Lisa Jackson on Clean Energy, Headline-Driven Politics, and the Future of the EPA

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The head of the EPA gives her view of how things work -- and don't -- in Washington and across America.

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It's been a bumpy road for Lisa Jackson through three and a half years as chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But the 50-year-old chemical engineer doesn't look fazed or fed up. A scientist-turned-insider who has learned that the levers of power don't always budge without a fight, she shows a little steel in her eyes as she ticks off achievements and notes setbacks. But she also lets mischief color her laugh as she acknowledges what she calls the "toxic attitude of absolute certainty" that paralyzes progress on climate and other issues.

In 2009, President Obama appointed Jackson to lead the EPA, the agency she'd worked at for 16 years before serving in New Jersey's environmental agency, where she became commissioner in 2006. Jackson took the EPA helm at a moment of high hopes for green advocates in the U.S. They'd spent eight years in George Bush's wilderness; now they felt they were on the verge of passing climate legislation at home and a global carbon accord at the Copenhagen talks.

What could go wrong? Only everything.

Today progress on climate at the federal level seems less likely than ever. Certainly, Jackson can point to a passel of signal achievements: she has reinvigorated the agency, presided over a plan to double automobile fuel-efficiency standards over the next decade, established EPA's right to regulate greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide as pollutants, and placed new controls on mercury and other toxic power-plant emissions.

But Jackson has also watched as the faltering economy and a partisan civil war in Congress have placed environmental issues on a low-simmering back burner -- and placed EPA itself in the crosshairs of an increasingly radical conservative movement that aims to defang, defund, and ultimately destroy it. Even if it dodges that bullet, her EPA must use the narrow statutory authority of a handful of increasingly outdated laws to tackle an endlessly multiplying set of problems. Meanwhile, new laws are out of reach, and old-fashioned regulations get held hostage to competing agendas: Her agency's proposal to tighten ozone standards met sudden death at the hands of the White House that had appointed her.

Jackson has stuck to her post, despite rumors that she might resign in the wake of that ozone reversal. At the end of last week, she visited Seattle to drop in on Boeing, speak at the annual Climate Solutions breakfast, and deliver a commencement address at the University of Washington. She also took time to talk informally at an event with Grist supporters, and sat down with us for an interview.

We knew there was little chance that Jackson would go off message or make unscripted news, and we weren't going to play gotcha with her. But we did get some intriguing glimpses of the mind of the woman who's still trying to push the Obama administration's hope wagon over all those bumps.

Right now U.S. fossil fuel production is ramping up, and a lot of people are enthusiastic about energy independence and jobs in that industry. So national security and employment are set up to be at odds with the environment. Can we get beyond that?

Jackson: First of all there's two sides of the energy discussion: there's production, and there's also use. America as a consumer-oriented country is seeing real choices for the first time in using less energy. That's very good for the American pocketbook. There's simply no reason why American cars can't be efficient and still be cool and be a part of what drives our economy. And if you want proof of that, look at what's happening right now in Detroit. I have conversations all the time with young people, and they're not feeling like they're losing anything by the fact that they'll be able to have choices and much more fuel-efficient cars should they choose to buy them.

The president talks about "all of the above" energy, and I think we don't realize enough how important that is. There are those who would like us to drop everything and say, time for another, a second fossil fuel boom, and the president is saying, but the future for our country is around clean energy, renewables, and getting that technology perfected and ready at a commercial scale here so we can sell it abroad. That will make our country stronger and create jobs as well. We should not put all our eggs in any one basket. And we should not, just because we have it, assume that means we should use fuels as though we have it -- because energy independence requires a certain reduced demand. We saw reduction in demand for gasoline, refined oil, this year, and part of the reason is that Americans have a choice to buy cars and trucks that use less of it. And that's good for our economy. So the money can go somewhere else.

So when people who are passionate about the environment hear "all of the above," they'll think of the list of things in "all of the above," and one of them's going to be coal. Is that part of the definition of "all of the above?"

Jackson: What we've done at EPA, because we've had to from court order, and it's long overdue in my opinion, is deal with pollution from coal-fired power plants. Pollution from coal-fired power plants comes from the extraction of the coal in some cases, the burning of the coal, which gives soot and smog-forming pollution, and mercury and lead and arsenic and cadmium and acid gases and then you've got to get rid of the ash! ... One form of energy has to at least be subject to the same laws as the other forms are. That's what we've been working on as far as coal. I always tell people, it's not about coal, it's about the pollution that for too long has been associated with coal.

And then coal has another pollution problem, and that's carbon pollution: it's the most carbon-intense fossil fuel. And the president invested in carbon capture and sequestration technology as part of the Recovery Act. He said all along, I'm from a coal state, so I believe that if there's going to be a future for coal it has to be one that deals with carbon pollution, with climate change. So in my opinion the problem for coal right now is entirely economic. The natural gas that this country has and is continuing to develop is cheaper right now on average. And so people who are making investment decisions are not unmindful of that -- how could you expect them to be? It just happens that at the same time, these rules are coming in place that make it clear that you cannot continue to operate a 30-, 40-, or 50-year-old plant and not control the pollution that comes with it.

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