Gina McCarthy, then commissioner of Connecticut’s environmental… (Jack Sauer, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — President Obama is expected by environmental advocates to name Gina McCarthy, the controversial chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's air pollution arm, to head the agency.
The nomination of McCarthy, 58, who has served as the head of the EPA's clean-air division since 2009, could come as early as next week, according to officials of three environmental groups. Her boss, Lisa Jackson, left the administrator's post Thursday.
McCarthy's nomination is likely to draw fire from congressional Republicans. Over the last four years, they have attacked the EPA's new regulations to cut air pollution, including emissions of greenhouse gases, as job-killing government overreach.
Obama's choice of McCarthy also would signal that he is poised to make good on the more aggressive rhetoric he has used lately about the urgency of addressing climate change, environmentalists said.
During his State of the Union address Tuesday, Obama departed from his past cautiousness to make a moral case for tackling climate change. He challenged Congress to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but said he would use his authority if it failed to take action.
"If he were to pick Gina, it means he really means it," said Jody Freeman, a Harvard law professor and former White House counselor for energy and climate change who worked closely with McCarthy from 2009 to 2010.
"I think she is focused like a laser beam on being a smart and effective regulator. She's not interested in anything that's not practical, and she understands perfectly the president's agenda," Freeman said.
The White House declined to comment on the possibility of a McCarthy nomination.
"The EPA air administrator is well situated to lead the agency, if only because some of the most costly and wide-sweeping decisions come from the air office," said Scott Segal, a lawyer with Bracewell & Giuliani, a Houston law firm that often represents energy companies.
"That said, Gina McCarthy is engaging, effective and willing to listen to the regulated community — even if we don't always agree with her final rules," he said.
A Boston native, McCarthy served under four Massachusetts governors before being picked by former Gov. Mitt Romney as one of his top environmental staffers there. But she left shortly afterward to serve as commissioner of Connecticut's environmental protection department from 2004 to 2009, where she helped implement a regional scheme to trade carbon credits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
McCarthy began her tenure with the Obama administration's EPA after the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision enabling the agency to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change.
By May 2009, McCarthy's office of air and radiation had hammered out a plan with the White House, the auto industry, states like California, environmentalists and the United Auto Workers union to boost fuel efficiency considerably in passenger vehicles from 2012 to 2016.
In 2011, the EPA rolled out a second phase of fuel economy standards that would increase average fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
Under McCarthy, the air office also issued unprecedented rules to curtail emissions of mercury and carbon dioxide from new power plants. Her unit's work stirred the ire of many in industry and their state and congressional allies, who argued that the rules were too onerous.
That led to many appearances by McCarthy at often testy congressional hearings, solid preparation for the EPA administrator in light of the aggressive agenda that Obama said he would now pursue. Most of her office's regulations withstood many legal challenges. But a long-awaited rule to cut smog-forming ozone was scuttled by the president himself in 2011.
The second-term EPA will have to make final the rules on carbon emissions from new power plants, and it faces demands from environmentalists to issue similar standards for existing plants, the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the U.S.