The following story, ”The EPA @ 40,” by Alvin Powell, was published in the Harvard Gazette on Dec. 6, 2010. It is reprinted here with permission. Additional information has been provided by the Harvard Law School Office of Communications.

November’s broad election gains for House and Senate Republicans do not equal a mandate to roll back hard-won protections for the environment, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said at Harvard Law School in December.

The EPA’s aggressive work to clean up the environment during the Obama administration’s first two years has made it a target for the ire of some Republicans, Jackson said. But she argued that the same voters who put those Republicans in office also approved numerous ballot measures protecting the environment in their home states.

“No candidate ran on a promise to put more pollution in our air and water, and no one was sent to Congress with a mandate to increase health risks for our children,” Jackson said.

Jackson was the keynote speaker in the School’s Ames Courtroom during an all-day conference on Dec. 3 marking the 40th anniversary of the EPA’s creation. The event was sponsored by the Law School, the Harvard Kennedy School, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the Harvard University Center for the Environment. Among the speakers and panelists was former Vice President Al Gore, who delivered an off-the-record luncheon address to the gathering. He was introduced to the audience by Harvard University President Drew Faust, who said: “For over 30 years, he has been one of our country’s most effective environmental advocates. His 1992 book ‘Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit’ first set out his path for becoming the environmental prince before us. As vice president, he led the Clinton administration’s efforts to protect the environment and strengthen our economy. Most importantly, Al Gore has shown us that energy and the environment can and must be catalysts for individual and institutional action.”

Former Vice President Al Gore and Founding EPA Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus ’60

Jackson said that the EPA has been aggressive under her leadership but that critics who argue that environmental protection and economic development can’t coexist are wrong. Despite repeated predictions of economic doom from industry groups when significant protection legislation has been passed, those industries have endured and the economy has continued to grow. In fact, Jackson said, regulations have provided the inducement for innovations such as the catalytic converter, replacement chemicals for ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons, and an industrial sector dedicated to producing “green” products.

“President Obama has insisted that the choice between our economy and our environment is indeed a false choice,” Jackson said. “We’ve been more than happy to prove him right.”

The EPA’s past successes have provided a series of environmental protections that the public would be loath to part with, Jackson said. Among them are removing lead from gasoline and the air, reducing acid rain, providing the scientific foundation for secondhand-smoke regulations, cleaning rivers and water supplies, halting the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, increasing vehicle efficiency, and controlling toxic substances.

“This list represents million of lives saved and trillions of dollars in health benefits,” Jackson said. “These changes touched the life of every single American since 1970. … This list represents things the American people would refuse to do without.”

One of the more contentious challenges lying ahead involves action on climate change. A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA cleared the way for EPA action on such change under the Clean Air Act. The case determined that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by vehicles are indeed pollutants and therefore subject to EPA regulation. In 2009, the EPA released an “endangerment finding” under the Clean Air Act, saying that greenhouse gases can threaten public health and the environment and that emissions from motor vehicles contribute to air pollution that endangers public health.

One of the panels explored the ramifications of those actions and the extent to which the EPA can regulate greenhouse gases without major climate change legislation, which is stalled in Congress.

The panel, led by HUCE Director Dan Schrag, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and professor of environmental science and engineering, featured EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, Archibald Cox Professor of Law at Harvard Law School Jody Freeman, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Peter Lehner, and EPA Associate Administrator Lisa Heinzerling.

Perciasepe said that with more sweeping climate change legislation stalled, there are still actions that can be taken under the Clean Air Act to address the emissions of greenhouse gases.

“If we can’t do the big thing, we should do something, and the Clean Air Act is a way to do something,” Perciasepe said.

The EPA already has taken other steps, such as the Energy Star appliance program, to use less fuel — and thus emit fewer greenhouse gases — through efficiency.

Freeman said that a piecemeal approach that fully uses the executive branch’s powers to make rules and regulations under existing laws, such as the Clean Air Act, and that takes advantage of state and local efforts to fight climate change could actually make significant reductions. That goal would require, though, that multiple efforts on many fronts all be successful, she said, even in the face of opposition lawsuits and moves in Congress to weaken or block action through legislation. One unsung but critical strategy will likely involve “playing defense” against current and future action in the courts and Congress, Freeman added.

While those actions could help the nation reach interim greenhouse gas reduction targets, the only way to reach long-term goals, Freeman said, is to pass more comprehensive climate change legislation.

The conference included three other panels:

“A Legacy of Environmental Protection,” with Founding EPA Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus, Robert Sussman, senior policy counsel to EPA Administrator Jackson; Harvard School of Public Health Professor Joel Schwartz; Mary D. Nichols, chairman, California Air Resources Board; C. Boyden Gray, former U.S. ambassador to the European Union and former counsel to George H.W. Bush. Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer in Public Policy Henry Lee moderated.

“Global Problems, Local Solutions,” with panelists Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; HLS Professor Jody Freeman; Jay Williams, mayor, Youngstown, Ohio; Michelle DePass, EPA assistant administrator; Mary A. Gade, former EPA regional administrator; and Ron Sims, deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“From Science to Policy,” with Harvard Kennedy School Professor Sheila Jasanoff; Paul Anastas, EPA assistant administrator; Harvard School of Public Health Professor James K. Hammitt; University of Minnesota Professor and Chair of the EPA Science Advisory Board Deborah L. Swackhamer. Harvard Kennedy School Professor William Clark moderated.

In an interview after the conference, Freeman said one of the highlights of the conference was having such an impressive collection of people attend to reflect on the EPA’s history–from Bill Ruckelshaus, the EPA administrator at its inception, to Lisa Jackson, the current administrator, to John Holdren and Nancy Sutley from the White House, and Al Gore. “It was a stellar group and made for an really lively exchange,” said Freeman.

“The event was a nice balance between celebrating accomplishments and reflecting on remaining challenges, of which there are many. People discussed the variety of tools in the toolbox for addressing environmental problems, from market-based instruments to traditional regulation. But they also talked about how the political dynamic in Washington has changed over time,” she said. Freeman added: “Most of the landmark environmental laws had bipartisan support. Today, things are much more partisan, which makes it even more challenging to make progress. At the moment, one of the key questions on climate change is how much to use the executive power the president has under the Clean Air Act—imperfect as it might be–versus how long to wait for Congress to act. In the next two years we may not see much movement on the legislative front, but the fight over executive power will be fierce.”