By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson, who spearheaded the Obama administration's crackdown on carbon emissions, said on Thursday she will step down after almost four years of battles with Republican lawmakers and industry over proposed regulations.
Under her leadership, the agency declared for the first time that carbon dioxide was a danger to human health and could be regulated under the Clean Air Act, leading the EPA to develop a new regulatory regime to limit carbon emissions.
Industry groups and Republican lawmakers opposed Jackson's efforts to fight climate change, hauling her in for numerous hearings in Congress, and she faced some pushback from within the administration too.
She won praise from many environmental groups, while others complained her EPA was too timid. It was unclear what direction the administration will take on climate change during President Barack Obama's second term.
Obama thanked Jackson for her service, praising her work on mercury pollution limits, fighting climate change and helping set new fuel economy standards for vehicles.
"Under her leadership, the EPA has taken sensible and important steps to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink," Obama said in a statement.
Jackson, the first black administrator of the 17,000-strong EPA, said in a statement she was "confident the (EPA) ship is sailing in the right direction."
Jackson, 50, is expected to leave her cabinet position after Obama's State of the Union address in early 2013. Leading the list of potential replacements are Bob Perciasepe, deputy EPA administrator, who will take over the agency on an interim basis; and Kathleen McGinty, a former head of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection and a protégé of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.
Also said to be in the mix are Gina McCarthy, the EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation; and Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board.
Jackson's departure was not a surprise. Analysts had not expected her to stay for Obama's second term.
The administration is expected to face a tough fight to get any potential nominee confirmed by the Senate -- especially any candidate seen as being in the mold of Jackson.
"Secretary Jackson played the environmental ‘bad cop' to President Obama's more moderate ‘good cop,' but the result of their tag-team effort has been a huge expansion of the EPA's power. That's the exact opposite of what is needed," said S. T. Karnick, research director at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago group that is skeptical of man-made climate change.
Jackson is the first major energy policy official to step aside since Obama's re-election last month. Some have speculated that Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel prize-winning physicist who has also clashed with industry, will also depart, as may Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Republican lawmakers accused Jackson's EPA of massive government overreach that choked economic growth, and passed numerous bills aimed at undoing the regulations. Obama did not sign their bills into law, but the White House did begin to pull back or delay rules in the face of the relentless onslaught.
Some speculated Jackson would step down in 2011, when Obama decided to delay rules to restrict emissions of smog-forming chemicals from power plants.
"From an energy and consumer perspective, it has to be said that the Jackson EPA presided over some of the most expensive and controversial rules in agency history," said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which lobbied against many of the EPA's proposed regulations.
States and governors fought Jackson's rules in the courts, scoring a win in August when a U.S. appeals court overturned the EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, aimed at reducing harmful emissions from coal-burning power plants.
On Thursday, many environmentalists and public health advocates hailed Jackson, saying she leaves a legacy of cleaner air.
"Administrator Jackson has been one of the most effective leaders in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency," Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation.
Jackson is a chemical engineer by training, and reports in recent weeks suggested she might be under consideration for the post of president of Princeton University. She is also a one-time chief of staff of New Jersey Governor John Corzine, and other media reports say she may be mulling a run for governor of that state. Continued...