Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announced today that she will resign her position early in 2013. Jackson has been one of the brightest lights in the Obama Administration. She has demonstrated a progressive spirit and willingness to take essential policy steps on climate change and other challenges. On some key issues EPA has been thwarted or slow-walked on carrying out its statutory responsibilities by a conservative White House that has shown less backbone in standing up to corporate power on policy and regulation. 

My first reaction is that Jackson’s departure is not a good sign on what to expect from Obama 2.0. Not that EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe isn’t capable of doing a creditable job of running the agency in the interim until a successor is confirmed by the Senate. (Or will Senate Republicans spend four years refusing to confirm anyone, unless the rules are changed to prevent their endless obstructionism on appointments?) But Jackson has been a strong and energetic leader and I suspect she might be convinced to continue to serve if Obama wasn’t signalling a lack of heart for the climate change fight and had he not, for example, allowed corporate power and White House political opportunism to block EPA’s health-science-based rulemaking on smog pollution — among Jackson’s highest priorities.

Correct me if I’m reading this incorrectly and that Jackson really is tired of the job and really prefers to go home to New Jersey now. That’s not the way she sounded when I heard her address the young activists at the Power Shift 2011 conference last year.

Will Obama 2.0 distinguish himself as a worthy standard-bearer for the coalition that elected him? In particular, will he start to show some heart in tackling the extraordinary challenge of climate change and will he stop catering to polluter interests in playing off environmental protection and the economy as adversaries? If so, a Jackson successor can advance the needed agenda. If not, it won’t matter all that much who the EPA Administrator is.

Some of the media coverage includes:

New York Times: E.P.A. Chief to Step Down, With Climate Still Low Priority

Lisa P. Jackson is stepping down as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency after a four-year tenure that began with high hopes of sweeping action to address climate change and other environmental ills but ended with a series of rear-guard actions to defend the agency against challenges from industry, Republicans in Congress and, at times, the Obama White House. …

She has not said what she intends to do after leaving government, and no sucessor was immediately named, although it is expected that Robert Perciasepe, the E.P.A. deputy administrator, will take over at least temporarily.

Ms. Jackson’s departure comes as many in the environmental movement are questioning Mr. Obama’s commitment to dealing with climate change and other environmental problems. After his re-election, and a campaign in which global warming was barely mentioned by either candidate, Mr. Obama said that his first priority would be jobs and the economy and that he intended only to foster a “conversation” on climate change in the coming months.

That ambivalence is a far cry from the hopes that accompanied his early months in office, when he identified climate change as one of humanity’s defining challenges. …

The White House rejected or scaled back a number of proposed new regulations from the environmental agency, most notably the withdrawal of a proposed new standard for ozone pollution that Ms. Jackson sought in the summer of 2011. President Obama rejected the proposal on the grounds that it would be too costly for industry and local government to comply with at a time of continuing economic distress. Other new rules, including those for emissions from industrial boilers and cement factories, were either watered down or their introduction delayed after complaints from lawmakers, lobbyists and businesses.

Despite a number of disappointments, however, Ms. Jackson has achieved some notable firsts, including the finding that carbon dioxide and five other gases that contribute to global warming meet the definition of pollutants under the Clean Air Act. That so-called endangerment finding, which has survived federal court challenges from industry, allowed the agency to negotiate strict new emissions standards for cars and light trucks, the first time the federal government has limited global warming pollution. …

Asked what she considered most important in her tenure, Ms. Jackson mentioned the endangerment finding, because it was the first time that the federal government began to address climate change. She also said that, although it received little notice during her tenure, she was proud of her role in expanding the environmental agenda to include voices that have been little heard, including low-income communities, native Alaskans and American Indian tribes.

Washington Post: EPA head Jackson to resign post

It remains unclear how ambitious an agenda EPA will pursue in Obama’s second term, although environmental leaders have called on the president to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. EPA will soon finalize the first carbon standard for new power utilities, but the White House has yet to decide whether to impose limits on existing facilities, according to several individuals who have been briefed on the matter but asked not to be identified because no final decision has been made. …

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said his members will be looking for EPA to “have a strong voice” in whether Obama should approve the Keystone XL pipeline carrying heavy crude oil from Canada to the United States, and to press ahead with carbon limits on existing power plants. “It’s arguably the biggest thing the administration can do by itself, without legislation, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in an interview. …

While Jackson successfully pushed for a number of landmark environmental initiatives, including limits on nutrient pollution flowing from several states into the Chesapeake Bay, she also suffered a high-profile setback when Obama pulled an EPA proposal last year to curb smog-forming ozone pollution.

The Hill: Candidates to replace EPA chief quickly emerge

Jackson announced Thursday that she will step down early in 2013. The White House did not say when President Obama would nominate a replacement.

The White House said that Robert Perciasepe, the agency’s deputy administrator, will take the top job in an acting capacity if nobody has been confirmed when she departs, which appears likely.

Perciasepe is also on a short list of names that EPA observers see as potential nominees for Senate confirmation to replace Jackson.

He has already been Senate-confirmed to serve under two presidents. In addition to his work in the Obama administration, Perciasepe served in President Clinton’s EPA as the top water quality regulator and later the top air quality official. …

“Whether Senate Republicans actually deliberate over an EPA nominee rather than conduct witch trials will be an early indication of whether the Senate can function at all,” said Paul Bledsoe, an independent consultant who was an environmental aide in President Clinton’s White House and is also a former Senate staffer.

Earlier posts:

GOP continues attacks on new EPA greenhouse gas rules

EPA greenhouse gas rules upheld but the attack continues in Congress

New EPA greenhouse gas rule may effectively end new coal power plants

What to do when the White House sets science aside?

“Smog Rules” — Obama, scientific integrity, and environmental policy

EPA Administrator Jackson to Power Shift 2011: “President Obama is the last line of defense. The first line of defense is you.”