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Under fire, EPA nominee can’t give ground on climate change

After a month of procedural delays, the nomination of Gina McCarthy to run the Environmental Protection Agency was finally moved Thursday out of the Environment and Public Works Committee to the full Senate. But the party-line vote of 10 Democrats and eight Republicans suggested more turbulence ahead, as the Senate Democrats will need the support of at least five Republicans to reach a filibuster-proof majority for confirmation.

Hardball tactics aren’t justified in the case of a nominee who worked for Republican governors in Massachusetts and Connecticut — including Mitt Romney — and had the respect of many industry lobbyists before being tapped for her current post as chief of the EPA’s air and radiation division. Back then, in 2009, she was confirmed by a voice vote.

The stakes are higher now. After Republicans and fossil-fuel-state Democrats blocked Obama’s first-term efforts to formulate a national strategy to combat climate change, the administration increasingly relied on EPA regulatory tools to reduce greenhouse gases, including new emissions rules for power plants. McCarthy wrote many of the new regulations. Industry lobbyists and their allies have decried the new clean air rules as too costly to implement.


Efforts to bully the EPA into lowering pollution standards are aggressive enough that when Obama nominated McCarthy to head the agency, in March, she was greeted with 1,100 written questions, mostly from Republicans. That was three times as many as Democrats asked a decade ago of George W. Bush appointee Mike Leavitt and seven times the number Republicans asked of Obama’s first-term EPA chief, Lisa Jackson. Then, claiming that McCarthy’s answers were “unresponsive,” all eight Republicans on the Environment and Public Works panel, led by ranking member David Vitter of Louisiana, last week boycotted the vote to move the nomination to the full Senate floor, denying Democrats a quorum. Vitter ended the boycott this week because he said McCarthy was finally responding to his questions.

In fact, Obama has been relatively restrained in his use of EPA regulations, overruling some of Jackson’s recommendations in light of the weak economy. And McCarthy is hardly an environmental firebrand. The efforts to hold off her confirmation seem designed to force her into a defensive posture.

The partisan delay tactics are frustrating because, if confirmed, McCarthy will have to act on some immediate challenges. Last week, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography announced that levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide have risen to their highest known levels in the last 800,000 years. McCarthy long ago proved she is able to balance the science of climate change and concerns of American industry in formulating policy. She has her work cut out for her.