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How Obama Defanged the EPA Before Trump Gutted the Agency

Photograph by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael B. Watkins – Public Domain

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.

The was an excerpt from The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink.

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

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