By Claire Heininger
The Star-Ledger
December 12, 2008

The last time a New Jerseyan was chosen to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Gov. Christie Whitman stayed for a rocky two and a half years, often undercut and overruled by the White House.

But with former Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Lisa Jackson now likely headed for the same role, Whitman thinks things will be different. “First of all, the environment will be a priority — that’s a big difference,” Whitman said in an interview today. “Getting support from the White House that hasn’t been there for the agency for a while in a sense of being more proactive on these issues.”

Democratic officials say Jackson, now Gov. Jon Corzine’s chief of staff, will be nominated as soon as next week. Jackson declined to comment today.

“She’s got a lot of challenges ahead of her, and she knows it,” Whitman said. “I think she will have the support of the career people at the agency — they’re looking forward to a change now, and a commitment from the higher levels to the issues they face every day.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Jackson would work for Barack Obama, a president whose environmental ambitions — particularly on climate change — stretch a lot farther than George W. Bush’s, environmentalists and others said.

“Ultimately, you’re a reflection of the president,” said John McKeon (D-Essex), chairman of the Assembly Environment Committee. “There were some very formidable environmental accomplishments under the Whitman (governorship) … she went from there to saying, ‘No big deal on arsenic levels in the water.'”

The arsenic episode — in which Whitman came under attack for delaying rules to lower arsenic levels allowed in water, then reinstated the plan after an outcry — was one of several controversies during her tenure.

She also assured European environmental ministers in 2001 that Bush was committed to the Kyoto accord setting goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions believed to cause global warming. But Bush undercut her, reversing a campaign promise on carbon dioxide and calling the treaty “fatally flawed.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Whitman told residents of Lower Manhattan the air around Ground Zero was safe to breathe. She has defended the information the EPA released to the public amid harsh criticism from congressional Democrats and others.

When Whitman, a Republican, resigned in 2003, she denied Bush undermined her, but friends said she was often overruled and stuck by the president out of loyalty.

She has become more critical of the White House, in a 2005 book and a recent Newsweek piece on tensions over the distribution of power between EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality, which coordinates federal environmental efforts by working with agencies from the White House.

“There’s a lot of overlap there,” Whitman said today. “The problem for the agency is it gets demoralizing when you don’t know if it’s you or someone else who’s speaking for the environment.”

Jackson may still encounter similar tangles, said Frank Maisano, an energy industry consultant. With Carol Browner — who headed EPA under Bill Clinton — expected to be Obama’s energy and environment czar inside the White House, she will likely trump the EPA in influence, Maisano said.

“The reality is that this administration seems to be putting a lot more power in the White House on these issues, especially related to climate and energy,” Maisano said. “It’ll make her job more difficult.”

But Jackson, who has a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Princeton and had a 19-year career at EPA before taking over DEP in 2006, knows how to implement an administration’s policy. Whitman, he said, was accustomed to calling the shots as governor and “wasn’t the real policy setter” at EPA.

There could be a big difference under Obama, said Eric Stiles of New Jersey Audobon: “Environmental protection is not a partisan issue, it’s just that the outgoing president was a train wreck.”

“I think Lisa Jackson will be a strong advocate for the environment and for science-based regulation,” said Matt Elliott, an advocate for Environment New Jersey. “I think she’ll really stick to that, and stick to her guns on it.”

Corzine today deferred to the Obama transition team on the pending nomination. But the governor said Jackson was “committed absolutely” to protecting the environment.

“I think she’s one of the most effective leaders I’ve seen in an organization,” he said.