EPA feels like home to new administrator

In her second stint at the agency, Lisa Jackson talks about getting to work on climate change and water quality.

In her second stint with the Environmental Protection Agency -- the first spanned four presidential administrations -- Lisa Jackson has some perspective on what changed during the George W. Bush years and what the new president expects. Speaking about the $10.5 billion that Barack Obama has requested for the EPA in fiscal 2010, Jackson says: "I always remind people that that 30 percent increase comes after a 27 percent decrease over the last eight years." In an interview with National Journal's Margaret Kriz, Jackson discussed what's on the EPA's plate beyond climate change. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ: I notice that you were on "The Daily Show" -- how'd that come about?

Jackson: That was a really good press shop. It was really fun. I'm still getting really funny e-mails from my friends.

NJ: When you took the EPA job, did you realize you'd have such a high profile?

Jackson: I really didn't.... I thought more about the policy implications, like, "Wow, implementation of the Clean Air Act." But the high profile comes with the job because environment and energy issues are so important to the president's agenda.

NJ: Last time we talked, in February, you said you'd live with the budget you received. Now you've got the president asking for a big increase, to $10.5 billion.

Jackson: It's definitely not an abundance of riches yet. I always remind people that that 30 percent increase comes after a 27 percent decrease over the last eight years. Some people would say, "Well, you're being made whole." But the interesting thing about the budget is that most of the increase goes to the state revolving funds and to a Great Lakes effort. So most of it, although it's coming to EPA, is heading right back out to the American people. A lot like the Recovery Act money.

NJ: Are those the areas that suffered the budget cuts in the past eight years?

Jackson: No, not entirely. EPA suffered a lot of across-the-board cuts that really affected its ability to hire outside experts, keep the science strong, to keep a focus on climate. So we're also investing in climate change. There are investments in research and development. The only places that we won't be able to invest a whole bunch of new resources is in bodies. The budget anticipates about 130 more FTEs [full-time equivalents], and that probably is OK because EPA did its best not to cut staff during the lean years. So now we get to take those staff and make them more productive. But we don't necessarily have to add a lot of staff.

NJ: You've been focusing on climate change. But what's the next big thing on your plate?

Jackson: In all the discussions on climate, which are great, we're also looking at water. We're starting to see lots of discussion on the Hill and lots of concern among the American people about the fact that water quality, although it's gotten better from point sources -- we still have major issues with non-point sources. Storm water runoff, agricultural runoff. Lots of concern about that. Lots of concern about toxics, about chemical assessment and management of risk associated with toxic chemicals. Lots of concern about non-climate aspects of the Clean Air Act. We have a huge regulatory agenda there.

So this budget also -- I should point out we're investing in each one of those priority areas and we're very much about making sure that our resources are lined up with our priorities.

NJ: You've had to hit the ground running here. How's your family taking the change?

Jackson: They've been great. My two sons are actually really excited about moving to Washington. Some of that is the attraction power of President Obama, who really appeals to young people; they're really excited and hopeful. My kids are no exception to that. It is hard -- the physical move and trying to get things up and running means time away from the family. But they know it's short-term, and hopefully within a month, we'll all be together. So we're going to make it.

NJ: So you're waiting for the school year to be over before you move them?

Jackson: Yeah. They're still in New Jersey, and I go home on weekends. I've only missed, I think, two weekends since January. Their school year ends the third week in June, and the boys will be up right after that. My husband will take a bit longer. Our house is on the market, all that kind of stuff.

NJ: People have talked a lot about the fact that Barack Obama is African-American and you are African-American. Does it make a difference as you approach your job at EPA?

Jackson: I do think there's a responsibility on my shoulders to make sure, to constantly remind EPA that we need to be looking toward the future. And one of the clear messages for that future is that future generations are going to be demographically different, and they have different attitudes about environmental protection than when EPA came to be [in 1970].

So the primary responsibility is just constantly being vigilant about reaching out to people of color, to communities across the country, and making sure that environmental protection is expanding its reach in who it communicates with, not contracting. We don't want environmentalism to be the province of a few. We actually -- the more successful we are at making everyone care about the environment and taking responsibility for it, the cleaner the environment will become.

NJ: Is there anything you want to add?

Jackson: You can't underestimate the fact that for me, it's a return. I worked at EPA at various jobs for 15 years, and that's been a tremendous advantage. I know the programs, but more importantly, I know a lot of the people. A lot of the senior managers have really stepped up because of those personal relationships, and because they're so grateful to have a president who values our mission. It's been a hard personal transition with family. But it hasn't been at all hard professionally, because of the attitude of the EPA staff, and I'm really grateful for that.

NEXT STORY: Mediation