Joel Makower in conversation with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

Makower: I’m pretty sure that some of the people are going in the business community are going to say, “We’ve seen this movie before.” I’ll give you two feature films that they’ve seen. One is Performance Track, which was an effort to recognize and acknowledge companies that were excelling, and reward them through incentives, regulatory relief and fast-track permitting. And the other — you talk about acknowledging the leaders — was Climate Leaders. Both of those came and went. And from what I hear from companies that I talk to, they loved those programs. And they went away.

So in an age of political volatility, how do they know that this is not going to be, pardon me, but a flavor-of-the-month — something that they’re going to invest in, get excited about, want to be a part of, and then see it go away?

Jackson: Performance Track is a great example of a government program that people talk about now in retrospect a lot better than they talked about it when it was happening. What people said about Performance Track was more in line with that it takes forever to get regulatory relief. “We’ve given you everything you’ve asked for and you can’t seem to get it through your lawyers.” And there was a really good reason for that, because the laws were not set up that way at all. They were never set up to say, “You know, Joel, if you do these three things we’ll forget the fact that you can’t do number four.” We don’t actually have that flexibility.

What we do have is the ability to recognize the things you are doing, that for many companies can buy them some ability to deal with the times when things aren’t always going that well. It’s really that simple. I think we have to be willing to try things and people also have to be willing to admit when things aren’t working.

With Climate Leaders, we were rewarding people for reporting things that are now required, and so you can’t have a leader’s program when the regs finally caught up with the leaders; they had been out in front, but now it’s the law of the land.

Makower: So, how do we think about your sustainability vision if it’s not actually a program like a Climate Leaders or a Performance Track

Jackson: If you look at the ‘Green Book,’ what the National Academy recommended was that we look at how we do our own risk assessments internally to make sure that we’re thinking about sustainability principles — that we look at our regulatory processes internally to make sure we’re not inhibiting sustainability. So, we have that kind of work to do internally. I would be loathe, too, if I were in the private sector to sign up for something. I don’t think we need a brand new, big-old program; I think what we need to do is make sure that the communication is robust and that we’re learning from each other.

Makower: So when you and I get together in January 2017, at the end of President Obama’s second term, and you look back at this thing that you spawned as you were heading out the door, what’s the story that you want to be able to tell?

Jackson: The country is prepared to take some pretty big leaps forward in my mind, in everything from energy efficiency to reducing toxics. But we still are a little bit “stuck on stupid” — that’s my father’s phrase — which is, we still have the same argument in that we assume you can’t make that progress without paying a heavy toll in terms of economic growth. And I’ve just never believed that. All it takes is a willingness to look at the problem and say, “I want them both,” and come up with a solution that optimizes both. So I would hope that it was the time when forward-thinking businesses who see that already — who don’t see the need to say either/or — said “We found an ear in the EPA in a way that helped us feel like we did have support, and had a voice and a seat at the table.” I don’t know where it will go. It will be for the next administrator and probably his or her legacy will be determined by how much of it they formalize and how they do that.

But I’ll tell you, I don’t actually think it can go away because there’s so much excitement inside the agency about it. The biggest concern we have to make sure is that everyone doesn’t run off with a thousand points of sustainability, and all of a sudden there’s all these programs, and to the outside world it just looks like a nice bunch of little things instead of a bigger change.

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