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In her first speech since being confirmed by Congress, Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy pledged Tuesday to let science drive her agency’s agenda as it begins to develop controversial rules to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants.

Despite Washington’s partisan, fractured atmosphere, McCarthy said, “We are not going to stop looking at the science’’ in writing regulations limiting emissions that contribute to global warming. During the Bush administration, the EPA was routinely criticized by environmentalists for letting politics trump the growing scientific evidence of man-made climate change.

Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd at Harvard Law School — which included friends from McCarthy’s years as a top state environmental official under Mitt Romney and other governors — the Massachusetts native known for her blunt talk and pronounced Boston accent also said it was time to dispel the myth that environmental regulation hurts the economy.


“Can we stop talking about environmental regulations killing jobs?” she asked to loud applause from 310 attendees. “We need to cut carbon pollution to strengthen the economy; let’s talk about this positively.”

McCarthy made no new policy pronouncements in her speech or in a question-and-answer period, but she laid out a case that regulations put in place during the agency’s 43-year history have cleaned waterways and the air and helped the economy.

She said she remembered going to Boston beaches as a child with a cloth to wipe oil off her body; now the harbor is so clean, she joked, she can’t afford waterfront property there. Rivers in Lowell and Lawrence that ran different colors depending on what dyes textile mills were using are now largely clean.

“Between 1970 and 2011, emissions of air pollutants dropped 68 percent” while the US economy grew, McCarthy said, noting that the decrease in pollutants prevented 205,000 premature deaths.


Republicans in Congress have generally argued against environmental regulations, saying they make the United States less competitive and eliminate jobs. In Massachusetts, however, industry officials said new federal limits on power plant emissions may help businesses because state rules are already strict.

“Science-based, well thought out environmental regulations which level the playing field for Massachusetts employers could only help us here,’’ said Robert Rio, a senior vice president for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, an industry group. Rio worked with McCarthy on many programs during her time in the state.

McCarthy waited almost five months to start her job after Republicans launched a concerted effort to stall her confirmation. Opponents eventually dropped those efforts and McCarthy was confirmed earlier this month.

In addition to dealing with carbon regulations for power plants, McCarthy will face decisions on how to make fracking, the controversial drilling technique used to extract natural gas from shale, safer. Water allocation problems are also likely to confront the agency as droughts increase and competition grows for the resource.

When asked by an audience member about the controversial Keystone pipeline that would bring tar sands oil from Canada to US refineries, McCarthy first joked she was leaving the room, then said “the [State] Department is looking at the environmental impacts associated with the Keystone pipeline. The best that EPA can do is continue to be an honest commentator.”

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com. Follow her @Globebethdaley.