Lisa Jackson. Photo: Lauren Victoria Burke / AP

Lisa Jackson.
Photo: Lauren Victoria Burke / AP

Lisa Jackson, Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, got a warm reception from both sides of the aisle at her Wednesday hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, facing little of the tough questioning her critics had hoped for.

In her testimony, Jackson promised that “scientific integrity and the rule of law” would be her guiding principles at the agency. “I understand that the laws leave room for policymakers to make policy judgments,” said Jackson. “But if I am confirmed, political appointees will not compromise the integrity of EPA’s technical experts to advance particular regulatory outcomes.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

She was given an especially warm welcome from Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who called the hearing “a turning point for the EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality.” Boxer has faced off regularly with current EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, who has in the past refused to testify before her committee. “I’m reminded of Sleeping Beauty … who needs to be awakened from a deep and nightmarish sleep,” said Boxer. “I am confident we can wake up the EPA and the CEQ to their critical mission of protecting health and the environment.”

The Republicans on the committee, including climate-change skeptic James Inhofe (Okla.), were also largely complimentary. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) called Jackson “imminently qualified.”

A New Climate

Jackson said her early priorities would include reevaluating California’s request for a waiver to set tougher tailpipe CO2 emission standards and following the Supreme Court’s directives from the Massachusetts v. EPA climate-change decision.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Boxer and other Democratic senators pressed Jackson to say whether she’d issue the waiver for California and the other states that are following its lead, but Jackson said only that she would evaluate the matter. “I will pursue it very aggressively, very soon after confirmation … I will look at the science, and the rule of law,” she said. “While I wouldn’t prejudge it, I will look at those things and make a decision.”

On climate change, Jackson said she would have the EPA declare whether greenhouse gases pose a danger to humankind and need to be regulated — an action mandated by the Supreme Court, but put off by the Bush administration. “When that finding happens, when EPA makes a decision on endangerment, let me put it that way, it will indeed trigger the beginnings of regulation of CO2 for this country,” she said.

Some Republicans on the committee, including Inhofe and John Barrasso (R-Wy.), raised concerns that this might lead the new administration to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Obama’s campaign advisers indicated several months ago that he would do just that if Congress didn’t pass new climate legislation within 18 months.

“I have serious concerns about the timing and troubling implications that further regulation could have on our already fragile economy; those concerns are shared by many across the country,” said Inhofe.

Jackson would not commit one way or the other, though she left the door open to limiting GHG emissions under the Clean Air Act. “Many environmental laws were meant to address the issues of today, but also the issues of tomorrow,” said Jackson. “What I will commit to is seeking to understand each other’s views when it comes to these issues.”

Barrasso raised a concern that GHG regulations might go so far as to charge ranchers for methane emissions from cattle. Jackson sought to allay those concerns, but said that all emissions would be evaluated. “There will need to be a look at the costs to the economy, but also a reasonable look. We will be reasonable, thoughtful, and deliberate when we move toward limiting carbon,” she said. “All industries have the potential to do environmental harm, and what we need to do is to work with them and in some cases regulate them as we begin to address global warming.”

Inhofe suggested that he would prefer climate change be addressed with a carbon tax rather than a cap-and-trade system, and asked Jackson for her views. She emphasized Obama’s previous statements that he prefers the latter.

“A carbon tax alone in isolation does not set a cap, or a long-term goal in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions … I think the goal is reducing emissions,” said Jackson. “I would certainly welcome the conversation … but the president-elect has said a cap-and-trade program is what he would like.”

Inhofe also asked Jackson to read his recent, hour-long speech [PDF] disputing the consensus on climate change, and report her thoughts back to him.

Boxer, speaking to reporters following the hearing, asserted that the EPA has authority under the Clean Air Act to take action against climate change, but said a new law is preferable. “We will never get to where we need to go without a price on carbon,” said Boxer. “If that does not come together within a year’s time, I would expect that the EPA would [use the Clean Air Act].”

Rules of Engagement

Jackson pledged to reevaluate controversial rule changes made during the Bush years on issues like mercury and the Clean Air Interstate Rule. “We certainly can’t change every rule … nor should we,” she said. “But we should look at the rules that are on the books.”

“The EPA is a regulatory agency. That’s its stock and trade, and it should be judged by is its rules,” she said. That means going back and evaluating rules on air and water quality and community right to know, she continued, and “asking yourself questions, are they legal, are they based on science.”

Jackson was asked what she would do about coal ash, in the wake of two recent spills at coal-fired power plants that have drawn national attention to this huge waste problem. Coal-ash ponds are not currently subject to federal regulation, and oversight rules vary by state. Jackson said that if she is confirmed, the agency would immediately begin to assess the hundreds of coal-ash storage sites around the country.

On the issue of perchlorate in drinking water, Jackson said she would commit the EPA “to immediately review the threat to human health.”

Senators bombarded Jackson with requests for her attention — that she visit an asbestos-contaminated site in Montana, that she evaluate air quality around schools, that she see a Superfund site in Oklahoma.

But they asked few questions about controversies from Jackson’s time as head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. It was only near the end of the hearing that Boxer posed a stream of rapid-fire questions about issues in New Jersey.

Concerning mercury poisoning at a preschool operating in a former thermometer factory in the state, Jackson said it “was a tragedy” that she wished had been taken care of sooner, but asserted that her department worked as quickly as possible on the problem, which predated her tenure.

Jackson sought to downplay criticism of moves to privatize toxic-site cleanup in New Jersey, noting that she
would be operating with very different resources and standards at the federal EPA. “I don’t foresee doing that here,” she said.

Some of her fans from New Jersey, including Sierra Club state chapter director Jeff Tittel, were on hand to offer support. “I think she did a very good job [in today’s hearing]. I think many of those concerns were overblown, misguided, and in some cases wrong,” he said. “She’s shown what she’s made of — she’ll be a sensible, no-nonsense person who is an environmentalist at heart.”

In her closing remarks, Jackson cited her work in New Jersey.

“If I am confirmed, I will continue to do that which I have always prided myself on. I would never claim that we’re perfect, but I believe that New Jersey’s environment is better off because of my tenure there,” she said. “I would like to be able to say that at the EPA, that the country is better off because of my tenure there.”

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.