McCarthy hears senators vent
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April 12, 2013
McCarthy hears senators vent

The focus of Senate confirmation hearings is often less on the qualifications of the nominee and more on individual lawmakers broadcasting their policy positions.  That proved to be the case at a hearing held by the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) to question Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s nominee to be the next EPA administrator.  While Republicans criticized air rules the EPA has issued under McCarthy and what they allege to be the Agency’s lack of transparency, they raised no significant objections to McCarthy’s nomination. 

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Bipartisan experience

In their opening statements, Democrats effusively praised McCarthy’s resume, which includes serving in public and environmental positions under five governors, including several Republicans.  Also, since 2009, McCarthy has headed EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, which has produced air rules of enormous consequence to the U.S. economy. 

“Gina is driven by a deep concern for the health and well-being of each of us and her people-oriented approach has always informed her decision making about how best to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the outdoor spaces we cherish,” gushed Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who introduced McCarthy.

The Republican charge against the EPA in general and McCarthy almost as an afterthought was led by Wyoming’s John Barrasso, who seemed particularly incensed by several of the Agency’s regulatory actions affecting coal-fired power plants, including the utility Mercury Air Toxics Standard and proposed New Source Performance Standards for coal-fired power plants. 

“Your extreme emission rules imposed on U.S. power stations are forcing coal companies to make up for lost customers by exporting more to countries in Asia,” said Barrasso.  But Barrasso then cited an EPA letter requesting that the Army Corps of Engineers look at the impact of GHG emissions associated with the transport of coal from western states to West Coast ports for shipment to Asia.  “So not only have you blocked the use of coal in power plants domestically, you are now recommending that an American product not be shipped and sold overseas,” said Barrasso.

Personal e-mails

The issue of transparency at the EPA was raised by Senator David Vitter, EPW’s ranking member.  The day before the April 11 confirmation hearing, Vitter and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) wrote to McCarthy to complain that EPA officials, including McCarthy, have used personal e-mail accounts to conduct government business in what Barrasso claims is an attempt on EPA’s part to “hide” information from the public. 

“I do not conduct business through personal e-mail,” responded McCarthy, who added that she occasionally transmitted EPA documents from her home in Boston but always through the EPA e-mail system, making it fully discoverable.  When asked if she ever used instant messaging to conduct EPA business, McCarthy said that at the age of 58 she hasn’t the first clue about how to instant message.

Brick company
On multiple occasions, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) reminded McCarthy of the extraordinary reach of the EPA into the lives of ordinary Americans, potentially governing their use of backyard barbeques to control CO2 emissions. 

Sessions also described the plight of a small brick production business that was able to reduce emissions of air pollutants by 90 percent for about $1 million, but is now facing the possibility under an upcoming EPA air toxics proposal, resulting from a settlement with the Sierra Club, of achieving additional reductions at a cost of $4 million to $8 million.  The company’s gross in 2012 was $6 million, said Sessions. 

McCarthy, who was familiar with the issue, said she believed most brick manufacturing companies were small businesses, and the EPA would have to be “incredibly sensitive to the impact of any proposed rule, never mind the final, and go through the appropriate process to understand the impact on small business.”

Climate change

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) went so far as to say that the hearing was really about climate change, not McCarthy.  McCarthy expressed her beliefs that climate change is real and caused at least in part by human activities and that the EPA, along with other federal agencies, will follow President Obama’s instructions to take commonsense steps to regulate GHG emissions in ways that will allow the economy to continue to grow. 

McCarthy cited the administration’s clean car initiative as an example of a GHG reduction program that will improve national security, reduce carbon pollution significantly, and give people cars they want to drive, which are much more efficient.

“There are many ways in which we can hopefully turn this climate change challenge into an opportunity for a clean energy economy,” said McCarthy.

Farmers

Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE) brought up EPA’s public release of security-sensitive data about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) following a request by environmental groups under the Freedom of Information Act.  The Agency subsequently asked the groups to return the information, but the initial release gave the appearance of collusion, said Fischer.  The senator also relayed the concerns of Nebraska farmers about the storage thresholds that trigger federal spill prevention, control, and countermeasures (SPCC) regulations affecting on-farm fuel storage.  Congress is currently considering legislation to raise those thresholds.  McCarthy said she was aware of the legislation but expressed no opinion for or against it.  McCarthy also conceded that “the EPA has bridges to build with the agricultural community.”

A webcast of the EPW hearing is at http://www.epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Files.View&FileStore_id=98f756ae-906d-47d9-ba12-a87104923ddb.

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