Those who worked with Gina McCarthy in New England have no doubt she is the right woman to run the Environmental Protection Agency. The outstanding question is whether President Obama, who nominated her this week, will have her back if she is confirmed.
“She swears like a longshoreman with a Kennedy accent,” said Doug Foy, who was secretary of commonwealth development under Governor Mitt Romney. McCarthy was his deputy secretary for the environment. “We had utility companies running old dirty power plants, and Gina called them out. But she’d do it in a humorous way, like, ‘We know you’re trying to ignore us.’ ”
Ian Bowles, the former Massachusetts energy and environmental secretary, said McCarthy was an impressive force behind the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to cut carbon emissions from power plants while she was Connecticut’s commissioner of environmental protection. “Gina is an expert on the technical details who can tell industry that prices haven’t gone up and the lights haven’t gone out with sensible policies.”
That expertise as well as her reputation for working well with industry appear to be insulating McCarthy from a confirmation battle. Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, congratulated McCarthy and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a Republican who calls climate change a “hoax,” told Politico he supports McCarthy’s confirmation after speaking with her this week. Inhofe had an oddly contentious-yet-warm relationship with Obama’s first-term administrator, Lisa Jackson. Inhofe said he and McCarthy pledged to “be honest with each other, and we’ll be friends.”
That leaves a lot in Obama’s court. In March 2009, he nominated McCarthy to run EPA’s clean air division. Her fingerprints are on Obama’s top first-term environmental achievements, which include a 54.5 mile per gallon fuel economy standard by 2025, and proposed major cuts in mercury and carbon dioxide emissions for new power plants.
But the environment fell behind the economy during the 2012 presidential campaign, and Obama angered environmentalists by rejecting tougher ozone smog standards, saying they would hurt the economy. Obama revived the environment as a top priority in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses, and environmental groups see McCarthy’s nomination as evidence of refreshed commitment.
“I’ve seen her in the room with the stakeholders on pollution standards,” said Melinda Pierce, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “She had no hesitation in cutting them off” when she felt industry was being needlessly intransigent or backtracking in negotiations on pollution controls.
Environmentalists believe that if Obama supports McCarthy, significant progress can be made on pollution standards for existing power plants, new ozone rules, and cleaner transportation fuels. By more than a 2-to-1 margin in a Pew Research Center poll in February, Americans said they want stricter emissions limits on power plants to fight climate change.
“With immigration reform and the sequester dominating the Republican agenda, Obama has an opportunity,’’ said John Walke, clean air director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It helps that Gina is not a bomb-thrower and is held in higher regard by industry’’ than Jackson, he said.
A request for an interview with McCarthy was declined by EPA, but she has left plenty of clues about her passions. In 2002, as assistant secretary for environmental affairs in Massachusetts, she reacted harshly to Bush-era EPA rollbacks of pollution standards that made it harder for states to force power plants to modernize. “How can we expect a judge to take us seriously when standards are so weakened?” she demanded.
She also told The Washington Post that states were collaborating on greenhouse gases because, “federal standards are simply not good enough. If we can’t get the federal government to act, then we have to take action in any way we can.”
McCarthy now is about to be the standard bearer for the federal government’s response to climate change. The seriousness of Obama’s second-term environmental agenda will depend on whether the woman who once criticized the weakening of EPA standards is allowed to strengthen them.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.