Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson will step down after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address early next year, the agency announced on Thursday.
During her four years in the job, Jackson has been at the center of high profile fights with congressional Republicans and industry over hot button issues such as global warming and air pollution regulations.
"I will leave the EPA confident the ship is sailing in the right direction, and ready in my own life for new challenges, time with my family and new opportunities to make a difference," Jackson said in a statement.
Jackson faced tremendous opposition in her four years at the EPA, where she was a lightning rod for attacks from the right for environmental regulations considered tough on industry -- particularly coal. Most recently she faced tough criticism for the revelation of a secondary EPA email account she used under the pseudonym "Richard Windsor."
On Thursday Obama praised Jackson.
"Under her leadership, the EPA has taken sensible and important steps to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, including implementing the first national standard for harmful mercury pollution, taking important action to combat climate change under the Clean Air Act, and playing a key role in establishing historic fuel economy standards that will save the average American family thousands of dollars at the pump, while also slashing carbon pollution," Obama said in a statement.
Jackson's tenure had plenty of ups and downs as she battled with a White House concerned about the nation's fragile economic recovery and with Republicans eager to exploit any political opening to help keep Obama from wining a second term.
But for greens, she was still a big improvement after eight years fighting the George W. Bush administration.
"Health and environmental advocates will definitely miss her," said Frank O'Donnell, head of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. "She has been a real champion for clean air. She is going to be a tough act to follow."
O'Donnell praised Jackson for "some very significant wins during her tenure," including two rounds of tough new fuel economy limits and regulations to clamp down on power plant pollution.
Industry lobbyist Scott Segal said Jackson's role crafting environmental policy in the Obama administration grew over time "largely due to her excellent communications skills, likable personality and skilled use of political leverage."
While environmentalists will see her legacy in positive terms, he noted that "from an energy and consumer perspective, it had to be said that the Jackson EPA presided over some of the most expensive and controversial rules in agency history."
"Agency rules have been used as blunt attempts to marginalize coal and other solid fossil fuels and to make motor fuels more costly at the expense of industrial jobs, energy security, and economic recovery," added Segal, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani and director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. "The record of the agency over the same period in overestimating benefits to major rules has not assisted the public in determining whether these rules have been worth it."
Under Jackson, EPA also made the critical determination that greenhouse gases threaten public health and the environment, paving the way for first-ever rules to deal with global warming.
But Jackson ran into opposition from the White House in her push to set new smog standards, nearly quitting over the decision to punt tougher limits until after the election.
"It was an ugly episode as political science trumped real science," O'Donnell said.
Among the names listed as potential EPA replacements include the agency's current deputy administrator, Bob Perciasepe, who ran EPA's air and water offices during the Clinton administration; the current top EPA air pollution official Gina McCarthy; and former Clinton White House aide Ian Bowles, who ran the energy and environmental department in Massachusetts.
Jackson was an early nominee by Obama, confirmed by the Senate on Jan. 22, 2009, as the first African-American EPA administrator.
Jackson hasn't said much in public about her future, though she's been mentioned as a possible political candidate for governor or Senate back in New Jersey, where she served as chief of staff for Gov. Jon Corzine and also as head of the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
The Washington Post earlier this month floated her name as a possible president of Princeton.
Jackson is a native of New Orleans who attended Tulane University on a scholarship from the Shell Oil Co.
But the chemical engineer completed her graduate work at Princeton, and later served as Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before the president tapped her for the top environment job.
Jackson has often highlighted her urban upbringing and engineering background as the keys to her environmental perspective.
She has said she "doesn't sleep outside," in a classic demonstration of her style of humor, and regulatory viewpoint that is less "crunchy granola" than some environmentalists, and more focused on industrial pollution.
"At the time I spoke about the need to address climate change, but also said: 'There is much more on the agenda: air pollution, toxic chemicals and children's health issues, redevelopment and waste-site cleanup issues, and justice for the communities who bear disproportionate risk,'" Jackson said in a statement Thursday referring to the agenda she laid out when nominated to head EPA four years ago.
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 10:51 a.m. on December 27, 2012.
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