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Weeding Through The Controversy Over Obama's Epa Pick

Barack Obama has reportedly tapped Lisa Jackson to be his new EPA head. Jackson was previously working in New Jersey as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. There, she earned raves from Governor Jon Corzine, who recently told ThinkProgress, "I think Lisa has done a remarkable job of trying to move the environmental agenda forward within a constrained world." (Most notably, New Jersey has been trying to enact a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.)

But not everyone shares that assessment. In a widely circulated and remarkably scathing press release, The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a non-profit group that works with whistleblowers inside various government agencies, absolutely blasted the Jackson pick. In a letter to Obama, PEER executive director Jeff Ruch claimed that Jackson took a "highly politicized approach to decision-making" in New Jersey that resembled Bush's tenure at the EPA, was cozy with lobbyists, and actually had a woeful record on climate change. Read the full press release here; it's pretty brutal.

So is PEER correct? Is Lisa Jackson a poor environmental pick? I'm not convinced. On balance, her record really does look quite green.

Earlier this afternoon, I called Jeff Tittel, who directs the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter and has worked closely with Jackson on a number of environmental initiatives over the years. He quickly dubbed PEER's press release "total crap" and criticized PEER for having little on-the-ground presence in New Jersey. In Tittel's view, any blame for New Jersey's mixed environmental record should rest squarely on the shoulders of, ironically, Corzine himself, whom Tittel called "the worst environmental governor we've ever had." Lisa Jackson, he argues, was the biggest (maybe the only) bright spot in New Jersey.

Among other things, PEER's press release had excoriated Jackson for appointing a lobbyist from the New Jersey Builders Association to be her assistant commissioner, overseeing water quality and land-use permits. Tittel rejects this criticism, noting that Corzine basically gave Jackson two choices to fill the spot: either the New Jersey Builders Association person—who, Tittel notes, actually wrote policy papers for NJBA, not lobbying, and had previously worked in the state's environmental agency—or... a lobbyist from the Chemical Council. Jackson made the greener pick.

Indeed, Tittel argues that Jackson has frequently battled hard against both Corzine and New Jersey's business community on a number of contentious issues, from protecting 300,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands from sewer permitting to forcing the governor to revise the notorious "Permits Extension Act," which would've extended building permits into environmentally sensitive areas. (That bill was such a galling giveaway that even Bush's EPA protested.) Although Tittel agrees that the final bill was still horrendous, he credits Jackson for standing up to her boss and taking out "75 percent of what was bad in that law." Likewise, on climate change, where New Jersey has been relatively sluggish in meeting its targets, Tittel puts most of the blame on Corzine, and credits Jackson with getting a renewable-electricity standard in place.

When I mentioned this pushback to PEER's Jeff Ruch, he wasn't impressed. "That's shaky," he says, arguing that you can't separate Jackson from Corzine so cleanly. "She was going to go work as his chief of staff [before getting tapped by Obama]." What's more, Ruch adds, "One of Jackson's big outgoing actions was to convene an industry-dominated task force that recommended rewriting the rules for building permits." But Tittel fires back at this, too: "Look, I was on that task force," he sighs. "They haven't even read the report." Tittel says that this much-maligned task force was Jackson's way of, again, curtailing Corzine's pro-builder tendencies and bringing the Department of Environmental Protection back into the permitting process—giving the agency more authority to conduct environmental impact assessments, for starters.

New Jersey is a state that's long been dominated by developers and real-estate interests, both of which have a tight grip on the Corzine administration. Last year, Corzine slashed the state's environmental budget, declaring that Jackson's agency would have to "do less with less." Jackson, for her part, appears to have fought back fiercely. Now, you could argue that that's setting expectations too low. ("This is like saying someone who did a good economic job in Bangladesh should go be head of the World Bank," says Ruch. "She's coming from an agency where there's a lot of unhappiness, and going to a bigger camp [i.e., the EPA] with even more unhappy campers.") But Jackson's green instincts do seem strong. Among other things, Tittel points out that Jackson hails from New Orlean's Ninth Ward, and her mother was badly injured in Katrina. "If you want someone who understands the effects of climate change firsthand," he says, "that's her."

--Bradford Plumer