Republicans in the next Congress are obviously set on limiting the Environmental Protection Agency's authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate a wide range of air pollutants — even if it means denying the agency money to run its programs and chaining its administrator, Lisa Jackson, to the witness stand. Fred Upton, who will become the next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says he plans to call Jackson so often for questioning that he'll guarantee her a permanent parking space on Capitol Hill.
It is equally plain that Jackson has no intention of abandoning her agenda or her defense of one of the most successful of America's landmark environmental statutes. What is not clear is where the White House stands and whether it is prepared to resist industry's standard litany that EPA is as an out-of-control agency threatening jobs with unnecessary rules.
President Barack Obama's political advisers have shown little enthusiasm for environmental issues. Obama himself ceded leadership on the climate-change issue to Congress, which ended up doing nothing. On the other hand, his chief environmental adviser is Carol Browner, a former EPA administrator whose aggressive clean-air initiatives in the Clinton years would never have prevailed without Oval Office support.
Which is just what Jackson will need in the months ahead. On her plate is: a proposed rule reducing pollutants like sulfur dioxide, the acid rain gas, from power plants east of the Mississippi River; a first-of-its-kind rule limiting toxic pollutants like mercury, which the agency has been ducking for years; and, most problematic, proposals imposing new "performance standards" on power plants to limit greenhouse gases.
Taken together, these and other pending rules should lead to a dramatically less-polluting fleet of power plants, a process already set in motion by the rapid decline in natural gas prices. That has encouraged industry to retire dirtier coal-burning facilities. Everyone will benefit: citizens from cleaner air, lakes and fish from reduced mercury deposits, the atmosphere from lower greenhouse gases.
Some important players in industry are ready for change. In a recent letter in the Wall Street Journal, a group of powerful utilities including Pacific Gas and Electric and New Jersey's Public Service said that industry had had plenty of time to prepare, that pollution could be reduced in cost-effective ways and that newer and cleaner plants will create jobs, not destroy them.
But this is hardly a universal view in industry and in Congress. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA not just the right but the obligation to regulate greenhouse gases, the Senate tried to subvert that authority once. Sen. John Rockefeller IV, a Democrat who represents West Virginia coal interests, will surely try again.
Jackson will have to be tactically smart, lest overreaching on one rule brings the whole house down. She has already delayed new air-quality standards for ozone. She says she needs more scientific evidence to set precise limits. Historically, clean-air rules are almost always litigated, so having sound science on her side is essential.
But she won't get far without Obama's backing. Browner could remind the president that it was after a dispiriting Republican midterm victory that President Bill Clinton found his feet on environmental issues. In 1995, the Newt Gingrich crowd came to town promising to overturn a whole body of environmental law. Clinton rose up, not only winning the big battles, but eventually compiling a sterling record. Obama should emulate him.
© 2010 New York Times News Service