Can EPA Chief Lisa Jackson Force a Climate Deal?

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testifies on Capitol Hill in May Susan Walsh / AP

Washington, D.C., is littered with the careers of bright, well-meaning public servants who came to the capital to do good but fell victim to politics. Lisa Jackson is determined not to become one of them. As head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Jackson oversees the quality of America's air and water and monitors pollution levels. It's a job that endears her to green activists (and people who like clean air and water)—but it also puts her at odds with some of the nation's largest, richest industries.

For decades, big manufacturers and commercial farmers, who retain powerful lobbyists and make large contributions to the election campaigns of members of Congress, have pushed back against the EPA's efforts to enact stricter controls on pollution. In the years when George W. Bush was president they often got their way, as the EPA rolled back on enforcement to suit the administration's pro-industry politics.

Some of those industry heads have also been heard in the Obama White House, which last week announced plans to open parts of Alaska and the East Coast to new offshore drilling—a gambit the president hopes will build support for a climate-change bill in Congress. But if that conciliatory approach doesn't work, Obama can count on Jackson as his climate enforcer. Unless Congress acts by next January, Jackson says, the EPA will use its authority under America's Clean Air Act to phase in new restrictions on carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. The U.S. emits nearly a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide; the EPA has identified it and five other greenhouse gases as a threat to public health. "The difference between this administration and the last is that we don't believe we have an option to do nothing," Jackson told NEWSWEEK.

Despite the rage of environmentalists, the drilling decision didn't bother Jackson much. Just weeks before, she admitted that any energy policy "should include offshore drilling" so long as it doesn't harm the environment—a condition that would seem nearly impossible to fulfill. If anything, energy companies unearthing more fossil fuels would only boost the emissions she's aiming to cut, giving her fight more urgency. But that doesn't mean her job will be easy. Three months after announcing her intent, Jackson, a chemical engineer who spent years working within the EPA bureaucracy, is starting to see just how difficult it may be. For starters, the Nixon-era Clean Air Act was never intended to regulate a pollutant as pervasive as carbon. Both environmentalists and industry heads also acknowledge that Congress would be able to address the problem better. "The only thing everyone agrees on is that a regulatory approach would be more expensive and less effective than legislation," says Paul Bledsoe, spokesman for the National Commission on Energy Policy, an arm of Washington's Bipartisan Policy Center. But until Congress takes up the question, Obama holds the only key to sweeping carbon cuts.

Jackson doesn't seem to mind that the job has been deputized to her, yet she knows her agency's credibility—and her own—could be at stake. Already, powerful interests are lining up against the anticipated changes, which she and agency scientists have promised to detail later this year. Industry groups like the American Public Power Association are readying lobbying campaigns to kill or at least slow the impending regulations, and more than 100 agriculture and energy groups have demanded that Jackson back off. "It will create a huge competitive disadvantage to our industry," says Nancy Gravatt, a spokesperson for the American Iron and Steel Institute. "We already filed a legal challenge. The further this gets, the more of that we will be doing. We will continue to contest this."

Politicians on Capitol Hill are also agitating against the carbon cuts. "Getting climate policy right will take a lot of work and should rightfully be done by those elected to Congress," says Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the nation's largest producers of oil and gas. "We may not be moving as fast as some would like, but we are working." Murkowski says that Obama's pivot on drilling sounds nice to the media, but won't be enough to bring her to the table.

Jackson knew that threatening to act by executive fiat wouldn't be popular. But she also knew it would get people's attention and, along with Obama's drilling plan, maybe prod Congress to act. She says that she would prefer to go through—instead of around—Congress. "You can definitely cut emissions through regulation, but a much more efficient way is through legislation," she says. For one thing, Congress would sugarcoat any carbon-cutting bill with tax breaks and other incentives for industries to go along.

Jackson's do-it-or-else version will contain none of that. Yet despite protests by members of Congress that Jackson is infringing on their turf, leaders on Capitol Hill—mistrustful after the passage of health care and worried about a double-dip recession—have shown little interest in taking up the issue. Republicans, largely skeptical of climate change, are opposed to steep emissions cuts, and even many Democrats who are sympathetic to the cause in principle don't want to make trouble with big employers (and donors) back in their home districts. (Some lawmakers have introduced protest bills that threaten to rewrite the Clean Air Act to curtail the EPA's power, and even to dry up funding for the agency. They aren't expected to go anywhere, although Jackson says she's prepared to fight such measures.)

The few members of Congress who do want to take up global warming recognize that pushing for carbon regulations is the last way to win the support of their colleagues. In the Senate, Democrats John Kerry and Joe Lieberman and Republican Lindsey Graham are working on a broad energy bill that will include government subsidies for businesses to use renewable energy sources. But the measure is expected to be lax on carbon reductions, and is unlikely to make a meaningful dent in the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions.

The big question in Washington isn't whether the EPA has the authority to singlehandedly force polluters to radically cut their carbon emissions; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that it does. It's whether the White House is actually serious about carrying out Jackson's plan—or if it is just noisily bluffing to get Congress to take some action, even if it falls short of Jackson's ambitious cuts.

The one to watch for that answer isn't Jackson, but Obama. With a health-care victory under his belt, the president has new clout, both with Congress and with a growing number of voters. But if the January deadline approaches and Congress still hasn't taken up a plan to reduce carbon, Obama will have to decide if he has the political stomach to make good on Jackson's ultimatum—a move unpopular enough that it could land him back in the trenches. It wouldn't be a quiet fight. The other side would attack him as anti-business and anti-jobs, and it wouldn't all be Republicans.

Already there are signs that it may not come to that. As Jackson talks tough about deadlines and cuts—trying to convince industry that the administration is standing behind her plan—the president himself has been notably quiet on her threat. Obama's openness to drilling and new nuclear plants, two things he at first opposed during his campaign, signals he's willing to make broad concessions to avoid such a showdown. "The president understands that EPA must follow the science and its legal obligations," says a White House official who spoke under the usual rules of anonymity. "But he has made abundantly clear that his strong preference is for Congress to pass energy and climate legislation." Hardball Washington translation: let's make a deal.