Under Pressure—Q & A With EPA Head Lisa Jackson

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Andrew Cutraro / Redux for TIME

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson—who has emerged as the Republicans’ favorite target as the party looks to dismantle environmental protections—sat down with us for a 10 Questions in this week’s issue. That interview was condensed to fit one page—click below for the full transcript:

Two of your Republican predecessors recently wrote in the Post that the EPA is under siege from Republicans. Do you see that as the case? Do you see a war going on against the EPA?

There are certainly some members of Congress who I think have come in with an agenda that includes this agency, and we hear words like scaling back and you even hear things like defunding. I really appreciate two former Republican heads of this agency who point out that this agency plays an extremely important role in protecting American’s health and the environment.

The key point of argument is really these EPA regulations that could be coming on climate change. Can you outline quickly, what is the agency going to be looking to do on this issue?

As I’ve said before, we’re talking about common sense steps that get us started. Using the Clean Air Act, updating standards under the Clean Air Act to address pollution, in this case, greenhouse-gas pollution. In a common sense way, the Clean Air Act history, not the rhetoric, but the history of the Clean Air Act is that it moves in moderate steps that add up over time to pollution reduction. I think we can use the Clean Air Act to get started on greenhouse-gas pollution, as we have on other types of pollution, very successfully.

In the past, both you and President Obama have said that you much prefer Congress to take the lead on greenhouse gases, probably preferably through a cap and trade program as opposed to regulation. Why should the EPA be in the business of doing this regulation?

Well first off because it’s the law. The Clean Air Act and Supreme Court cases have said that EPA must determine whether or not greenhouse gases endanger public health. We have determined, based on multiple lines of scientific evidence, that they do. And the Clean Air Act then requires us to act. The second reason is more of a common sense approach. Although I joined the President in calling for legislation, that doesn’t mean we can’t get started using the Clean Air Act to make a series of moderate steps that would add up to real reduction. And third, and certainly not the least important, but a little bit different, is that industry needs to know what the rules of the game are going to be. So in the absence of legislation, the Clean Air Act and the requirements of the Clean Air Act, touch certainly the power sector. No one’s ever denied that. Require them to make pollution control investments, so we don’t have unlimited amounts of pollution, including carbon pollution, entering our air.

You’ve called Congressional attempts underway right now to restrict the EPA’s ability to regulate these gases draconian. If some of the legislation that’s out there right now were to go through, what would it mean for the agency?

The biggest criticism that I’ve leveled – and I’ve done it in my hearing testimony – is that what the current efforts do is overrule scientists on a scientific finding. Congress is essentially passing a law that says, We, a bunch of lawmakers, have decided what the science is on this issue. And that to me is what this Congress could be remembered for, more than anything else. History will forget a lot of the day-to-day, inside the beltway discussions about riders and budget and trying to get rid of or defund the EPA, but I don’t think that history will forget the first time that politicians made a law to overrule scientists.

Speaking of testifying, you’ve been called upon frequently since the Republicans have taken over the House to testify on Capitol Hill. They said that you might need your own parking space there. Do you feel that you are being targeted personally?

I certainly hope not. I have no reason to think that. But, listen, I have so far and continue to – although getting ready for hearings is – I certainly take time out – I see it as part of my job. I should be able to explain our actions to Congress, and I should be able to explain them to the American people. I think facts matter. So one of the things that we’ve used these hearings to do is point out the facts of what the EPA’s doing, not what special interests are saying we’re doing. They’re very different things. In the countryside, Americans want a strong EPA that protects public health, that reins in polluters. Inside the beltway, they may be bombarded with different messages. It’s an opportunity for me, as head of this agency, to speak to what we are doing.

Are there other ways you can go around that mouthpiece and actually make that case to the American people? Do they understand what it is the EPA’s mission really is?

