President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the EPA during his second term is familiar to many on Capitol Hill, has some bipartisan credentials from past stints in New England state governments and was previously confirmed by the Senate for her current post as head of the agency’s air office.
But Gina McCarthy’s nomination will nevertheless provoke debate on energy and environmental policy.
As the administration’s point person for developing the first greenhouse gas limits for new power plants, McCarthy has made few friends among lawmakers from coal-producimg states and industrial centers.
Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said her support for McCarthy — and for Ernest J. Moniz, Obama’s choice for Energy secretary — will hinge on their commitment to “restore balance” to federal energy policy. “I’m willing to work with both DOE and the EPA to address the shared challenges we face, but it truly must be done in a way that recognizes the benefits of an energy supply that is not only clean, but also abundant, affordable, diverse and secure,” Murkowski said in a statement.
Colorado Democrat Mark Udall said he is also interested in a balanced approach. “I will want to know if Ms. McCarthy has a commitment to strong, effective environmental safeguards and also understands how to work with the regulated communities to develop policies that work for Coloradans,” he said in a statement.
In announcing McCarthy’s nomination, Obama noted her work “on practical, cost-effective ways to keep our air clean and our economy growing.”
“She’s earned a reputation as a straight-shooter,” Obama said. “She welcomes different points of views.”
The Senate confirmed McCarthy to her current position in 2009, and that experience could make her second confirmation process relatively smooth. Oklahoma Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe, a prominent EPA critic despite his frequent praise of outgoing Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, predicted in December that senators would largely defer to Obama’s choice for the EPA post.
GOP Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming placed a hold on McCarthy’s 2009 nomination, demanding answers to questions about the EPA’s “endangerment finding” — the document that provides the basis for EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions because of their threat to public health.
Although Barrasso relented, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter — now the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works committee that will consider McCarthy’s nomination — has since asked her to make public the scientific data underpinning air quality rules.
Republican senators are likely to ask McCarthy to promise she and her team will be more responsive to congressional requests than the agency was during Jackson’s tenure, said Jeff Holmstead, who headed EPA’s air office during President George W. Bush’s first term.
While GOP senators probably will not give McCarthy a free ride during the upcoming confirmation process, they would probably be well advised to accept her nomination in view of her reputation for carefully considering industry concerns when writing rules, Holmstead said.
“Even though people are unhappy with some of the EPA rules, Gina is someone who’s at least been willing to sit down and talk with people and fix some things that were real problems for folks,” Holmstead added.
If confirmed, one of McCarthy’s challenges will be to determine the EPA’s path forward on carbon pollution regulations.
EPA has proposed standards for new power plants that would effectively prevent construction of new coal-fired facilities without the capability to capture and store carbon dioxide. Environmentalists expect her to finalize those rules and then move to emissions from existing power plants. But industry stakeholders argue that the Clean Air Act does not offer a clear-cut way for EPA to clean up the dirtiest plants beyond requiring more efficiency.
Obama made it clear Monday that McCarthy and Moniz will concentrate on compelling the country to innovate an economy that runs on cleaner forms of energy. Just how they will do that remains to be seen.
“These two over here, they’re going to be making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change, that we’re going to be creating jobs and economic opportunity in the first place,” the president said, pointing to his nominees. “They are going to be a great team. And these are some of my top priorities going forward.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.