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Signs of a strong environmental agenda?


Greens weren’t exactly thrilled with Obama’s environmental performance in his first term, especially with regard to climate change. One of the brightest spots in his administration was Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson. Under her watch, the EPA moved toward regulating greenhouse gases, developed key emissions rules for power plants, made a valiant attempt at a new ozone air quality standard, released air quality rules for hydraulic fracturing, and made environmental justice a priority, among other initiatives.

So it was with regret that many activists watched Jackson depart the EPA in February. And given that the sitting Congress is just as hostile to regulations as it was during Obama’s first term, they had plenty of reason to wonder how much of his environmental agenda he might get done between now and 2016.

But even as Jackson wrapped up her last days at EPA this month, Obama was clearly setting climate change as a priority in his State of the Union address. In fact, he threatened Congress: If lawmakers can’t come up with market-based ways to cut greenhouse gasses, he said, his administration will get the job done itself. And now, with his likely (and imminent, perhaps even by Feb. 27) nomination of Gina McCarthy as Jackson’s successor, he seems on the verge of backing that promise with some regulatory firepower. McCarthy, the assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, was a major force behind many of EPA’s air regulation accomplishments during Jackson’s tenure, from the now defunct cross-state air pollution rule, to the slow plod towards regulations governing carbon emissions. Reports the National Journal:

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.” …

Perhaps predictably, the response from some industry trade associations and advocacy groups was overwhelmingly negative. "The EPA will continue its anti-fossil-fuel crusade undeterred, and the administration will continue to avoid normal democratic means to legislate the president's climate change agenda through the regulatory agencies," Benjamin Cole of the American Energy Alliance told Greenwire (sub required),

adding that the changing of the guard would have as little effect on EPA's agenda and outlook as when Cuban President Fidel Castro "passed the hammer and sickle to his little brother Raul."

She’s also likely to face some considerable scrutiny from Republicans in Congress, given the backlash against EPA over the last two years. But interestingly, Politico and some other publications don’t foresee her having too much trouble getting confirmed:

McCarthy brings to the table political skills honed through spirited rhetorical battles with Republicans on Capitol Hill over EPA’s rules.

She also can tout bipartisan credentials, having worked for former Republican Govs. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and Jodi Rell in Connecticut. “She’s just got good common sense and is a consensus builder,” said Rich Gold, a former aide to Clinton EPA Administrator Carol Browner and now a partner at the Holland & Knight lobbying shop.

Industry representatives also concede respect for McCarthy, continues the National Journal, calling her

an honest broker … (who 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.”

“My sense is that Gina is listening, has an open mind, she wants to hear the concerns of the regulated sector,” John McManus, vice president of environmental services for Ohio-based American Electric Power, which depends heavily on coal, told the Journal.

Indeed, this open-minded attitude seemed to come through recently as McCarthy lauded state-level efforts to control greenhouse gases, and suggested that EPA would try to build on local governments’ existing work, rather than come up with top-down solutions. "We can find a way instead of having national solutions...to open up opportunities for states to use all the flexibility, the ingenuity, the innovation that you have shown could be done, and just simply get it done," she told an audience at the Georgetown University Law Center.

So while the American Energy Alliance’s Cole is certainly right that the Administration's crusade against carbon will only ramp up from here, McCarthy hardly seems like a dictator with no respect for the democratic process.

Sarah Gilman is HCN’s associate editor

Image of Utah coal plant courtesy of Flickr user lowjumpingfrog