President Obama’s first-term Environmental Protection Agency chief, Lisa Jackson, officially stepped down on Thursday. By all accounts, the top contender to replace Jackson is her right-hand woman on clean air and climate-change policy, Gina McCarthy, EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation for the past four years.
McCarthy, an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts with a thick South Boston accent, a ready sense of humor, and a tough-talking style, would come to the job after 30 years of working on environmental regulations at the state and federal level. During Obama’s first term, as he and Jackson came under fire from Republicans for waging a “war on coal” by regulating power-plant emissions, it’s been McCarthy who’s done the real work of writing and rolling out rules. Some environmentalists have nicknamed her “Obama’s green quarterback.”
From 2004 to 2009, McCarthy was head of Connecticut’s EPA. Before that, she spent 25 years working as a health and environmental-protection official for Massachusetts, during which she worked for five governors from both parties—including Mitt Romney, who tasked her with authoring a state climate-change plan.
Environmentalists cheered when McCarthy was named to her current position. But she also has a surprisingly good reputation in the energy industry—even among coal-fired electric utilities and automakers, groups that traditionally love to hate EPA.
“At EPA, as a regulator, you’re always asking people to do things they don’t want to do,” said Charles Warren, a top EPA official in the Reagan administration who now represents industries, such as steel companies, at the firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel. “But Gina’s made an effort to reach out to industries while they’re developing regulations. She has a good reputation.”
Also frequently praised by both greens and CEOs is her ready sense of humor, which she’s used to defuse even adversarial congressional grilling with a well-timed laugh line.
But McCarthy comes with built-in enemies. If nominated, she’ll face a fiery confirmation hearing from Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, and senior Republican member John Barrasso of Wyoming hail from states where oil and coal production are big parts of the economy—and EPA regulations are viewed as straight-up job-killers.
Vitter has already launched a public campaign of sorts against McCarthy, questioning the scientific methods used in EPA’s regulatory agenda. And in 2009, Barrasso initially blocked McCarthy’s nomination to her current slot at EPA, in part because of concerns about her approach to regulating greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
McCarthy had told Barrasso that if small-scale polluters sued EPA in the wake of climate-change regulations, she would meet directly with the litigants. “That’s the EPA’s solution—to sit down over a cup of coffee and ask lawyers for special-interest groups not to sue?” scoffed Barrasso in a Senate floor speech at the time.
In fact, that’s the exact approach that has earned McCarthy praise from industries. Industry officials who have worked with McCarthy for years say that although they don’t like regulations, they respect McCarthy as an honest broker. When new regulations are coming down the pike, they say, McCarthy invites industry heads for group listening sessions.
Last summer, EPA released an ambitious new regulation that will dramatically increase fuel efficiency in cars and trucks, the strongest action the Obama administration has taken so far to fight climate change—but one that required lengthy negotiations with automakers.
“She’s a pragmatic policymaker,” said Gloria Berquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “She has aspirational environmental goals, but she accepts real-world economics.”
The coal industry and coal-fired power plants will feel the biggest economic pinch from EPA regulations on greenhouse gases. American Electric Power, an Ohio-based electric utility with a fleet of generators that depends heavily on coal, protested the Obama administration’s first-term clean-air rules and is deeply concerned about coming climate rules.
But officials in that company still have grudging praise for McCarthy. “Early on, Gina brought us in to talk about the rules,” said John McManus, AEP’s vice president of environmental services. “We talked about timing, technology, and cost. My sense is that Gina is listening, has an open mind, she wants to hear the concerns of the regulated sector.”
AEP told McCarthy that a rule aimed at cutting soot emissions was so stringent that it would cripple the company. Eventually, McCarthy agreed to loosen a portion of the rule—a move that saved the company about 10 percent of the cost of meeting the rule’s requirements, McManus said.
“Did she do all the things we thought would be best? No, but we do see that she’s trying to do things that would achieve regulatory balance.”
McCarthy has drawn the ire of some allies in the environmental community for her industry outreach. But, ultimately, they say her approach is likely to lead to realistic rules that will stand up to challenges by industry.
“She gives a lot of tough love,” said William Becker, head of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. “And those in the environmental community understand and welcome the truth. If you explain what you’re thinking and what’s causing you to make that conclusion and you do it in a professional and nice way, that tends to deflate a lot of the aggression. She’s brutally honest, very fair, humorous, and an incredibly hard worker. She’s not an ideologue. She’s a practitioner.”
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