President Obama is expected to nominate Janet McCabe, a deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency's clean-air office, to head that division, according to sources familiar with his thinking. The position would put her at the heart of the president's historic and controversial global-warming agenda. She would be charged with crafting massive new pollution regulations affecting the nation's coal-fired power plants—rules that could eventually freeze the nation's coal industry, but also position the U.S. as a global leader on climate change.
An EPA spokesman would not confirm that Obama intends to nominate McCabe.
In a series of impassioned speeches this year, Obama has made clear that he wants to make fighting climate change a cornerstone of his legacy. Just as clear is the certainty that the divided, gridlocked Congress will not pass the sweeping legislation necessary to do that. Instead, Obama will flex his executive muscles, using the authority of the EPA to roll out a series of regulations to slash the nation's carbon pollution and fundamentally reshape the nation's energy sector. The rules are already being met with a swarm of political and legal pushback. Republicans charge that with the climate rules, Obama is waging a "war on coal." Meanwhile, the coal industry is prepared to meet the rules with an onslaught of legal attacks.
That means McCabe, as the expected chief author of the new climate rules, has a heavy and historic lift in front of her. She will step into the shoes of her boss, Gina McCarthy, who last month was confirmed as chief of the EPA. While McCarthy will be the public face of the new climate-change regulations, McCabe will act as her right-hand woman, taking on the burden of drafting and legally bulletproofing the rules, as well as working with all the stakeholders they'll affect—states, electric utilities, consumers, and environmental advocates.
During Obama's first term, McCarthy held that role, as head of the Office of Air and Radiation, with McCabe as her deputy. Last month, the White House named McCabe as acting director of that office. During her tenure, McCarthy won praise from both environmental groups and polluting industries as a straight-talking honest broker who included industry officials in the regulatory process—even if industries didn't always like the outcome.
By all accounts, McCabe is positioned to continue her boss's legacy. Like McCarthy, who served in the environment departments of Connecticut and Massachusetts, McCabe has a background as a state environmental regulator—experience that officials say will be crucial in crafting the new rules, given that their implementation ultimately will be done by state agencies.
According to her official EPA bio, McCabe, before joining EPA in November 2009, was executive director of Improving Kids' Environment, a children's environmental-health advocacy organization based in Indianapolis, and was an adjunct faculty member at the Indiana University School of Medicine's Department of Public Health. From 1993 to 2005, she held several leadership positions in the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's Office of Air Quality. She was the office's assistant commissioner from 1998 to 2005. Before coming to Indiana in 1993, McCabe served as the Massachusetts assistant attorney general for environmental protection and assistant secretary for environmental impact review. McCabe graduated from Harvard College in 1980 and Harvard Law School in 1983.
Her experience as a regulator in Indiana will likely serve in her favor. As a state that generates about 90 percent of its electricity from coal, Indiana is expected to be one of the states hardest hit by the climate regulations. Both environmentalists and industry officials say that background has given her a clear understanding of both the economic and regulatory challenges that lie ahead as she writes rules that will crack down on coal, the nation's biggest contributor to global-warming pollution.
"She's basically been Gina's right hand and left hand for the last four years," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the group Clean Air Watch. "She's well-positioned to work with Gina on the climate rules. She's got a classically good background on it, having worked in state government both in Indiana and Massachusetts.… Indiana may not be ground zero for the coal industry, but it's pretty darn close."
Officials at American Electric Power, an Ohio-based utility that owns one of the nation's largest fleet of coal-fired power plants, including plants in Indiana, say they are optimistic that McCabe's Midwestern background means that she'll take their industry's concerns under consideration.
John McManus, vice president of Environmental Services for American Electric Power, wrote in an e-mail to National Journal, "We have operations in Indiana so we worked with Janet McCabe when she was with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. She was willing to listen to industry views at that time, and we would hope that if she is named assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, she will continue to be receptive to hearing our opinions about issues and regulations that affect our business."
Experts in environmental regulation said that McCabe will face a huge legal challenge in crafting the climate-change regulations, which are in many ways unprecedented in the history of environmental law. But they said McCabe is up to the challenge.
"Janet's wonderful," said Adam Kushner, a partner at the environmental law firm Hogan Lovells, and former director of EPA's Office of Civil Enforcement. "She has a very strong working relationship with Gina. She's very strong on the legal side. Very strong on the public health side. And she knows where all the bodies are buried."
It's likely that McCabe could face a tough Senate confirmation process. Senate Republicans held up McCarthy's confirmation for more than 100 days, and barraged her with more than 1,000 questions, as coal- and oil-state lawmakers attacked the EPA for preparing to issue rules that could kill jobs in their home states. However, even if she fails to win Senate confirmation, it's expected that McCabe could carry out the job with the title of "acting" head of the clean-air office.
This article appears in the August 29, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.