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Climate challenges face Obama’s EPA and Energy nominees

Mar. 6, 2013 - 11:15AM   |  
By DAN VERGANO and WENDY KOCH   |   Comments
Ernest Moniz and Gina McCarthy were nominated by President Barack Obama to head the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, respectively.
Ernest Moniz and Gina McCarthy were nominated by President Barack Obama to head the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, respectively. (Mandel Ngan / AFP)

Reflecting his intent to tackle climate change in his second term, President Obama picked two Washington veterans who’ve been wrestling with such issues for years.

Obama on Monday announced the selection of the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air chief Gina McCarthy, 58, to head the agency and MIT professor Ernest Moniz, 68, to lead the Energy Department. In making the long-expected picks, Obama said, “they’re going to be making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change.”

Still awaiting Senate confirmation, they would take over agencies with missions that Obama raised to the top of his priority list in his recent inaugural address and State of the Union speech, calling for a doubling in energy efficiency and other steps to address global warming.

Both McCarthy, who headed EPA’s air-pollution efforts during Obama’s first term, and Moniz, who was a top Energy official during President Clinton’s second term, stand out as politically experienced pragmatists, analysts say.

“The president is signaling not so much that he intends to work around Congress but he will follow through on all the things he can do himself at these two agencies,” said policy expert Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “Both of these nominees are very consistent in pursuing practical means, not ideology, to reach their goals.”

McCarthy, who also worked for two former Republican governors including Mitt Romney when he led Massachusetts, is known for considering industry concerns during her successful push to nearly double gas-mileage standards for new cars and light trucks by 2025.

Moniz supports nuclear power, natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to replace coal and burying carbon dioxide from power plants underground, none of which are favorites with environmental groups. He also backs renewable energy sources such as solar power. His broad energy research embodies Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy.

Chief among the challenges awaiting McCarthy, who would replace Lisa Jackson, are calls by the NRDC and other environmental groups for tighter emission caps on existing coal-fired power plants, the leading U.S. source of greenhouse gases.

Such regulations give the industry pause. Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group, said Obama touts job creation as a top priority, but adds: “The problem is that EPA, in many cases, is not proposing regulations that meet this goal.”

Other looming issues include potential rules on the chemicals used to extract natural gas from rock, in a process known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, and an Obama decision on whether to approve the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. The billion-dollar private project would carry a heavy crude oil, known as tar sands, from Canada across the Great Plains to U.S. refineries.

The EPA and Energy Department will be among a dozen federal agencies that the State Department will consult when it determines this spring whether Keystone XL is in “the national interest.” On Friday, the department released a draft review that riled environmentalists, who are calling for the pipeline’s rejection, by saying Canada’s tar sands would likely be developed whether the project is approved or not.

Environmental groups expect McCarthy will be on their side. “It’s March madness time and the president has scored a slam dunk for the environment by picking Gina McCarthy,” said Gene Karpinski of the League of Conservation Voters.

Some businesses praised the nominees as well, citing past dealings with industry. “Obama’s nominations for EPA administrator and secretary of Energy make it clear that energy policy will be a high priority and tied closely to environmental policy,” said spokesman Paul Elsberg of the power industry’s Exelon Corp. in Chicago.

“We had a good rapport with Ernie (Moniz),” during the Clinton administration, said Bob Beck, chief operating officer of the National Coal Council, a privately funded advisory board. Moniz, nominated to succeed Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, has researched and supported technology to capture the carbon emitted from coal-fired plants, a crucial step toward limiting the industry’s air pollution.

Yet the confirmations won’t be entirely drama free. McCarthy will face questions from Sen. David Vitter, R.-La., who has criticized how the EPA and McCarthy devised new clean air rules, and demanded more information from the agency. In a statement, Vitter said: “I look forward to hearing answers from her on a number of key issues.”

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Dan Vergano and Wendy Koch report for USA Today.

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