WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration's chief environmental watchdog announced Thursday that she was stepping down after a tenure that began with high hopes for big changes but ended with no system to regulate global warming pollution and an unfinished agenda as Republicans stymied several initiatives and even called for her resignation.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson constantly found herself caught between Obama administration pledges to solve thorny environmental problems and steady resistance from Republicans and industrial groups who complained that the agency's rules destroyed jobs and made it harder for American companies to compete internationally.
Jackson, 50, the agency's first black administrator and a chemical engineer, did not point to any particular reason for her departure. Historically, Cabinet members looking to move on will leave at the beginning of a president's second term.
Environmental groups had high expectations for the Obama administration after eight years of President George W. Bush, a Texas oilman who rebuffed agency scientists and refused act on climate change. Jackson came into office promising a more active EPA.
But she soon learned that changes would not occur as quickly as she had hoped. Jackson watched as a Democratic-led effort to reduce global warming emissions passed the House in 2009 but was then abandoned by the Senate as economic concerns became the priority. The concept behind the bill, referred to as cap-and-trade, would have established a system where power companies bought and sold pollution rights.
"That's a revolutionary message for our country," Jackson said at a Paris conference shortly after accepting the job.
Jackson experienced another big setback last year when the administration scrubbed a clean-air regulation aimed at reducing health-threatening smog. Republican lawmakers had been hammering the president over the proposed rule, accusing him of making it harder for companies to create jobs.
She also vowed to better control toxic coal ash after a massive spill in Tennessee, but that regulation has yet to be finalized more than four years after the spill.
Jackson had some victories, too. During her tenure, the administration finalized a new rule doubling fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, creating tough new requirements that will be phased in over 13 years.
She shepherded another rule that forces power plants to control mercury and other toxic pollutants for the first time. Previously, the nation's coal- and oil-fired power plants had been allowed to run without addressing their full environmental and public health costs.
Jackson also helped persuade the administration to table the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought carbon-heavy tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in Texas.
Republicans in the House of Representatives dedicated much of their time this past election year trying to rein in the EPA. They passed a bill seeking to thwart regulation of the coal industry and quash the stricter fuel efficiency standards. In the end, though, the bill made no headway in the Senate. It served mostly as election-year fodder that appeared to have little impact on the presidential race.
The Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton, said last year that Jackson would need her own parking spot at the Capitol because he planned to bring her in so frequently for questioning. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called for her firing.
Despite the opposition, which former EPA chiefs have said is the worst they have seen against the agency, Jackson still managed to take significant steps that will improve air quality and begin to curb global warming.
"I will leave the EPA confident the ship is sailing in the right direction, and ready in my own life for new challenges, time with my family and new opportunities to make a difference," she said in a statement. Jackson will leave sometime after President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, typically in late January.
In a separate statement, Obama said Jackson has been "an important part of my team." He thanked her for serving and praised her "unwavering commitment" to the public's health.
"Under her leadership, the EPA has taken sensible and important steps to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, including implementing the first national standard for harmful mercury pollution, taking important action to combat climate change under the Clean Air Act and playing a key role in establishing historic fuel economy standards that will save the average American family thousands of dollars at the pump, while also slashing carbon pollution," he said.
Environmental activist groups and other supporters lauded Jackson for the changes she was able to make, but industry representatives said some may have come at an economic cost. Environmental groups also noted that she leaves a large, unfinished agenda.
"There has been no fiercer champion of our health and our environment than Lisa Jackson, and every American is better off today than when she took office nearly four years ago," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But she noted that Jackson's successor will inherit an unfinished agenda, including the need to issue new health protections against carbon pollution from existing power plants.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Lolita C. Baldor and Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.