Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only shake you down once a year, but when we do we really mean it. It costs a lot to keep the site afloat, and our growing audience, well over TWO million unique viewers a month, eats up a lot of bandwidth — and bandwidth isn’t free. We aren’t supported by corporate donors, advertisers or big foundations. We survive solely on your support.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How Obama Defanged the EPA

by JOSHUA FRANK

It was a tumultuous tenure, productive by some accounts, lackluster by most, but one thing is for certain, Lisa Jackson’s short time as administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency was anything but dull. On December 27, 2012 the often-fiery Jackson announced she was not going to return for a second term, and it is surely not difficult to see why she’s fleeing her post.

Since President Obama was ushered into office in 2008, the EPA has consistently faced ridicule and criticism from corporate polluters and their greedy allies in Washington. On virtually every occasion Obama refused to side with Jackson’s more rationale, often science-based positions, whether it was cleaning up the air or forcing the natural resource industries to abide by existing regulations. Ultimately, the EPA is only as formidable as the White House allows it to be, and on Obama’s watch the agency has not received the support it has desired or deserved.

Take the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Even though those three horrible months watching oil spew into the Gulf have seeped out of our collective memory, the BP disaster is one of the largest stains on Jackson’s four-year stint at EPA. Soon after the underwater blowout, Jackson, a New Orleans native, demanded BP halt their use of the toxic dispersant Corexit 9500 to clean up their gushing mess. She took a tough line against a company that had gotten away with far too much for too long.

It could have been Obama’s iron-fist moment, where the young president stood up to the oil industry and permitted the EPA to run the operation instead of letting BP’s inept management have full control of the cleanup process.

Of course, after eight long years of President Bush, BP executives weren’t used to being bullied into submission by some bureaucrat, especially a surly woman at the EPA, so they dialed up their friendly White House staff and complained that Jackson had overstepped her boundaries. Obama quickly obliged and forced the EPA to bite its tongue. Then Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel discreetly assembled the administration’s oil response team. Lisa Jackson was conspicuously absent from the list.

Even though it was the largest oil spill the US had experienced in decades, Obama prevented the agency in charge of overseeing the country’s environmental regulations from being involved in any meaningful way. Could it have been that Obama surrendered to BP because he had two years earlier accepted more campaign cash from the company – a mix of cash from employees and political action committees – than any politician over the last twenty years? Not many in the environmental community were asking.

* * *

Following an EPA report on greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, Lisa Jackson appeared ready for a fight. In a written statement, Jackson declared carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases a threat to public health. No EPA administrator had ever made such bold comments.

“These long-overdue findings cement 2009’s place in history as the year when the United States Government began addressing the challenge of greenhouse-gas pollution and seizing the opportunity of clean-energy reform,” said Jackson.

It was her first major initiative at the EPA. This so-called “endangerment finding” was the necessary prerequisite that allowed the agency to enforce new fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for motor vehicles and power plants. Jackson also moved to set stronger standards for mercury and toxic emissions and permitted California to implement its own set of greenhouse gas standards for vehicles, a reversal of a Bush-era policy.

This isn’t to say that Jackson enjoyed Obama’s support along the way. In fact, in some cases the administration outright opposed her efforts. In 2011 the White House moved to block the EPA from updating national clean air standards for smog. The episode echoed Bush tactics, where political expediency often trumped hard science. Sadly, Obama’s team was successful at stopping Jackson and the courts have stalled the EPA’s efforts to limit power plant pollution that blows across state lines.

“Disheartened would be a mild way to describe how clean air advocates felt when that happened,” said Frank O’Donnell of DC-based Clean Air Watch told CounterPunch. “Rather than rewarding Jackson for doing the right thing, the White House shoved her aside and literally adopted the polluter-friendly policy of … [President Bush] … and then proceeded to defend that flawed Bush policy in court.”

The message from the White House to clean-air advocates was clear: “Because the Republicans are so rotten on environmental issues, you’re stuck with whatever we do. If you don’t like it, tough luck. We don’t really care what you think. You have nowhere else to go.”

“I don’t recall any of the traditional clean-air champions in Congress raising hell over this. Party loyalty trumped substance,” recalls O’Donnell, who has spent decades working for better clean air standards in Washington. “William Faulkner once wrote, ‘Hollywood is a place where a man can get stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder.’ Lisa Jackson’s experience with ozone showed that an EPA administrator can get stabbed in the back by her boss just for doing her job.”

Jackson faced a similar uphill battle when it came to the issue of coal ash. In 2009 the EPA began the process to regulate coal ash, a byproduct of coal incineration, which contains toxic metals like mercury, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium and nickel. The United States produces over 70 million tons of coal ash annually. After numerous incidents where ash from power plants has made its way into groundwater supplies, environmentalists and concerned citizens have called for such coal waste to be regulated.

“The time has come for common sense national protections to ensure the safe disposal of these materials,” said Jackson when the EPA moved to first regulate coal ash, only to be halted by the White House. “Today, we are proposing measures to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water, as well as stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments.”

In 2008 a coal slurry impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal-fired power plant in Harriman, Tennessee, collapsed and more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash to enter the Tennessee River. Approximately 525 million gallons of black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama and Kentucky.

Obama wasn’t pleased with Jackson’s move to regulate filthy coal ash. In fact, he’s forced the EPA to delay its rules on multiple occasions. Despite lawsuits waged by environmental groups, as recently as January 2013 the EPA announced it “cannot provide a ‘definitive time’ for promulgating final regulations on the management of coal ash from power plants.”

No doubt it has been instances like these that prompted Lisa Jackson to leave the EPA and turn her back on Obama’s White House—a conflict adverse administration that more often than not made it difficult for Jackson to do her job. While she was no environmental crusader, as she defended fracking practices as well as nuclear energy, Jaskson did believe in regulatory enforcement. Her replacement, expected to be Gina McCarthy, will likely find the Obama White House as equally challenging in upholding these laws.

Joshua Frank, Managing Editor of CounterPunch, is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, and of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, co-edited with Jeffrey St. Clair and published by AK Press. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter @joshua__frank

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 29, 2016
Tom H. Hastings
Manifesting the Worst Old Norms
George Ella Lyons
This Just in From Rancho Politico
September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Robert Fisk
Cliché and Banality at the Debates: Trump and Clinton on the Middle East
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
David Swanson
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]