By Ben Geman - 12/27/12 03:37 PM EST
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, who rolled out the agency’s first greenhouse gas regulations and clashed often with Capitol Hill Republicans, announced Thursday that she is stepping down.
Jackson will leave the agency after President Obama’s annual State of the Union speech in January. She did not announce future plans, but said she is “ready in my own life for new challenges, time with my family and new opportunities to make a difference.”
“I want to thank President Obama for the honor he bestowed on me and the confidence he placed in me four years ago this month when he announced my nomination as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,” she said in a statement.
Jackson, the first African-American to head the EPA, toughened or imposed regulations to curb soot, smog-forming emissions and air toxics from power plants and other sources, winning praise from public-health advocates.
The New Orleans native was a frequent target of Republicans, who used a series of congressional hearings in recent years to allege that EPA’s agenda will burden the coal industry, manufacturers and other businesses.
House Republicans have approved a series of measures to scuttle or delay EPA rules, alleging they will cost jobs, but the bills did not advance in the Senate.
But Jackson nonetheless had setbacks at EPA, as some parts of her agenda have been delayed or weakened.
Jackson suffered a major defeat in 2011 when the president, under
enormous pressure from business groups, overrode EPA and shelved tougher
national ozone air quality standards.
The administration plans to revisit the ozone standards during Obama’s second term.
Recently, Jackson has also faced scrutiny over use of a separate email account within EPA, which Republicans say might have compromised the agency’s transparency.
Administration officials did not immediately announce a nominee to replace the outgoing secretary. Possibilities could include EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe, who has already won Senate confirmation in 2009 for the agency’s No. 2 slot.
Jackson’s departure is part of what’s expected to be a larger shakeup of Obama’s environment and energy team.
Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has already announced plans to leave, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu is widely expected to depart as well.
In her statement, Jackson said that she is leaving 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."
Jackson’s tenure included completion of standards for mercury and other air toxics from power plants, as well as final rules to lower smog- and soot-forming pollution from power plants that crosses state lines.
However, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule was struck down by an appeals court, prompting a pending federal appeal of the ruling.
Elsewhere, Jackson’s EPA has imposed new air quality rules for oil-and-gas sites, and recently toughened national air quality standards for fine particulate matter, which is linked to an array of cardiovascular and respiratory problems.
EPA, under Jackson, completed the agency’s first greenhouse gas emissions regulations. The agency and the Transportation Department issued joint auto emissions and mileage rules, while EPA also began a permitting program for large stationary sources.
In March of 2012, EPA proposed national emissions standards for new power plants.
However, much of the agency's climate agenda remains unfinished.
The agency has not yet finalized the carbon rules for new power plants, and activists are pushing for broader controls, including greenhouse gas emissions rules for existing plants.
The Obama administration has also failed to push a sweeping climate change bill through Congress despite advocacy from Jackson and other administration officials.
Carol Browner, who led EPA under former President Clinton, made reference to remaining work on climate issues in her statement that praised Jackson’s work on several environmental and public health fronts.
“The president has said we have an obligation to future generations to address climate change. Lisa began that difficult work. President Obama should appoint a new EPA administrator that will continue that work to find smart solutions to reduce carbon pollution and address climate change,” said Browner, who is now a senior fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress.
Outstanding plans on other topics include completing controversial rules to set new Resource Conservation and Recovery Act standards for disposal of coal ash, a byproduct of power plants.
The agency is also mid-way through a closely watched study of the effect of hydraulic fracturing, which is an increasingly widespread oil-and-gas development method, on water sources.
The president praised Jackson in a statement Thursday, saying she has “has shown an unwavering commitment to the health of our families and our children,” and thanked her “tireless” efforts.
“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,” Obama said.
Frank O’Donnell of the environmental group Clean Air Watch said Jackson had several “significant wins” during her tenure, including the air toxics rules for power plants.
But he also noted that Jackson suffered “real setbacks,” including the White House decision to scuttle the ozone rules and the court defeat for the rule on cross-state power plant pollution.
“The cross-state pollution issue, the still-controversial ozone question, and the need for cleaner, low-sulfur gas will be among the priorities facing her successor,” he said in an email to reporters.
Jackson was a regulator visitor to Capitol Hill, where House Republicans brought her in numerous times for hearings where they criticized agency regulations, alleging they are harming coal companies, utilities and manufacturers.
But one of the staunchest, most conservative Republican critics of EPA’s policies is also a big fan of Jackson’s.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in 2012 that Jackson is one of his three favorite liberals, which includes MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Jackson, who earned a master’s degree in engineering from Princeton University, headed New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection before coming to EPA.
Before her tenure with the New Jersey state government, she was a staff scientist with EPA.
—This post was last updated at 4:32 p.m.