By John Masson
Back when Lisa Heinzerling was just a law professor at Georgetown—and Barack Obama was just a presidential candidate and senator from Illinois—Heinzerling spent a little time compiling a list of things the EPA needed to do once a new administration came in.
"I had this whole plan that seemed to make sense to me," Heinzerling said during a recent Environmental Law & Policy Program lecture. "But then, I'm just a law professor. I'm just saying stuff."
Then, the weekend before the November 2008 election, a surprise email popped into Heinzerling's inbox: How would she like to serve on a potential Obama administration's transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency? She accepted, and suddenly had a lot more on her agenda than "just saying stuff."
The reason: pent-up demand for environmental action, after eight years of an administration that wasn't perceived as friendly toward either the environment or regulations. As a result, she told a packed classroom in Hutchins Hall Nov. 17, "The EPA had a lot ready to go. …It was a whole trove of material that really just waited for the will to act."
Once the transition was complete, Heinzerling took on a longer-term role as senior climate policy counsel to the EPA administrator, then followed that with an appointment as associate administrator in the EPA's Office of Policy. She's back at Georgetown now.
But her EPA experience, she said, was eye-opening. Much of the staff of permanent professionals at EPA was discouraged and demoralized when Obama took office after what they perceived as eight years of indifference or hostility from the Bush administration.
"But boy, were they ready to go," she said.
Within the first few months of the Obama administration, she said, the EPA had used the Clean Air Act to establish that greenhouse emissions are a danger to public health, and thus open to regulation. The agency also had tightened reporting requirements for the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, Heinzerling said, and was using its discretion under the Clean Air Act wisely by requiring reporting from only the largest emitters.
It showed that some perceptions of the EPA as "this agency, this big, job-killing bureaucratic juggernaut running amok" are off-base, she said.
That said, she added that the EPA's large-scale changes to greenhouse-gas regulation may be over.
"I think we're at a moment where EPA's program on greenhouse gases appears to be winding down," she said. She also believes EPA's other agenda items are likely to remain in pause mode until after next year's presidential election.
That doesn't mean the agency can't be doing other things in the interim, she said. While faced with the reality of a contentious political season, EPA can set to work on research and preparation for when that political environment settles out. In short, she said, "EPA can…prepare for a warming world."
Watch a video of Prof. Heinzerling's lecture.
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