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Q&A with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson is focusing on alternative fuels and moving to the front in the race “for the leadership of the global clean energy economy. Right now we’re not winning it. We’re not even in it.”

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson is focusing on alternative fuels and moving to the front in the race “for the leadership of the global clean energy economy. Right now we’re not winning it. We’re not even in it.”

When she was first married, chemical engineer Lisa Jackson and her husband enjoyed vacationing on the beaches of Treasure Island. Now the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Jackson came back to the Tampa Bay area this week for three days of work. Jackson unveiled a $95 million grant to build a factory in Jacksonville that would make batteries for electric cars. She met with area clean energy and green business executives for 90 minutes to talk about climate change. On Friday the New Orleans native, the first African-American to head up the EPA, spoke to the National Association of Black Journalists. Jackson — a mother of two who owns a Prius and a minivan — also sat down with the St. Petersburg Times to answer questions about wetlands destruction, global warming and how her husband reacted to the "Cash for Clunkers" program. Craig Pittman, Times staff writer

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues more permits for wetlands destruction in Florida than any other state. The EPA has the power under the Clean Water Act to veto those permits, but hasn't blocked a single permit in Florida since 1988. It has used its veto power nationwide only 12 times since 1972. Now that you're in charge, will the EPA become more aggressive about using its veto power to protect wetlands — not just in Florida but in places like West Virginia, where the Corps is allowing coal companies to slice the tops off mountains?

That whole process had become a bit toothless. I asked my staff what they did, and they said, "We made our concerns known to the Corps and we didn't hear back."

(The corps and the public should know that, instead of just expressing objections, the EPA will once again use its veto power.) We're likely going to get to the point where we don't agree and we have to veto. … The Corps of Engineers understands when the EPA has concerns, it's going to raise them. We're going to do our jobs.

What do you think about the Clean Water Restoration Act, the legislation intended to overturn recent Supreme Court decisions that have made it harder for the Corps and EPA to figure out what wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act?

We estimate that EPA staffers spend 50 percent of their time trying to determine if we have jurisdiction. Can we actually protect this water? … It's being wrongly portrayed as an attempt to regulate tiny potholes. I certainly understand people's concerns that we not overreach, but we're just trying to restore the original meaning of the act.

This week the Obama Administration pushed to extend the popular "Cash for Clunkers" program as well as providing lots of grant money for building batteries for plug-in electric cars. Chevrolet and Nissan say they're going to build electric vehicles. Meanwhile, you're in the process of raising fuel efficiency standards for American cars. What's the goal here?

We're accelerating the move to plug-in electric hybrid vehicles. (When "Cash for Clunkers" was first unveiled) the first thing my husband said was, "Can we get rid of that minivan?" (Laughs.) We need for there to be a breakthrough on (battery) storage so electric cars can go more than 30 miles before needing a recharge. … There's a race on for the leadership of the global clean energy economy (in manufacturing batteries, solar panels, etc.). Right now we're not winning it. We're not even in it. The leader is probably Germany or Japan, maybe even China.

In 1999 the Clinton Administration's EPA sued Tampa Electric Co. over air pollution from its coal-burning power plants, forcing it to switch to cleaner-burning natural gas. Now your agency is trying to steer utilities away from fossil fuels entirely.

Burning natural gas for baseload power is like burning your antique furniture in the fireplace. There are so many other things you can use it for that are more constructive (including paints, fertilizer, plastics, antifreeze, dyes and medicines). The problem with moving the industry to renewable resources, though, is that renewables aren't cost-effective yet. But if we grow the industry right, then we can make sure we dominate the manufacture of renewable energy components.

Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light want to build new nuclear plants in Florida. Does your vision of the nation's clean energy future include nuclear power?

I believe nuclear power does have a role in our future energy mix, but like most Americans I want to know where any nuclear waste is going to go before approving any new plants.

Q&A with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 1:08am]

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