President Obama’s nomination Monday of Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency sets up the next high-profile clash between the White House and congressional Republicans over the incendiary issue of climate change.
Obama has tapped McCarthy, currently the assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA, as administrator at a time when he looks to expand the agency’s reach. During the president’s second term, EPA is expected to focus more on regulating fossil-fuel industries that are the biggest contributors to climate change but are also among the mainstays of the nation’s economy.
Most energy analysts and Senate-watchers expect McCarthy to be confirmed, but her nomination does set the stage for high drama over one of the most pressing environmental problems on the planet.
In his State of the Union address, Obama made clear that as he pursues his climate-change agenda, he is prepared to bypass Congress and use EPA’s authorities to move ahead with aggressive regulations on producers of greenhouse gases. The president called on Congress to act on climate change, and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has introduced legislation, but the bill has almost no chance of success in the gridlocked Congress. As a result, Obama plans to hand the ball for his climate-change agenda to EPA.
Her confirmation hearing before the Environment and Public Works panel, which has yet to be scheduled, will pit McCarthy—an environmental regulator of nearly 30 years with a tough-talking style, a thick Boston accent, and a steely blue gaze—against a trio of conservative energy-state Republicans who question the science of climate change and have launched a public crusade against EPA broadly and McCarthy specifically.
An expected grilling of McCarthy by ranking member David Vitter, R-La.—a conservative Southern firebrand from a major oil-drilling state—will be like “a showdown between Hillary [Rodham] Clinton and Rand Paul,” said one former EPA official.
Vitter has already launched a public campaign of sorts against the nominee. In 2011, he wrote a letter to EPA requesting the scientific methods used in the agency’s regulatory agenda. Over the past six weeks, as rumors swirled that McCarthy was the likely EPA nominee, Vitter has sent out a steady barrage of letters and press releases demanding answers from McCarthy.
“The EPA is in desperate need of a leader who will stop ignoring congressional information requests, hiding e-mails and more from the public, and relying on flawed science,” Vitter said on Monday. “McCarthy has been directly involved in much of that, but I hope she can reverse those practices with [outgoing EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson’s departure. I look forward to hearing answers from her on a number of key issues.”
The panel’s second-ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, has long been known as Washington’s most prominent climate-science skeptic. Last year, Inhofe wrote a book called The Greatest Hoax, reiterating his long-standing claim that the theory of human-caused climate change is a falsehood cooked up by scientists. Inhofe has clashed with the Obama administration on climate change since Day One, and there’s little doubt he’ll seize the opportunity to push back hard at McCarthy.
Another top Republican on the panel, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, comes from a coal state whose economy would likely be hit hard by new climate regulations. He already has a history of conflict with McCarthy.
In 2009, Barrasso initially blocked McCarthy’s nomination to her current post, in part because of concerns about her approach to regulating greenhouse gases. He eventually lifted his hold. But he said on Monday, “I have serious concerns about how the current EPA operates. We can’t afford another administrator who bypasses Congress and rolls out more red tape that discourages job creation. I’m going to take a very close look at Ms. McCarthy’s experience at the EPA and her vision for the agency.”
So far, no Republicans have threatened to block McCarthy’s nomination outright. And she will have an opportunity to make her case with them in one-on-one meetings ahead of the confirmation hearing. Those meetings may give McCarthy a chance to deploy her well-known sense of humor to help smooth the way ahead of the vote on her nomination.
Meanwhile, environmental groups have launched a website, standwithgina.com, to build support for the nominee ahead of the hearing.
Boxer said on Monday she intends to move forward with the nomination “as quickly as possible.”
This article appeared in the Tuesday, March 5, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.