Posted on February 24, 2009 by Elliot Laws
As Lisa Jackson completes her first month as President Obama’s environmental chief, she is just scratching the surface on some of the myriad issues that will likely have impacts far beyond typical environmental concerns, for decades to come. There has to be some mixture of excitement and fear facing this new administration, as the challenges before it dwarf all of those in memory. That mixture will be especially prevalent at EPA. Usually in times like these — war, recession, high unemployment –— environmental issues can be expected to fade from the front pages. An EPA administrator would receive the old admonition to be seen and not heard. However, unlike past crises environmental issues are in the forefront — primarily in the form of climate change and energy. It is notable that when the government is lending billions of dollars to Citibank and debating the very existence of the big three automakers, one of the first actions of the incoming Obama administration has been to review EPA’s previous decision to deny California’s petition for a Clean Air Act waiver to allow it to regulate greenhouse gases from mobile sources.
The expectations for success that many Obama supporters have are high. Those expectations are high in the environmental community — perhaps too high. The ongoing financial collapse in the United States and abroad has changed the landscape in ways that could not have been imagined as recently as August, when Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president. With the federal government having committed nearly $1 trillion in an attempt to save financial institutions across the country; with Congress passing an economic stimulus package costing an additional $750 billion; with the United States still conducting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, outside of the infusion of stimulus cash for “shovel-ready projects” the expectation that EPA’s budget will experience significant increases over the Bush years is hardly a reasoned view. It’s not just the mind boggling challenge facing us on the economy, it’s also the difficult decisions that must be made to address climate change; it’s the need to seriously address the nation’s nearly suicidal dependence on foreign oil; and it’s myriad other issues that will all require hard choices and sacrifice.
Those expectations are probably low in the business community — as they normally are when the country shifts from a Republican to a Democratic administration. And similarly, those expectations are perhaps too low. I believe if this president will be true to one of his campaign promises, it is to govern in a way that puts partisanship on the sidelines. He has already proved that commitment by sending a strong signal to Senate Democrats that he does not wish to see retaliation against Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) for his support not only of John McCain, but also Republican senatorial candidates in Minnesota, Maine, and Oregon. What Obama signaled with that position is that he is not going to put partisanship ahead of his plans to help America, even if partisans refuse his offers to join him.. He is looking at new alliances and will work with people who were not shy in their opposition to his election as he works as president. The mantra of “no permanent friends; no permanent enemies” is likely to be the Obama approach to working in Washington, DC.
We as a nation are facing an uncertain future. The environment is likely going to play a larger role in the lives of average Americans than it has since its heyday in the 1970s. Lisa Jackson has the monumental task of rallying an agency suffering from low morale, with precious few additional resources, to make decisions in perhaps the most hotly debated and controversial area of environmental law and policy ever. She will make recommendations and decisions that will have implications not only on the very future of the United States, but likely for the world as well. To the NGO community, the challenge is not to be disappointed as this president makes decisions that balance multiple important considerations and who will often decide that another consideration must trump the environmental choice. To the business community, the challenge is to be more optimistic and to show the initiative and courage necessary to work with this new administration and its traditional allies to solve the monumental problems facing the world.