, some of which will also lead to greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

This is an incomplete list of the groundbreaking and lasting accomplishments that Heinzerling helped oversee. However, her time at the EPA was self-delineated to two years at the outset — her plan was always to return to her teaching position at Georgetown. It is not necessary that she be replaced by a wilting violet when it comes to climate.

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On the contrary, the Obama administration should replace Heinzerling with someone who also recognizes the urgent environmental and economic case for EPA action on climate change. While some post-midterm-election changes may be looming, science and compliance with the law shouldn’t be one of them. Even as the president referred to the changes in the legislature as a shellacking, he did not shy away from a question about carbon, giving some hope that all progress won’t grind to a halt. No matter what form the path forward will take, regulation will be part of it, and we’ll need another strong voice in Heinzerling’s place.

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The worst case scenario is an unlikely one — that Obama will quit using the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases altogether. Again the remarks he made about the Supreme Court’s ruling in his morning-after-Election-Day press conference suggest a recognition of the need to stand by climate rules. But either way, the administration’s posture will come from the top and is likely to take effect regardless of who fills Heinzerling’s old desk.

Obviously, the dynamic is different now with Election Day 2010 in the rearview and the horse race focus shifting to the 2012 presidential election. But this new political overhang may give Heinzerling’s replacement some unique opportunities for lasting changes of his or her own. With Republicans’ spotlight on the EPA, it will be doubly important to make the economic case that greenhouse gas rules are justified — something Heinzerling’s replacement will need to be well-qualified to do.

So while Heinzerling’s sayonara is a loss, it does not necessarily portend doom and gloom. But for the EPA to continue being effective, it will be essential that her replacement be ready to counter any new wave of science denial or congressional moves to bog the agency down by pointing to the reality that reducing greenhouse gases is the only economically sound course forward.

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