It isn’t our job to poll them, but polling data, there’s a new one out to do from the League of Conservation Voters, showing that the American people want a strong EPA. We have another Gallup poll out today saying that Americans remain unchanged in their concern about environmental issues, particularly clean water issues. Events of the day, as usual, point out the things that we don’t think about until we need them. One of them is our RadNet monitoring system, which has been out there monitoring air quality and now is coming into highlight because of the horrible tragedy in Japan. So it’s also my job as head of this agency to try to manage the budget that we get, so we squeeze every drop of environmental protection out. It’s also my job to point out when I think either cuts or legislation or proposals are going to tie the hands of this agency and let industries that want to pollute, go unchecked.

If indeed we do see legislation that would block the EPA’s regulatory ability on greenhouse gases actually go through Congress, are you confident the President would veto?

Listen, the President’s been really clear all along that he supports this agency following the law. Whenever he’s talked about it, he and I have said we call for legislation, but we also need to follow the Supreme Court decision. The other issue here is that these are not thumbs up, thumbs down issues. We are happy to work with Congress to insure that we work on a common sense timetable to address the largest polluting industries. We’ve proposed rules that are actually deregulatory to insure small and medium size businesses aren’t covered. We’ve had wonderful success in moving this country toward more efficient cars, and we’re working on more efficient trucks. So it’s my hope that we can get into the discussion, some real facts about what we have accomplished and try to allay real or imagined fears about what we might do.

Speaking of that fear, we often see in bad economic times like we have now, this argument that America can’t afford both strong environmental protection and policies that would promote job creation. Can those needs be balanced? How should they be balanced?

They have been balanced in this country for 40 years, as long as there’s been an Environmental Protection Agency, as long as there’s been a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water Act. We’ve shown the world that it can and should be done. We have cleaned the air. We’re not done. We have cleaned the water. We’re not done. But we’ve done it while our country prospered. So I don’t think we should minimize the concerns of the average American, but I think the proof – it’s important to look at what has been done, not these doomsday scenarios that special interests trump up about what might happen. Well what has happened? It’s also important to – I get a chance to do a little bit of work internationally and I think we’ve also seen, and it’s pretty stark what happens when you try to pick economic development over clean air or clean water. It may seem like a short-term gain, but once air is dirty, once water is dirty, it is extremely expensive to clean it up and untold lives have been impacted or untold illness and cost have been accrued.
Another somewhat controversial subject the EPA’s going to be getting into soon is that study that’s being formulated on hydraulic fracturing and shale-gas drilling. The EPA did a study on this back in 2004. A lot of people in the industry ask, Why do we need a new one?

The study back in 2004 was what scientists might call a review of the existing literature. No samples were taken, no independent studies were done. It was a very narrow look at a very specific set of data. This is a much different study. This is a comprehensive look at the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water, which means surface water and groundwater resources. Even the [inaudible] of the study is going through a peer review. We’ve been very transparent and open about it. It’s important to understand that no one in this agency, including recently we had the former head of the water program who said he believed that the 2004 study was over-interpreted, that people were drawing conclusions from it that the study itself did not warn, and I agree with that.

We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill. At this point, is it possible to begin to really get a fix on how much environmental damage was done to that region by the spill?

Scientists will tell you that the picture will continue to emerge over several seasons. Those who study the ecosystem and the food chain out in the Gulf will tell you that we need to see what happens this year, but not only this year. It may take several years to manifest itself. I think in general the science that’s coming back is somewhat reassuring, which is that, I think, partially because of the distance from shore, partially because of the efforts that were made the government and the private sector to respond to the explosion and the spills and the ongoing spill afterward, that we may see a situation where the ecosystem can recover quite well. But there will be studies for years and years, and you know what, the ecosystem deserves to be studied because I think that there’s a skeptical group of people down there and they deserve to know that real resources are going into understanding their resource and any impact on it.

You grew up in that region. For you to go back when that spill was happening, personally to see Louisiana and that region getting hit by disaster again, another one that like Katrina, that had issues of manmade problems that went along with it. What did that mean to you?

It was an honor to be able to go back and serve a region I call home. In this job and in the jobs I’ve had before, I’ve had to respond to major crises – either environmental crises or crises that had environmental components. And in all the cases, the work I came here to do, I mean no one wants a crisis, but my belief is that we can protect the environment even when we’re responding to a crisis. So it’s an honor to be able to do it. It was – the only difference with the Gulf spill is that I would go home and see people I knew and hear from people I knew who would reach out to me and want to make sure that their voices were being heard. It made me feel good to know that they knew that they had a person at a very high level in their government, who they could reach out to and who was hearing them. If it brought them any comfort, I’m happy, but it’s also my job.

