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March 04, 2013
President names Gina McCarthy to head the EPA
President names Gina McCarthy to head the EPA

In selecting Regina (Gina) McCarthy to head the EPA, President Obama has again chosen an experienced environmental professional, the former boss of a northeastern state's environmental agency, and someone who has engaged extensively with both industry and environmentalists.  One resume item McCarthy possesses that former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson did not when she took the job is making multiple appearances at congressional hearings to defend Agency actions against often hostile questioning by Republican lawmakers.  House committee chairs followed through on their promise to summon Jackson continually to hearings, a routine that did appear to wear Jackson down near the end of her tenure and, she said, contributed to her decision to resign.

Hearing experience

McCarthy can expect the same.  But as EPA’s current Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation (OAR), McCarthy has already been grilled by members of Congress, particularly over the growing number of actions by the Agency to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs); these include EPA’s emissions standards for light-duty vehicles and proposal to impose carbon emissions limits on new coal-fired power plants.  At one hearing in July 2012, McCarthy said she felt privileged to speak in Congress, but sometimes wished she was “not so privileged.”  Should McCarthy become EPA administrator, she will undoubtedly see her congressional privileges balloon considerably.  The president selected McCarthy after he emphasized in his second inaugural address and 2013 State of the Union that his administration will tackle the challenge of climate change, a commitment that lost momentum, at least in the White House, in the latter half of his first term. 

To assume EPA’s top position, McCarthy will need Senate approval, which she received in 2009 when she took over the OAR.  At that time, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), one of the Senate’s major climate change skeptics, approved McCarthy, but only after he received assurances from Jackson that the current Clean Air Act (CAA) is an inappropriate vehicle for the regulation of GHGs.  The Agency has followed with exactly the kinds of actions that Inhofe believed should not occur.  Given the fierce battle that ensued in the Senate over the Defense Secretary nomination of Chuck Hagel, a Republican who served in the Senate, McCarthy will likely see much of the same. 

Long state experience

But McCarthy brings with her decades of experience that have earned respect from business and industry as well as environmentalists.  In Massachusetts she served under Governors Michael Dukakis, William Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Republican Mitt Romney.   During Romney’s tenure, McCarthy worked prominently in several sustainable development programs, including as coordinator of state environmental, transportation, energy, and housing projects.  She was also instrumental in developing Massachusetts’ climate action plan.  This led to the state’s enrollment in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multistate program that Romney pulled out of in 2005 after McCarthy moved on to lead Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection.  (Massachusetts later rejoined RGGI under current Governor Deval Patrick.)

Historic perspective

McCarthy is viewed as the force behind each climate-related air rule the EPA has issued during the Obama administration, as well as other significant actions, such the Utility MACT and the Cross State Air Pollution Rule.  She has repeatedly argued that the current major air rules and the ones that are expected will not have devastating effects on the U.S. economy, as alleged by fiscal conservatives.  McCarthy likes to cite regulatory history to put GHG actions into perspective. 

“In the 1980s, people claimed that the proposed Clean Air Act Amendments would cause ‘a quiet death for businesses across the country,’” said McCarthy in a 2011 congressional hearing.  “Instead the U.S. economy grew by 64 percent even as implementation of the Clean Air Act Amendments cut acid rain pollution in half.  Yet again, in 1990, we were told that using the Clean Air Act to phase out the chemicals depleting the ozone layer would create ‘severe economic and social disruption.’  A refrigeration industry representative testified, ‘We will see shutdowns of refrigeration equipment in supermarkets… We will see shutdowns of chiller machines, which cool our large office buildings, our hotels, and hospitals.’  In reality the phase out was accomplished without such disruptions.  EPA is using the same Clean Air Act tools that we have been using for the last 40 years to protect public health to now address greenhouse gas emissions.” 

McCarthy will certainly continue to make use of her grasp of CAA history in presenting the Agency’s programs to industry as well as environmental groups.   But both sides should bear in mind that the White House has the final word on major regulations.  This was painfully evident to Administrator Jackson when President Obama delayed EPA’s finalization of new ozone standards.  In 2013, the EPA must revisit the postponed ozone standard and also take final action on GHG emissions from new coal-fired power plants.  Should she receive Senate approval, McCarthy will likely find out in her first year how strong her support from the White House will be. 


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