During her three-year tenure as New Jersey's chief environmental regulator, Lisa Jackson, named Monday by President-elect Barack Obama to head the Environmental Protection Agency, frequently found herself in the crossfire. Environmentalists pushed her for tougher regulations, while industry and businesses fought for faster environmental permitting. The governor's office, meanwhile, was often looking for policies that were palatable to both sides.
Her largely successful navigation of these overlapping demands hints at how Jackson, as EPA chief, may work to carry out Obama's environmental agenda.
Jackson's record at New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, which she led from 2006 until November of this year, when she stepped down to become Gov. Jon Corzine's chief of staff, is both an aggressive and a pragmatic one, observers say.
She is credited with helping put New Jersey in a leadership role on the issue of climate change and with encouraging the state to adopt a moratorium on building new coal plants. Yet she also has made choices that have been applauded by industry, including an effort earlier this year to use private companies to clean up thousands of contaminated sites around the state.
In recent days, when Jackson's name emerged as Obama's likely pick, some of these issues resurfaced. A few New Jersey-based environmental groups have put out press releases criticizing Jackson's record, and their comments have gotten national attention. But many observers say the criticism is overblown and that Jackson, though having at times taken stands the groups didn't fully agree with, has largely been an ally.
"There are hundreds of environmental groups in New Jersey, and if you called all of them up, I think 99.5 percent of them would say that Jackson is a great pick," says Dena Mottola, executive director of Environment New Jersey.
Interviews with several such groups depict Jackson as an experienced leader who understands how government functions and has made curbing greenhouse gas emissions a top priority—something that she will very likely be tackling at the EPA. Obama has suggested that he will consider asking the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, something the Bush administration declined to do after warning that such a move would turn the EPA into the "de facto regulator of the economy."
In New Jersey, Jackson took on climate change by setting ambitious goals and persuading the governor's office and the state legislature to support them. In 2007, it became the third state, behind California and Hawaii, to pass a law that mandates steep emissions cuts over the next four decades. Many see it as a catalyst for similar state and regional laws that have followed.
The state's new energy plan, which was released last month and calls for large expansions of wind and solar power to help meet emissions targets, is a reflection of Jackson's behind-the-scenes efforts, says Jeff Tittell, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "She really has been the lead in getting the governor, who likes to talk green but also has promoted clean coal and new nukes," to agree to support renewable energy.
Originally, the state's goal for wind power was 1,000 megawatts, but observers say Jackson successfully fought to triple that number, as well as to double the plan's goal for solar power. She also convinced the state that it should boost its renewable energy portfolio—the amount of electricity the state aims to generate from renewables by 2020—from 22.5 percent to 30 percent in the final plan.
In calling for tougher regulation of air pollution, Jackson has often taken forceful stands. In a letter to the EPA in September, Jackson wrote that "the past eight years have demonstrated a shocking, yet consistent, irresponsibility on the part of the federal government to engage in any meaningful way . . . in implementing sustainable solutions to reduce emissions."
Much of the criticism Jackson has received stems from her position on cleanup matters. There are an estimated 22,000 contaminated sites in New Jersey, the toxic legacies of the state's industrial history. The vast majority of them existed before Jackson took office, and Jackson over the past year has called for using private companies, rather than state workers, to conduct the cleanups.
The approach is controversial. Critics say it will result in shoddy work and give only the appearance of a cleanup. Jackson and her supporters insist that in the absence of necessary funding and staff, they have no other choice if they want the sites to be cleaned up at all.
If nothing else, the dispute does underscore Jackson's efforts to seek compromises on difficult issues. "I think it's fair to say that she does try to find middle ground," says Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. "She knows how the system operates and, from a management standpoint, how the pieces should work together."
Jackson herself has said that she does not want "the perfect" to be "the enemy of the good." Observers credit her with relying on scientific data to guide her decision, even if it leads to unpopular outcomes. One such example: As commissioner, Jackson oversaw an effort to install pollution traps on the tailpipes of public transit vehicles. Some environmentalists pushed her to control emissions from the engine's crankcase as well. She declined, saying that research showed the benefit was minuscule.
"Lisa is not one for doing things for political fanfare-making," Mottola said. "If the research suggests this is not the right thing to do, she'll say this is not the right thing to do. You will not see science buried under Lisa Jackson."