By Ben Geman - 12/27/12 08:07 PM EST
The looming departure of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson is yielding quick speculation about who will replace her, and might touch off a brutal Senate confirmation fight to lead a department that has faced constant GOP criticism.
Jackson announced Thursday that she will step down early in 2013. The White House did not say when President Obama would nominate a replacement.
The White House said that Robert Perciasepe, the agency’s deputy administrator, will take the top job in an acting capacity if nobody has been confirmed when she departs, which appears likely.
He has already been Senate-confirmed to serve under two presidents. In addition to his work in the Obama administration, Perciasepe served in former President Clinton’s EPA as the top water quality regulator and later the top air quality official.
In-between, he was a senior official with the National Audubon Society.
Observers say another potential pick for the job is Gina McCarthy, who is currently EPA’s top air pollution regulator, a Senate-confirmed position that’s formally called the assistant administrator for air and radiation.
She formerly headed Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection, and before that held a senior role in Mitt Romney’s administration when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Also mentioned: Kathleen McGinty, who served as secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection from 2003-08, and before that led the White House Council on Environmental Quality under Clinton.
McGinty, who was an aide to Al Gore when he was in the Senate, is currently a senior vice president with the company Weston Solutions, where she works on green development.
Various other potential nominees mentioned by observers and in published reports include Mary Nichols, who is chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, and Daniel Esty, the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Obama's EPA has faced tough criticism from Republicans and business groups over an agenda that detractors call economically harmful and burdensome to coal companies, oil-and-gas producers and other industries.
Steering anyone through the Senate — even officials who have already won Senate approval for lower-level roles — will likely be difficult, and the job itself is certain to include frequent attacks from critics of the agency’s regulations.
“Whether Senate Republicans actually deliberate over an EPA nominee rather than conduct witch trials will be an early indication of whether the Senate can function at all,” said Paul Bledsoe, an independent consultant who was an environmental aide in Clinton’s White House and is also a former Senate staffer.
Stephen Brown, vice president for federal government affairs with the oil refiner Tesoro Corp., said Perciasepe is a logical choice for a nominee to replace Jackson.
“I keep coming back to Perciasepe only because I am not sure who else gets through, and even he could just be ‘acting.’ Senate confirmation will bring everyone and everything to a boil,” Brown said.
The consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners, in a note Thursday, predicted a bumpy Senate ride for any nominee to replace Jackson.
“None of the frontrunners to succeed Jackson is a sitting Senator, as is the case with President Obama’s nominee for secretary of State, John Kerry (D-Mass.), which means the nominee isn’t likely to be protected by Senate traditions of collegiality,” ClearView said.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a leading Capitol Hill critic of the EPA, fired an early warning shot on Thursday, suggesting that Jackson’s replacement should change the agency's direction.
“Although I take a skeptical view, this appointment would provide this administration an opportunity to change its regulatory course,” Inhofe said in a statement.
While the heads of Obama’s energy and environmental team initially won Senate approval in 2009, nominees to a number of senior positions in more recent years have faced a bumpy road and procedural blockades.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who will replace Inhofe as the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Thursday that he wished Jackson the best. But he added that during her tenure, EPA has been “stifling” the economy.
“Moving forward I’ll be working with my colleagues in the Senate to make sure the new nominee is thoroughly vetted, puts sound scientific standards above political ideology and understands that EPA’s avalanche of regulations can crush the growth of American businesses,” he said in a statement.
Environmentalists and public health advocates, in contrast, have cheered a number of EPA decisions under Jackson, such as rules to curb mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants.
"In her four years as EPA Administrator, Lisa has been a steadfast advocate for clean air, clean water, a stable climate and public health – often in the face of very vocal and forceful detractors," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.
Several other green groups similarly praised Jackson.
“EPA Administrator Jackson has had incredible success at a time when the EPA's core mission of safeguarding our environment and protecting public health have faced relentless attacks from big polluters and their allies in Congress,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski in a statement Thursday.
—This post was updated at 3:11 p.m. and 5:58 p.m.