Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the nature of Romney’s state climate action plan when he was governor of Massachusetts. His state plan did not grow into the 10-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cap-and-trade plan.
President Obama can thank Republican Mitt Romney for more than the Massachusetts health care law that helped shape Obama’s national health care plan.
One of Romney’s former top state environmental officials during his tenure as Massachusetts governor now oversees air quality at Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, playing a key role in the march of environmental regulations to fight climate change and slash pollution from coal-fired power plants that is regularly blasted by Republicans seeking Obama’s job. Sometimes, even Romney himself.
House GOP leaders, powerful industry groups like the Chamber of Commerce, tea party groups like Americans for Prosperity, and Romney’s chief rival, GOP front-runner Rick Perry, have essentially declared war on EPA air rules, slamming them as “job-killing regulations” that will tank the economy.
Independent economic analyses have shown that the rules are unlikely to have a negative impact on employment. But the “job killing” claim has caught fire in conservative Republican circles, as Perry especially has gained momentum for attacking the EPA as a “rogue agency” with an “activist mindset” willing to “kill jobs … and derail the economy.”
That puts Romney in an awkward position when it comes to his own moderate record on energy, the environment, and his common link with Obama’s EPA: Gina McCarthy, EPA’s top air pollution official.
It also highlights the stark changes between the GOP of today and that of seven years ago, when Romney was governor, the science of climate change wasn’t such an inflammatory political issue, and Republicans and Democrats even worked together on global warming issues.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has taken most of the fire from Republicans as her agency rolls out a slew of controversial new climate and clean air rules. But McCarthy, the EPA assistant administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation, has taken on much of the heavy lifting of writing, structuring, and implementing the rules.
“Lisa’s the coach and Gina’s the quarterback” in the work of rolling out new clean air regulations, said Daniel Weiss, an energy and climate policy expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. “She’s running the plays, improvising on the line.”
McCarthy is meeting behind the scenes with coal CEOs, lawmakers, and state and federal officials to lay the groundwork for the new rules and make sure they’re put in place. She’s making sure the clean air legal language is written in a way that’s robust and airtight, in order to have the biggest impact on cutting pollution, with no loopholes. She’s testifying to Congress, making the case as to why the rules should be implemented, despite a fusillade of political attacks.
Environmentalists, who applauded Obama’s appointment of McCarthy in 2009, have generally given her rave reviews on the job. Republicans, especially those like Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso, who tried to block her Senate confirmation, have been less enthusiastic.
Environmentalists also applauded in 2003 when then-Gov. Romney appointed a team of officials with strong environmental records to oversee a muscular environmental regulatory agenda, and to come up with a plan to tackle climate change. Among them was McCarthy, who had worked as an environmental regulator for the four previous Massachusetts governors—two Democrats and two Republicans.
Romney named McCarthy to a similar “green quarterback” role in his administration: undersecretary for policy at the Executive Office for Environmental Affairs, in charge of preserving the state’s open spaces, farmlands, and forests. He also tasked her with developing Massachusetts’s first climate protection action plan.
Romney also took part in talks to develop New England’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—a 10-state cap-and-trade plan that Obama later hoped to use as a model for a national climate change regulatory scheme. In the end, Romney decided not to sign his state on to the plan—spurring angry pushback from environmentalists who once cheered him.
McCarthy went on to head Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection, where she became well-known for her work addressing climate change. During her tenure, Connecticut became one of the first 10 states to participate in a regional cap-and-trade plan.
Not surprisingly, Perry’s campaign jumped on the connection. “This is part of a recurring theme—there are a number of similarities between Gov. Romney’s policy history and President Obama’s agenda,” said Ray Sullivan, Perry’s communications director. “It raises way too many questions about Gov. Romney’s misguided policy agenda in Massachusetts, which has served to lay the groundwork for Obama’s policy.”
Romney’s camp declined to address McCarthy specifically. Romney’s spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, wrote in an e-mail: "When Rick Perry supported Al Gore for president, he signed on to all his radical environmental views. That is the wrong approach. Mitt Romney will make sure that economic growth remains front and center when regulatory decisions are made at EPA or any other federal agency."
Romney has struggled in public to reconcile his moderate environmental record and past assertions that government should take a role in tackling climate change with the current political climate, where the tea party faction of the Republican Party cheers candidates who deny climate science and demonstrates against the EPA.
In his book, No Apology, Romney wrote: "I believe that climate change is occurring—the reduction in the size of global ice caps is hard to ignore. I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor. I am uncertain how much of the warming, however, is attributable to man and how much is attributable to factors out of our control.”
At a July event in New Hampshire, he said, “Do I support the EPA? In much of its mission yes, but in some of its mission no.… My view is that the EPA getting into carbon and regulating carbon has gone beyond the original intent of the legislation. I do believe we should reduce the pollutants that harm our health.”
Earlier this week, the Memphis Daily News reported that at a Tennessee fundraiser closed to the press, an attendee said that Romney “lambasted federal agencies—specifically calling out the EPA—as hamstringing businesses with regulations that he says are getting in the way of job creation.”