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Senate Republicans question EPA nominee Gina McCarthy

As head of the agency's air pollution branch, she oversaw sweeping regulations to reduce emissions from cars and power plants.

April 11, 2013|By Neela Banerjee, Washington Bureau
  • Gina McCarthy is President Obama's choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
Gina McCarthy is President Obama's choice to run the Environmental… (Olivier Douliery, Abaca…)

WASHINGTON — President Obama's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, faced tough questioning from Senate Republicans at her confirmation hearing Thursday, in a clear signal to the White House that they will continue fighting environmental regulations as vigorously as they did in the first term.

Obama's reelection, the gradual revival of the economy and the effects of climate change have not altered the viewpoint of some Republicans that climate change is suspect and environmental rules kill jobs.

As head of the EPA's air pollution branch, McCarthy oversaw the promulgation of the most sweeping and controversial regulations during Obama's first term, including reducing carbon emissions from cars and light trucks and cutting mercury from power plant emissions.

"I'm not sure whether the nominee before us today is personally aware of so many folks who have actually lost their jobs because of the EPA and the role that I believe it is taking now, which is failing our country," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo). "How many more times, if confirmed, will this EPA director pull the regulatory lever and allow another [coal] mining family to fall through the EPA's trap door to joblessness, to poverty and to poor health?"

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said McCarthy wants to pursue a "radical" agenda, but Senate staff members say the minority is unlikely to block her confirmation.

Though the decline in coal-fired power plants is driven largely by cheap natural gas, air pollution rules hit fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, hardest because of their high level of dangerous emissions. Obama has said that if Congress doesn't pass legislation to address climate change, he would get his agencies, including the EPA, to move on the issue.

Senators of both parties pressed McCarthy on how the EPA would tackle climate change, but she declined to give specific answers. Instead, she asserted unequivocally that climate change would be a priority for the EPA.

"This is one of the greatest challenges of our generation and our great obligation to future generations," McCarthy said. "I am convinced that those steps can and must be pursued with common sense. And I firmly believe they can produce not only benefits for public health, but also create markets for emerging and new technologies and new jobs."

Democrats defended McCarthy, pointing to her long record of working with politicians of both parties before she arrived at the EPA in 2009. McCarthy served as a key environmental official for three Republican governors in her native Massachusetts, including Mitt Romney, before leading Connecticut's environmental protection office under Republican Gov. Jodi Rell.

Under McCarthy, Connecticut entered a greenhouse-gas emissions trading market that spans the Northeast. If confirmed, she said, reducing greenhouse gases on a national scale would be one of her goals. McCarthy also pledged to clean up water sources and to revise "antiquated" chemical safety rules.

Efforts by Congress to stymie measures similar to those implemented by McCarthy in Connecticut were beaten back by the Obama White House. But the administration itself played a role in thwarting some important pollution rules. And it's clear that McCarthy, like her predecessor, Lisa P. Jackson, is outside the tight-knit circle around Obama that sets administration policies.

In a book released this week, Harvard University professor Cass Sunstein, a friend of Obama and former head of a little-known unit of the Office of Management and Budget, said the White House decided which regulations would go forward, not agency chiefs like the EPA administrator.

Sunstein says that while many rules were passed under Obama, "a lot of potential rules, favored by one or another influential group, never saw the light of day."

Obama famously rejected a rule that would have cut smog-forming ozone, and that rule is up again for review this term. The Office of Management and Budget has also delayed for several years guidance the EPA drafted on "chemicals of concern," which could be a problem if the EPA under McCarthy wants to improve chemical safety.

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