You’re chairing the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Taskforce. What are you plans for that? Is it going to go beyond just looking at what happened with the oil spill and also take on the other environmental damages, hypoxia, erosion to coastal wetlands? Are we really going to be able to make that region better than it was before the spill?

That is the intent of the taskforce. This is not about a response to the oil spill. In fact there’s separate work going on. This is about the President’s other promise, which was to make the Gulf ecosystem stronger and more resilient than it was when the oil spill happened, the day before it, if you will. So to me this taskforce is an opportunity to give voice to people in that region who have been working literally for decades trying to be a voice for coastal restoration, for the ecosystem as a whole, how to balance the myriad needs of a working Gulf with the demands of a tourist-based economy that exists many times in the exact same spot. As head of this agency I chair the taskforce for Chesapeake Bay. I’ve sit on a Commission for the Great Lakes. I sit on the National Oceans Commission. This is the opportunity for the Gulf Coast, the Gulf of Mexico to get that same level of attention, and it’s long overdue.

Are we ready for another spill of this nature, should it happen again? Have we learned something from this first experience to make sure either it doesn’t happen again or if it does we can respond better and faster?

We are more ready. The thing I have learned in this career of mine is that you can never anticipate all the ins and outs of any crisis. Part of this is having really experience and bright people who can respond to what the crisis is on the ground, but yes we’re more ready. We’ve dealt with some issues in the course of that crisis that have highlighted work that can be done. Here at the EPA we’ve gone back to our National Response Team and offered additional guidance and questions on everything from the use of dispersants to the preparation of the response plans that are in place in every region of the country to deal with releases to water. We’ve also looked at facilities on land and beefed that up. We’re doing additional research on dispersant chemistry and the use in general. So I never like to say we’re 100% ready because the next emergency, if and when it comes, could be entirely different. But we learned and we’re certainly more ready. Probably, in my experience, this crisis more than any other was an example of a team effort by government. Certainly on a federal level, this far surpasses any response I’ve been involved with in terms of how we worked as a team, our whole government approach.

The EPA recently had its 40th birthday. Where do you see the agency in another 10 years time? How will it change from what it is now?

If history’s any guide, the American people will continue to support a strong, independent agency that protects their health and the environment for future generations. I think this agency, if history is any guide, will continue to need to be both a strong protector, but also incorporate the kind of flexibility that responds to the issues of the day. For us whether it’s an agency that through the Energy Star program saw the need for us to deal with energy efficiency voluntarily, I think the world has caught up with that. We’ll see this agency moving into issues of sustainability that cross any individual media even more and more, where we look at pollution, is it sustainable for water, air and land? We’ll continue to deal with issues of adaptation to climate change. I think because of the change in demographics in this country, we will see issues that are important to Latinos and African Americans come to forefront, and those tend to be issues of environmental justice, longstanding pockets of pollution that just haven’t been addressed, the unfinished business of this agency.

With the agency coming in for a lot of criticism in the press and some members of Congress, how do you keep your workers feeling optimistic, keeping from feeling that they’re under attack as well?

My job is to go to the hearings and talk about their great work, but the other thing I say to them – I worked in this agency for over 15 years as a career employee, non-political and it’s not about us. It’s not about this agency. It’s not about any individual effort. It’s about reminding us what it is we come here to do. And that’s to uphold the environmental laws of this country. This agency has lived through tough times before, where it seemed as though the politics in Washington were aligned against it. What has always made a difference in the environmental filed is that the public, the people of this country, know that clean air and clean water are important, that were it not for the work of this agency, there would be more sickness, more illness, more incidences of water that can’t be used, that doesn’t support fishing or can’t be used for drinking. So what I tell them is to keep their eye on their jobs, to do their jobs with impeccable science and integrity and I feel confident that the American people will then turn to us as they should.