Obama Names McCarthy to Top EPA Post; Selection of ‘Straight-Shooter' Draws Praise

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By Jessica Coomes and Andrew Childers  

President Obama's selection of Gina McCarthy March 4 to be the Environmental Protection Agency's next administrator drew compliments from environmental advocates and industry sources, who described her as a pragmatist who listens to all interest groups.

McCarthy, the agency's assistant administrator for air and radiation, has overseen some of the most stringent air regulations in recent history, and while industry groups have not always supported the rules, they acknowledge she has been open to hearing their concerns.

“Gina is certainly an environmentalist, but she is not anti-industry, and I have to give her credit,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a former EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation who now is a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP. “She has been willing to listen to and to really try to understand concerns of industry. She doesn't always agree with them, but among people generally in industry, people would say at least she's willing to listen to us.”

In his announcement at the White House, Obama also touched on McCarthy's ability to deal fairly with all parties.

'A Straight Shooter'

“She's earned a reputation as a straight shooter,” he said. “She welcomes different points of view.”

The nomination is contingent on Senate confirmation, and some observers are expecting Republicans to use McCarthy's confirmation process as an opportunity to complain about the Obama administration's environmental agenda. Ultimately, however, she is expected to be confirmed (see related story).

McCarthy, who established EPA's greenhouse gas greenhouse program, would take over the agency at a time when President Obama has made climate change a priority (see related story).

The EPA administrator position has been open since Lisa Jackson left the agency Feb. 14. Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe has been leading EPA as acting administrator since Jackson's departure.

During remarks at the White House, Obama publicly thanked Perciasepe for his work, and said, “As we move forward, there is nobody who can do a better job in filling Lisa's shoes permanently than my nominee … Gina McCarthy.”

Obama announced his intent to nominate McCarthy along with his selection of MIT physicist Ernest Moniz to be secretary of energy and Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget (see related stories on Moniz and Burwell).

Listens to Industry

As EPA's top air official, McCarthy has been willing to listen to industry's concerns, Holmstead told BNA in an interview prior to the announcement, which was widely expected.

For example, Holmstead credited McCarthy with convincing Jackson and other top EPA officials that the agency should revise mercury and air toxics standards for newly built power plants. EPA had issued standards to regulate both new and existing power plants in February 2012, but industry had argued the original standards for new plants were set at such low levels that emissions could not be measured, and utilities could not receive financing to build new coal plants. The final modifications for newly built plants are expected this month.

Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters March 1 that the trade group has had a good relationship with McCarthy.

“She seems to be a person that seems to be willing to listen to concerns,” Feldman said. “Certainly on specific rules we've seen EPA step back and say, 'What is the right way to solve this?' ”

Bill Allmond, vice president of government and public relations for the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, said in a statement March 4 that McCarthy deserves the nomination.

“Though we may not always agree on policy issues, we believe Ms. McCarthy has an understanding of issues impacting specialty chemical manufacturers and SOCMA members,” Allmond said. “With her extensive experience with air issues and through our previous interactions with her, she is aware of the significant costs regulations impose on small businesses, an awareness that is essential for anyone who serves in the position of EPA Administrator.”

Seen as Pragmatist

William Bumpers, a partner at Baker Botts LLP who represents power plants and other industry clients, told BNA March 4 that he is a fan of McCarthy, calling her competent and likeable.

“She is one of these avid environmental program managers who is exceptionally competent but practical,” Bumpers said. “My experience with her in the past four years, I can meet with her. She's very forthright. There's no guile with her. While I haven't always agreed with the rules that come out of there, there's never been any guess work about what comes out of there.”

Steve Harper, director of environment and energy policy for Intel, told reporters during a telephone news conference March 4 that McCarthy is pragmatic.

“In working with Gina over the last four years, what we've experienced is a person who really does get it in terms of what industry needs from an EPA leader,” Harper said.

Environmental groups also roundly praised McCarthy's nomination March 4.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement that McCarthy “is well known for listening and responding to the concerns of both environmental advocates and industry stakeholders, and for pursuing a regulatory approach that is flexible, reasonable and cost-effective.”

