McCarthy Faces Questions from Republicans Over Transparency, Regulatory Record at EPA

Gina McCarthy presented herself as a pragmatic regulator during a hearing April 11 on her nomination as the next Environmental Protection Agency administrator, making few commitments to senators other than to assure them she would address their concerns and consider various points of view in rulemakings.

McCarthy attempted to assuage the concerns of Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee over the agency's transparency. She said, for example, that she does not conduct agency business from personal e-mail accounts; Republicans have criticized other EPA officials over the practice.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the committee's ranking member, has said Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe and former Region 8 Administrator James Martin have used nonofficial e-mail accounts to conduct official business.

McCarthy has been EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation since 2009, overseeing some of the agency's most high-profile rules to control greenhouse gases and other forms of air pollution. Her office was responsible for issuing proposed carbon dioxide standards for new power plants, mercury standards for power plants, stringent ambient air quality standards, and other regulations (44 ER 659, 3/8/13).

McCarthy told the committee that EPA would regulate greenhouse gas emissions in a commonsense way.

And amid criticism from Republican senators that her regulatory record is one of damage to the economy, particularly with EPA's regulation of coal-fired power plants, McCarthy acknowledged that coal will continue to be a significant energy source for the country.

Vote to Be Scheduled

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has placed a hold on McCarthy's nomination until the administration announces a schedule for the release of a draft environmental impact statement for the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project, but McCarthy's confirmation does not appear to be in jeopardy.

In fact, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told McCarthy that “it looks like you will be” confirmed.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the committee does not yet have a date for a vote on McCarthy's nomination, bus she hopes the nomination will move quickly. President Obama nominated McCarthy on March 4.

Lack of Transparency Criticized

During the hearing, Republican senators criticized EPA for a lack of transparency.

Vitter said he has been pressing McCarthy and EPA to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, release scientific data justifying environmental regulations' health benefits, provide cost-benefit analyses for rules, and make legal settlement negotiations public.

For example, Vitter questioned EPA's decision to enter into a settlement agreement with environmental groups requiring regional haze reductions, while states, which were affected by the settlement, were not consulted.

McCarthy explained that consent decrees that EPA enters into are only proposed settlements, and that they are open for public comment before they become final.

'Commonsense Steps' for Carbon

McCarthy said EPA would take “commonsense steps” to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

“As the President has made clear, we must take steps to combat climate change,” McCarthy said in her written testimony for the committee. “This is one of the greatest challenges of our generation and our great obligation to future generations.”

McCarthy also said regulating greenhouse gases can provide economic opportunities through a clean energy economy. As an example, she cited a joint rule from EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that established combined greenhouse gas emissions and corporate average fuel economy standards that would require light-duty vehicles to achieve the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 if all of the required greenhouse gas emissions reductions are met through improved fuel economy.

McCarthy told the committee that rule will save consumers $1.7 trillion in fuel costs and 12 billion barrels of oil by 2025.

EPA in April 2012 proposed a new source performance standard of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour for all new fossil fuel-fired power plants. Critics have said the rule would prevent the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) questioned why EPA did not set separate standards for different fuel types. Under the proposal, new coal-fired plants would have to meet the same stringent standard that new natural gas-fired plants can meet.

McCarthy said EPA has heard similar concerns in the 2.7 million public comments the agency received on the proposed rule, and EPA will take that concern into consideration as it prepares the final rule.

The agency faces an April 13 deadline to issue the final rule, although it is not expected to meet that deadline (44 ER 549, 3/1/13).

She said EPA had originally looked at creating two separate categories but made a policy decision that it would be most appropriate to combine the categories.

Economic Impact of Rules

Senators also questioned the economic impact of EPA rules.

Inhofe said that under McCarthy's watch, EPA has promulgated rules that jeopardize the country's energy independence by targeting coal-fired power plants and boilers and tightening ambient air quality standards for fine particulate matter.

Inhofe said he fears EPA has saved “many of the worst” air regulations for Obama's second term, including more stringent ozone standards and carbon limits for power plants.

Inhofe also said that while he disagrees with McCarthy on key policy issues, he would like to have a good relationship with her if she is confirmed.

Sessions raised concerns about a settlement that EPA entered into that requires the agency to revise air toxics standards for brick and ceramics kilns, saying the tighter standards would be burdensome for businesses.

McCarthy acknowledged that the brick industry largely is made up of small businesses and said the rule will have to be sensitive to its implications for small businesses.

Democrats Praise McCarthy

Boxer and other Democrats praised McCarthy as a commonsense regulator who is liked by environmental groups and industry and has worked for Republican governors.

Boxer called McCarthy “one of the best qualified nominees ever to come before this committee.”

Before coming to EPA in 2009, McCarthy was the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, a job she took in 2004. She also worked in Massachusetts for more than two decades in a variety of positions, including deputy secretary of operations of the Massachusetts Office for Commonwealth Development.

McCarthy has a master's degree from Tufts University in environmental health engineering and planning and policy. She received her undergraduate degree in social anthropology from the University of Massachusetts.

McCarthy's work at EPA has centered on air pollution issues, although she mentioned other environmental topic areas that she wants to address as administrator.

She said she would like to work with the committee members on legislation to reauthorize “antiquated” chemical safety laws and to improve water quality.

By Jessica Coomes