Thursday's confirmation hearing for President Obama’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency became the latest forum for an ongoing argument over global warming, jobs, the future of the U.S. coal industry, and the role of the federal government.
This will continue over the course of Obama’s second term, as EPA looks set to become the president’s biggest weapon in his efforts to take on climate change.
In his February State of the Union speech, Obama said that if Congress won’t pass climate-change legislation—a virtual certainty given partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill—his administration will do as much as it can using its existing authority. One likely course of action will be to have EPA mandate cuts in air pollution from coal-fired power plants and oil refineries.
That will put Gina McCarthy, the woman he has tapped to run the agency, at the heart of a fight over a priority that Obama views as a cornerstone of his legacy—and that the fossil-fuel industry views as a threat to its very existence.
Appearing Thursday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, McCarthy said, “As the president made clear, we must take steps to combat climate change. This is one of the greatest challenges of our generation and our great obligation to future generations. I am convinced that those steps can and must be pursued with common sense.”
McCarthy, who has worked as an environmental regulator at the state and federal levels for over 20 years, is currently EPA’s top clean-air official. Over the course of Obama’s first term, she was the chief architect of a series of controversial regulations restricting toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants, rules that were attacked during Obama’s reelection campaign as a “war on coal.” During the president's second term, it’s expected that she will oversee far more sweeping climate-change regulations, which would restrict greenhouse-gas emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants, which are the nation’s top contributor to global warming pollution. Depending on how they’re structured, the rules could effectively freeze construction of new coal plants and lead to closures of existing plants.
That’s made McCarthy a top target for Senate Environment and Public Works Committee member John Barrasso of Wyoming – the nation’s biggest producer of coal.
“I’m not sure the nominee is aware of how many people have lost their jobs due to the EPA,” Barrasso said to McCarthy. He cited stories of Wyoming miners who have struggled and lost their jobs as a direct result of EPA coal regulations.
“The EPA is making it impossible for coal miners to feed their families.”
Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions cited concerns about the environmental agency’s agenda, tapping into conservative ire about the size and scope of government.“I don’t think there’s any agency in government today that has such reach, touching all the way down to people’s lives,” he said. “EPA has extraordinary powers. It’s a massive reach in the pure sense of federal power, in areas never before contemplated and never legislated by the U.S. Congress.”
As Republicans piled up attacks, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., shot back, “This is not a debate about Gina McCarthy.… It is a debate about global warming and whether we are going to listen to the leading scientists of this country who are telling us that global warming is the most serious planetary crisis we face.”
McCarthy, who is known for her pragmatic, no-nonsense style and her ability to work well even with the heads of polluting industries she regulates, defused some of the heat from her attackers.
To Barrasso and Sessions she responded, “The Clean Air act requires us to regulate, and it is appropriate to regulate, given the law and the science,” but she added, “I believe coal has been and will continue to play a role in the U.S. energy mix…. We’re going to have to be sensitive of the impact of every rule. We don’t want to have unintended consequences on small businesses.”
While Republicans continued a steady barrage of attacks, none threatened to block her confirmation. Even Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who describes global warming as a “hoax,” told McCarthy, “If you are confirmed, I want to develop same relationship with you I had with [previous Administrator] Lisa Jackson. While I didn’t agree with her on policy, we got along well.”
The committee's top Republican, David Vitter of Lousiana, also launched a barrage of criticism at EPA, but he barely mentioned climate change.
Vitter’s home state is one of the biggest oil producers in the U.S.—although it’s also one of the states most vulnerable to economic destruction from rising sea levels and extreme hurricanes, which climate scientists link to global warming.
This article appears in the April 12, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.