Lisa Jackson's Low-Key EPA Departure: Climate and Clean Cars Looms Large

By · December 28, 2012

Lisa Jackson

Lisa Jackson was a lightning rod for conservative criticism--in part because she pushed for clean car legislation. (Flickr/Chesapeake Bay Program)

It’s possible that Secretary Lisa Jackson may be leaving the Environmental Protection Agency because she’s frustrated with President Obama’s support for the Keystone oil pipeline, as Buzzfeed contends, but it’s probable that it was a larger and connected issue—Obama’s lack of enthusiasm for big-league climate legislation, which Jackson would have liked to have has part of her legacy.

The Clean Car Queen

It’s likely that Jackson’s biggest impact will be on the auto industry. With the groundbreaking 54.5 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) target for 2025—brokered between carmakers, the EPA and the state of California—she ensured not only cleaner tailpipes but a strong incentive for the industry to both create and promote zero-emission plug-in vehicles. CAFE was totally stagnant before Jackson showed leadership on the issue.

In a parting end-of-year shot that is also a big boost for EVs, Jackson’s EPA granted an important waiver to California’s Advanced Clean Car Program, which includes its zero-emission mandates. The state’s no-nonsense ZEV rules are a major reason carmakers such as Honda, Chevrolet and Ford are even building electric cars, albeit in limited numbers. When you combine California and the federal rules, you get a one-two punch that can’t be ignored.

George Bush’s EPA fought California on approval of such waivers, which are necessary in this case because of technical modifications to the ZEV rules.

A Stealth Ruling

This new waiver approval is somewhat below the radar, because the EPA hasn’t even released a press release about it. But in its findings, dismissing complaints from the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and others, the agency said that “most manufacturers have near-term production plans to meet or over-comply with regulatory requirements through 2017.”

The EPA also said that opponents hadn’t met the burden of establishing that the ZEV mandates will impose “excessive” costs on the industry. The Auto Alliance, representing 12 carmakers, complained about possible $12,900 per-vehicle costs by 2020, but the EPA noted California Air Resource Board figures of only $500 per car, if added costs are spread out over the entire state fleet.

Carmakers, EPA said, “have many possible strategies available to spread the cost of the ZEV requirement beyond ZEV purchasers.” Further incentives will also help absorb costs, the EPA said, without identifying if it had state or federal legislation in mind. Keep in mind that California is the only state that can set emission standards (because it's air is historically so bad) and 11 other states embrace its ZEV rules.

Doug Greenhaus, chief regulatory counsel for NADA, said that California's regulators regularly set unrealistic ZEV goals, then rescind or modify them when it becomes clear they're not realistic. And the EPA rubber stamps whatever California does, he said. "We question more than anything else the idea of setting technology-forcing standards far into the future, when the variables they're based on are questionable," he said. In other words, who knows what batteries will cost after 2018?

The departure of Jackson—who was viewed with suspicion by some environmentalists early on, but later embraced—was surprisingly low key. Obviously, she wanted it that way by issuing her statement in the news apathy that comes between Christmas and the New Year.

Green Cars, and a Start on Climate

According to Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, “With the Department of Transportation, EPA set historic new fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards for our cars and trucks that will save American families money at the gas pump and reduce our dependence on imported oil.” He also said the EPA has taken “first steps” on climate, in part by declaring, in 2009, that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases threaten public health. The relevant passage for our purposes was this:

The Administrator finds that the combined emissions of these well-mixed greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles and new motor vehicle engines contribute to the greenhouse gas pollution which threatens public health and welfare.

The only cars that don’t threaten public health and welfare, then, are the ones without tailpipes. It’s unlikely that any new EPA secretary will change that policy. Mitt Romney had threatened to rescind the 2025 CAFE mandates, but even that would have been a lengthy process with an uncertain outcome.

Some people aren’t sorry to see Jackson go--she was a lightning rod for the right. As Fox News put it, "House Republicans dedicated much of their time this past election year trying to rein in the EPA." The Heartland Institute, which used to receive money from General Motors but doesn’t anymore, offered a battery of negative comments.

Here’s one from the serendipitously named James Rust, a policy advisor on energy. “[S]he is smart,” he said. “I simply strongly disagree with her thinking that the burning of fossil fuels causes global warming and the EPA should stop the use of fossil fuels by regulation. Unfortunately, her replacement may pose the same problems by attempting to abolish use of our abundant fossil fuels and propel the United States’ economy to third world status.”


· CharlesF (not verified) · 5 years ago

A bit of a rant for me. Please add that 54.5 CAFE MPG is about 40 EPA sticker MPG. It is very misleading for the general public to see the 54.5 number thinking that is the EPA sticker value.


PS, if you are following down the DISQUS message service path, please stop. Their site is now worthless for discussion.

· · 5 years ago

Ms. Jackson is rather a Mixed Bag for me: She apparently is one of the few Obama Administration officials who Tells the Truth. That's a big plus to her Credit.

However, she attempted to implement Cap and Trade through regulation when Congress had already voted it down. More taxes and big profits for our seediest investment bankers.

Therefore, I can't really say I'm sorry to see her go, the worry is who will be her replacement?

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