I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints recently about Obama’s failure to achieve legislation on healthcare or climate change during his first year in office, despite the fact that Congress is to blame for both these failures. What Obama does have more control over is the activities of federal agencies, whose leaders are presidentially appointed.

A recent Rolling Stone article by Tim Dickinson showcases what one agency head, EPA’s Lisa Jackson, has accomplished over the past several months. While her record hasn’t been perfect – her early approval of several mountaintop-removal mining permits was a big disappointment – it demonstrates what kinds of things a committed administration can do regardless of whether or not Congress is willing to move forward.

The Clean Air Act did come from Congress originally, but the EPA is the agency responsible for implementing it. Under the Bush administration, EPA refused to let California regulate carbon-dioxide pollution from vehicles and set the ground-level ozone limit higher than what its scientific advisory committee advised. Now that the Obama administration has taken over, EPA has tightened the ozone limit and allowed California to regulate carbon from tailpipes.

Perhaps most importantly, Jackson is moving EPA toward regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court decided in 2007 that the agency has the authority to do this, but until the administration changed there didn’t seem to be much interest in using its authority to regulate the greenhouse gas.

Dickinson reports that EPA got a $3 billion budget increase, and the new money is helping Jackson strengthen enforcement, putting “dozens of new cops on the environmental beat, and to crack down on states that fail to enforce the law.”

There’s lots more in the article (the whole thing is well worth a read), but what struck me most about it was the work Jackson is apparently doing to shape the EPA culture. It’s much harder for us to notice this kind of stuff, because it doesn’t get announced in the Federal Register and doesn’t tend to crop up very often in news stories. But an agency’s culture plays a big role in how much it accomplishes. About Jackson’s influence, Dickinson writes:

Jackson has a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Princeton, and nearly two decades of experience directing the cleanup of toxic waste. But from her first day, she discovered, her most important skill was her ability to shift the attitude of staffers who remain stuck in the Bush-era mind-set that the EPA should weaken environmental enforcement to satisfy the demands of big polluters.

“Oftentimes we’re in a meeting and somebody starts telling me, ‘Well, we already know what this official — usually a local official — really wants.’ I tell them I don’t want to know that,” she says. “I want to know what the science says. Even now they’re surprised to hear me say that.”

To shift the agency’s culture, Jackson has moved swiftly to restore top career staffers who were shunted aside during the Bush years. “We call them ‘cryogenically frozen,'” says a top aide to Jackson. “We’ve reactivated a lot of people who were known to disagree with the Bush administration’s politics and were hung up in closets.” Veteran staffers who have gotten their old jobs back say privately that they spent eight years under Bush “trying to do something good under the radar” — even as they were forced to design programs that “we all knew the courts were going to throw out.”

Advocates of environmental justice are also thrilled by Jackson’s emphasis on protecting vulnerable communities that lack lobbying clout. She has started by filling the EPA, long a bastion of whiteness in Washington, with young aides who represent minority groups hard hit by pollution: the nearly three-fourths of Hispanics who live in communities that fail to meet clean-air standards, African-Americans who are more than twice as likely as whites to die from asthma, Native Americans whose homes lack clean water at almost 10 times the national rate. For Jackson, who grew up in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, near the toxic corridor known as “Cancer Alley,” such realities are a major reason she joined the EPA right out of grad school.

“What I’m trying to do is bring the agency back to being closer to the communities that are fighting for environmental protection,” she says. “Because that’s how environmental protection gets done — it usually comes from the communities up.”

It’s good to see that even if Congress won’t tackle our many pressing environmental problems, EPA is using its authority to protect the environment – which, after all, is its job.

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