Joel Makower in conversation with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

Makower: So you want companies to say, “This is exciting. We would love to be part of this”?

Jackson: Just so you know from a background perspective, in my world as a regulator, we came in during the first term with a tremendous backlog of court decisions and rules that are — I don’t want to say no-brainers, but, you know, mercury, arsenic, cross-state air pollution, a patchwork quilt of auto standards. So no one could really know what they should be building because the lawsuits were flying fast and furious. That isn’t entirely behind us, but it’s largely behind us. And so that does give this president an opportunity to look at the kinds of relationships that make for 21st-century environmental protection, and they can’t happen without the business community. They haven’t ever happened without the business community.

Makower: One of the things that strikes me about this is that sustainability in business moves pretty fast. Yesterday’s best practice is today’s business-as-usual. But government moves pretty slowly. And that strikes me as an interesting dynamic

Jackson: I’m going to challenge you just a bit. Agencies don’t move fast when they’re doing regulatory things, but some of the most fascinating things EPA does are the non-regulatory things. So Energy Star or WaterSense or our E3 program, which goes to small manufacturers and helps them with the kind of consulting that only a large business can afford. So keep that in mind. When we have to make regulations it’s by — and I think rightfully — a long, drawn-out process.

But we also want to look at how we do business inside the agency. For instance, we hear from companies who say, “I would do more of X, but your regulations on Y inhibit that.” Or, “I can invest in making this process more efficient or that process more efficient, but I don’t have the capital to do both at the same time.” We need to be able to hear that and make sure that we’re not inadvertently causing more pollution in one media or another, or causing those kinds of trade-offs that inhibit innovation. I think there’s plenty of room for that. I think technology has gotten us to the point where we’re not talking about, you know, “Allow me to pollute so I can employ 100 more people.” It’s more, “Help me understand that I can make a series of investments and feel some level of certainty.”

Makower: So one of the things you’re trying to do here is something that a lot of the critics have long wanted: flexibility. Is that correct?

Jackson: I think that’s right. But within the law. I mean, we have laws to uphold. I actually believe as an engineer that there are ways to uphold the law and still make sure that we’re reflecting the kind of flexibilities that we see.

Next page: “We’ve seen this movie before.”