EPA Nominee Jackson Promises Science Will Trump Politics

WASHINGTON, DC, January 14, 2009 (ENS) – Scientific integrity and the rule of law will be the “two core values” guiding decisions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the incoming Obama administration, the president elect’s nominee to head the agency vowed today at her confirmation hearing.

The promises of nominee Lisa Jackson were met with high praise from Democratic senators, who contend the Bush administration has ignored recommendations of the agency’s scientists and undermined its mission to protect public health and the environment.

“Science must be the backbone of what EPA does,” said Jackson, who appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Nominee for EPA administrator Lisa Jackson (Photo courtesy EPW)

The former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection told the committee she would administer EPA with “science as my guide.”

Political appointees “will not compromise the integrity” of agency experts and scientists to advance particular regulatory outcomes, Jackson said, adding that the agency will “operate with unparalleled transparency and openness.”

Jackson would be the first African-American to lead EPA, an agency with some 17,000 employees and a budget of more than $7 billion.

Currently chief of staff to New Jersey Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, Jackson also worked at EPA for 15 years in several jobs related to the Superfund program.

Jackson did not lay out specific priorities during the hearing, but instead outlined five broad objectives – reducing greenhouse gas emissions, curbing other air pollutants, addressing toxic chemicals, cleaning up hazardous waste sites and water protection.

“These five problems are tough, but so is our resolve to conquer them,” Jackson said.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and chair of the committee, hailed Jackson as a “breath of fresh air” and welcomed her comments as “music to my ears.”

With little Republican opposition to the nominee, Boxer suggested the full Senate could easily confirm Jackson as EPA chief early next week.

Helen Sutley is nominated to lead the Council on Environmental Quality (Photo courtesy EPW)

Boxer alluded to a similar easy path for Nancy Sutley, Obama’s pick to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, CEQ.

Sutley, currently deputy mayor for energy and environment in Los Angeles, said her focus as CEQ chief would be “to ensure that there is a strong science and policy basis for our environmental policy.”

The bulk of the nearly four-hour hearing was focused on Jackson. Democratic senators littered the proceedings with criticism of the Bush administration’s environmental record and of current EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

Johnson has drawn the ire of Democrats and environmentalists for a slew of decisions, including his failure to act on climate change and for repeatedly ignoring the recommendations of agency scientists.

“The fact is, I believe the EPA has hurt the American people, made them less safe, over the last eight years,” Boxer said, who called the agency “a shadow” of its former self.

“I am looking for a renewed commitment to EPA’s mission – nothing more, nothing less,” Boxer told Jackson.

EPA under the Bush administration has “fallen into significant disrepute,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat. “More than anything else it needs its integrity restored.”

On some key issues – particularly climate change – the Bush administration has refused to act, Democrats noted.

On others, such as reducing harmful emissions from power plants, the Bush EPA finalized controversial rules only to see them rejected by federal courts, added Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat.

“We start this 111th Congress pretty much where we were eight years ago,” Carper said.

Jackson acknowledged that much of her early work would be dealing with controversial Bush rules and some of the court rulings that have ordered EPA to rewrite regulations.

Among these issues, she promised to revisit Johnson’s controversial decision to deny California’s waiver request to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. Nineteen other states have said they will follow the California policy as soon as the EPA grants the waiver of weaker federal rules.

In response to questioning, Jackson also pledged to assess risks from coal ash disposal sites similar to two that have recently spilled in Tennessee and Alabama.

“EPA, first and foremost, needs to discuss the state of what’s out there and where might be a horrible accident waiting to happen,” Jackson said.

Republicans on the panel cautioned the EPA nominee against moving too aggressively on climate change and warned that her job will not be easy given the contentious nature of environmental policy and regulation.

Senator George Voinovich makes a point at the confirmation hearing. (Photo courtesy EPW)

“I think it is the most difficult job that one can have in the federal government,” said Senator George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican.

Voinovich urged Jackson to consider the economic impacts of federal environmental rules on states and local communities, particularly in light of the nation’s economic woes.

“You have to consider the impacts these things are going to have on the people,” Voinovich said.

Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, took direct aim at the issue of global warming, reiterating longstanding concerns by many Republican lawmakers about the costs of limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

“Addressing climate change through the Clean Air Act is a disaster waiting to happen,” Barrasso said, alluding to the controversy over the 2007 Supreme Court decision that found EPA had the authority under the statute to regulate greenhouse gases.

Barrasso said he was worried that “federal laws on the books are being used in ways they were never intended to be used.”

Jackson rejected that concern and reiterated that the Obama administration will tackle global warming with the tools available if Congress fails to pass climate legislation.

She told Barrasso, “The beauty of many environmental laws is that they were meant to address not just the issues of the day but the issues of tomorrow.”

By J.R. Pegg

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