Lisa Jackson is in line to become the first African-American to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
President-elect Barack Obama intends to announce Jackson as EPA administrator in the coming weeks, barring unforeseen circumstances that derail his plans, according to Democratic officials close to the transition.
Jackson, a Princeton University-educated chemical engineer, would take the helm at the agency at a time of record-low morale and when it is still grappling with how to respond to a 2007 Supreme Court decision that said it could regulate the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
During the Bush administration, the White House has at times overruled the advice of the EPA's scientific advisers and the agency's staff on issues ranging from air pollution to global warming.
Supporters say Jackson, 46, has the experience to steer the agency down a new path.
She spent 16 years at the EPA in Washington and in New York before being hired at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in 2002, an agency that has been riddled by budget cuts and personnel shortages. Jackson was named the head of the department in 2006 by Gov. Jon Corzine, overseeing environmental regulation in a state plagued by pollution problems and home to the most hazardous waste sites in the country. She left earlier this month to take a job as Corzine's chief of staff.
In her short tenure, Jackson has worked to pass mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases, to reform the state's cleanup of contaminated sites and to establish a scientific advisory board to review agency decisions.
"In New Jersey, you're working on contaminated sites, you're working on open space, endangered species, clean water. New Jersey is the laboratory for environmental protection. Whatever bad happens in the environment, it happens in New Jersey first. It is a good proving ground," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Another New Jersey woman, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, headed the EPA for 2 1/2 years during President George W. Bush's first term.
Whitman, a moderate Republican, found herself occasionally at odds with the Bush White House over environmental issues and became a lightning rod for the administration's critics.
Jackson also has her detractors.
A small but vocal contingent of environmental advocacy groups came out against Jackson last week, asking President-elect Barack Obama to drop her as a candidate.
In a letter to the transition team, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that represents environmentally-minded state and federal employees, said it was "distressed" that Jackson was under consideration.
The group said that while Jackson had "a compelling biography" — she grew up in New Orleans' gritty Lower Ninth Ward — her record at the Department of Environmental Protection did not warrant a promotion. As evidence, they cited an EPA inspector general report that found that New Jersey failed to use its authority to expedite cleanups at seven hazardous waste sites. The state also has been criticized by federal wildlife officials for failing to adopt standards for pesticides and other toxic chemicals that protect wildlife and for delays in meeting its greenhouse gas emissions targets.
DEP officials, in response to those allegations, said Jackson inherited many of the problems, and that in the case of global warming the state was getting back on track.
Other environmental groups who support her nomination but criticize some of her actions say that in those cases she was overruled by the governor.
"She is the best possible choice that President Obama could make," said Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey. "She has had a lot of situations where protections needed for the environment were politically difficult, and sometimes she didn't prevail and sometimes she did prevail."
Calls to Jackson were not returned Wednesday. Corzine's office declined comment.