Lisa Jackson announced Thursday she was stepping down as the Environmental Protection Agency's administrator next month, ending a four-year tenure as the nation's chief environmental regulator that was marked by intense battles with industry and Republicans over new pollution controls, global warming and the Keystone XL pipeline.
Jackson, 50, a chemical engineer by training, announced her departure in a short statement. She is expected to stay aboard until around the time of President Obama's State of the Union address in late January.
"I will leave the EPA confident the ship is sailing in the right direction, and ready in my own life for new challenges, time with my family and new opportunities to make a difference," she said
Two of Jackson’s top lieutenants, EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe and Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy, emerged Thursday as top candidates to succeed her. Other names floating around Washington included Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, Heather Zichal, Obama’s White House adviser on energy and environment issues, and Kathleen McGinty, a former adviser to Al Gore who once served as Pennsylvania’s top environmental regulator.
Jackson, the agency's first black administrator, constantly found herself caught between administration pledges to solve controversial environmental problems and steady resistance from Republicans and industrial groups who complained that the agency's rules destroyed jobs and made it harder for American companies to compete internationally.
Obama hailed Jackson for an "unwavering commitment" to the public's health.
"Under her leadership, the EPA has taken sensible and important steps to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, including implementing the first national standard for harmful mercury pollution, taking important action to combat climate change under the Clean Air Act and playing a key role in establishing historic fuel economy standards that will save the average American family thousands of dollars at the pump, while also slashing carbon pollution," the president said.
Environmental activist groups and other supporters lauded Jackson for the changes she was able to make, but industry representatives said some may have come at an economic cost. Groups also noted that she leaves a large, unfinished agenda.
"There has been no fiercer champion of our health and our environment than Lisa Jackson, and every American is better off today than when she took office nearly four years ago," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But she noted that Jackson's successor will inherit an unfinished agenda, including the need to issue new health protections against carbon pollution from existing power plants.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on clean air, called Jackson's tenure a "breath of fresh air" and credited her for setting historic fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, and for finalizing clean air standards.
But Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said Jackson presided over some of the most expensive environmental rules in EPA history.
"Agency rules have been used as blunt attempts to marginalize coal and other solid fossil fuels and to make motor fuels more costly at the expense of industrial jobs, energy security, and economic recovery," Segal said. "The record of the agency over the same period in overestimating benefits to major rules has not assisted the public in determining whether these rules have been worth it."
Other environmental groups, however, praised Jackson's clean air efforts.
"Notwithstanding the difficult economic and political challenges EPA faced, her agency was directly responsible for saving the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and improving the health of millions throughout the country," said S. William Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. "She will be sorely missed."
Larry Schweiger, head of the National Wildlife Federation, cited her climate change work and efforts to reduce carbon pollution.
Environmental groups had high expectations for the administration headed by Obama, a Democrat, after eight years of President George W. Bush, a Republican and Texas oilman who rebuffed agency scientists and refused act on climate change. Jackson came into office promising a more active EPA.
But she soon learned that changes would not occur as quickly as she had hoped. Jackson watched as a Democratic-led effort to reduce global warming emissions passed the House in 2009 but was then abandoned by the Senate as economic concerns became the priority. The concept behind the bill, referred to as cap-and-trade, would have established a system where power companies bought and sold pollution rights.
"That's a revolutionary message for our country," Jackson said at a Paris conference shortly after taking the job.