Worked in Connecticut, Massachusetts

Before coming to EPA in 2009, McCarthy was the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, a job she took in 2004.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) said McCarthy “was a fierce advocate of the state's natural resources” when she worked in Connecticut.

“Connecticut's loss has undoubtedly been the country's gain--Gina's tireless work to improve air quality and slow climate change has made an important impact in Washington and across the globe,” Malloy said in a written statement.

McCarthy also worked in Massachusetts for 25 years in a variety of positions, including deputy secretary of operations of the Massachusetts Office for Commonwealth Development, where she was responsible for coordinating policies from a range of state agencies, including those overseeing environmental, transportation, energy, and housing issues.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement March 4 that McCarthy cares about progress, not partisanship.

“She's worked for administrations from both parties and made extraordinary progress protecting the air we breathe and defending public health,” Karpinski said.

McCarthy earned 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.

Track Record on Climate, Air Issues

The Senate in June 2009 confirmed McCarthy by voice vote to be assistant administrator for air and radiation (104 DEN A-1, 6/3/09).

During her confirmation hearing, McCarthy said her top two priorities would be climate change and rewriting agency regulations that had been struck down by the courts, such as the Clean Air Interstate Rule and mercury emissions limits on power plants.

Her answer proved to be a road map for her work during the president's first term.

On climate change, McCarthy's office oversaw the establishment of the greenhouse gas regulatory program, including the first greenhouse gas emissions limits for passenger and medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, as well as the first greenhouse gas permitting program for large stationary sources. Additionally, her office proposed the first carbon dioxide emissions limit for newly built power plants.

In addition to climate change issues, McCarthy's office attempted to replace the Clean Air Interstate Rule with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. However, the D.C. Circuit struck the rule down, and EPA now is deciding whether to recommend that the government appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court (EME Homer City Generation LP v. EPA, D.C. Cir., No. 11-1302, mandate issued 2/4/13; 24 DEN A-1, 2/5/13).

During McCarthy's tenure, EPA also set stringent emissions limits for mercury and air toxics from power plants. The rule is being challenged in the D.C. Circuit (White Stallion Energy Center LLC v. EPA, D.C. Cir., No. 12-1100, brief filed 2/11/13; 16 DEN A-2, 1/24/13).

Obama said McCarthy, as assistant administrator, developed “practical, cost-effective ways to keep our air clean and our economy growing.”

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, called McCarthy battle-tested and smart.

“I think the nice thing about Gina going from [assistant administrator to administrator] is the transition will be very seamless,” Becker told reporters during a telephone news conference March 4. “She knows the issues. She's worked them at least on the air front. We don't expect that much difficulty in getting these rules that have been proposed … through.”

Water, Chemical Priorities

Although McCarthy has worked primarily on air issues at EPA, groups that track water quality issues are optimistic that her leadership on climate change will increase focus on water issues.

“If her selection is an indication of the priority the president intends to place on climate issues, we applaud this since we know that the impacts of climate change will be manifested first and most directly in changes to the water cycle,” the Water Environment Federation told BNA in a statement March 4. “Her past service as a chief environmental official in two New England states provided a broad familiarity with Clean Water Act issues and the challenges older communities in particular are facing with the cost of new regulations and replacement of aging infrastructure.”

Tom Curtis, deputy executive director for government affairs for the American Water Works Association, told BNA in a statement March 4 that the group has not worked closely with McCarthy, “but by reputation, we understand her to be very dedicated to her agency's missions, but willing to listen to those she regulates.”

“One advantage to the water community in this nomination is that climate change carries huge implications for water providers, and as the top official at EPA dealing with climate change over the last four years, she comes well prepared to understand those issues,” Curtis said.

On chemical issues, Ernie Rosenberg, president of the American Cleaning Institute, said the trade association wants to work with McCarthy to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act.

“We want and need a workable, science-based, robust bipartisan law that enhances consumer confidence in federal chemical management,” Rosenberg said in a statement March 4. “A modernized law needs to give the Agency the authority it needs to protect human health and safety while encouraging--and not impeding--innovation.”

By Jessica Coomes and Andrew Childers
Contributing to this report was Amena H. Saiyid


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