President Obama faces a profound decision as he considers who will step into Lisa Jackson's shoes. Over the past decade, EPA has become a lightening rod for the heated partisan debate about the size and role of government. The agency has also come to serve as a rhetorical punching bag for those determined to pit environmental protection against economic growth.
The next EPA leader's stance on these big picture issues will inform decisions with very "small picture" impacts, decisions that will directly affect the health and well being of families across the country. From tackling pesticides in our air, water and food to what we do about energy and climate change challenges, this choice will matter. Hugely.
It's been a rough road for Jackson. As head of EPA, she was without question the most embattled of this administration's leaders, spending more time defending herself on Capitol Hill than any agency head in recent memory. House Republicans joked that they had a special parking spot reserved, since they called Jackson in so often to challenge her decisions and leadership.
Yet she managed to make some real progress in righting a ship that had been heading resolutely away from its mandated mission to protect public health and the environment. And she accomplished this without, I'm sad to say, much White House support.
Now that she's stepping down, the question is squarely in President Obama's court: Where to from here?
Purpose, resilience & humility
It's hard to believe, but government actions to protect environmental health (and EPA in particular) have a long history of bi-partisan support and collaboration. But this truth has been conveniently sidestepped in recent years, as political bickering becomes ever more vehement and corporate influence on policymaking ever more powerful. The result? All of us — and especially our children — are less healthy today.
So just what should Obama keep top of mind as he considers this appointment? What are the most important qualities of the next EPA leader? Here's my two cents, as both a mom and an outside-the-beltway policy watcher:
- Clear-eyed purpose: Jackson called the agency's fundamental job of protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink a "vital, almost sacred" trust. I think she's right. And if EPA's next leader has vision, he or she can drive a much-needed shift from end-of-the-pipe environmental protections toward a smarter model of healthy, green economic development.
- Firm-spined, resilient diplomacy: There's no way around it: EPA will continue to be a political punching bag. A successful leader will bring moxie into the mix, and will make use of that special parking spot on the Hill to remind lawmakers — again and again — that a healthier future benefits us all.
- Deep commitment to scientific integrity: Whether it's pesticides' impact on children, declining bee populations or climate change, independent science keeps pointing up the urgent need for both short-term protections and long-term change. As we've been saying about the herbicide atrazine for years, it's high time to follow the science.
- Respect for community voices: Jackson understood that some communities are more affected than others by pollutants, and that learning from these communities would help her make smarter, more reality-based policy decisions. This kind of humility makes for especially strong leadership, and should definitely be on Obama's short list.
Just what is at stake?
In the realm of our work here at PAN, key upcoming choices and opportunities for EPA's leader include decisions on widely used pesticides that are known to harm children's health (such at atrazine and chlorpyrifos); protecting bees from the pesticides that are putting both hives and the livelihoods of beekeepers at risk; and finalizing long-delayed rules to better protect farmworkers from pesticides.
EPA also faces deeply controversial decisions in the energy arena, from the debate over the Keystone pipeline to coming up with — and maybe even (gasp!) implementing — the first steps in a national effort to combat climate change.
There's a lot of important work to be done, and the stakes are very high. We urge President Obama to choose a strong, energetic EPA leader who has both the vision to point us in the right direction and the backbone to get us there.