Obama's likely EPA pick praised, vilified

Barack Obama has tapped Lisa Jackson, the former head of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, to become the next chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, according to news outlets who spoke with officials close to the president-elect.

By , Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor

Barack Obama has tapped Lisa Jackson, the  former head of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, to become the next chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, according to news outlets who spoke with officials close to the president-elect.

Mr. Obama's choice has drawn praise from some environmentalists, and condemnation from others.

In a press release, the environmental advocacy group Environment New Jersey praised Ms. Jackson's selection as a "180-degree turnaround for the United States on the environment."

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While President Bush has stifled new environmental protections and unraveled old ones, Lisa Jackson has for the past three years been working to make New Jersey a national leader on some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time.

After taking the helm of the state agency in 2006, Jackson committed New Jersey to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, set strong clean energy goals, and helped spearhead the nation's first regional carbon trading program, the group said. Jackson left the DEP earlier this month to take a job as N.J. Gov. John Corzine's chief of staff.

The Associated Press quotes the director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, who says that heading up environmental policy in the Garden State – which is famous, perhaps unfairly, for industrial blight – is an excellent rehearsal for the national stage:

"In New Jersey, you're working on contaminated sites, you're working on open space, endangered species, clean water. New Jersey is the laboratory for environmental protection. Whatever bad happens in the environment, it happens in New Jersey first. It is a good proving ground," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who served as EPA administrator from 2001 to 2003 before resigning after several public clashes with the Bush administration, called the appointment "great," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

She said she was impressed with Jackson's "ability to work with people, her intelligence, and her balance. She is a strong environmental advocate, but she's someone who can work with people to find the common ground."
Whitman said Jackson's first priority should be to "restore morale.... She needs to be able to look the people in the agency in the eye and say, 'We're back on track ... and we're going to be supporting the science.' "

But not all are pleased with Jackson, a New Orleans native who worked with the US EPA from 1987 to 2002. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a resource for government whistle-blowers, released a scathing press release calling Jackson's record "disastrous."

DEP employees describe Ms. Jackson as employing a highly politicized approach to decisionmaking that resulted in suppression of scientific information, issuance of gag orders, and threats against professional staff members who dared to voice concerns. These reports raise troubling questions about her fitness to run an agency of much greater size and complexity.

The press release claims that Jackson neglected hazardous waste sites, failed to address rising air and water pollution, missed deadlines on meeting greenhouse-gas reduction targets, and became too cozy with industry.

Bradford Plumer, who enviroblogs for The New Republic, tried to sort out the stark differences between PEER and the environmental groups praising Obama's pick, speaking with both the Sierra Club's Mr. Tittel and Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director. Tittel tends to assign Jackson's failings to Governor Corzine, whom he calls "the worst environmental governor we've ever had." Mr. Ruch counters by saying that Jackson had just accepted a job as Corzine's chief of staff, indicating that they are ideologically simpatico.

In the end, Mr. Plumer is not convinced that Jackson is the eco-monster that PEER makes her out to be. "On balance," he writes, "her record really does look quite green."

If confirmed, Jackson would be the first African American to head the EPA.

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