WASHINGTON -- Even the Republicans who are the most critical of the Environmental Protection Agency had few questions Thursday about whether Gina McCarthy, President Barack Obama’s pick to be the nation’s top clean air and water watchdog, has the qualifications for the job.
The agency’s regulatory practices and transparency got a lashing at McCarthy’s Senate confirmation hearing, though. And both Democrats and Republicans acknowledged that the agency under her leadership would likely take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of significant congressional action on climate change.
McCarthy herself highlighted climate’s crucial role in the agency’s future.
"Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our generation," McCarthy said Thursday at her confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "And facing that challenge with increased focus and commitment is perhaps the greatest obligation we have to future generations."
Courts have determined that carbon emissions are a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and the agency will pursue regulation of them, she said. She also said she thought that the agency could do so taking "common-sense steps" that also "ensure the economy continues to grow."
McCarthy serves as the agency’s assistant administrator in charge of air and radiation. The Senate unanimously confirmed her for that job during the first Obama administration. Previously, she worked as a state environmental regulator for Obama’s 2012 opponent, Republican former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, the chairwoman of the committee, called McCarthy "one of the best-qualified nominees to ever come before the committee."
"Gina McCarthy has a deep understanding that the health and safety of the American people and a growing economy depend on clean air and clean water, and I know she will lead EPA in a bipartisan manner," Boxer said.
McCarthy’s confirmation hearing pitted distinct ideological camps against each other: Republican senators who said the nominee would head a federal agency that has a heavy regulatory hand, including on climate change, and Democrats who argue that EPA air-quality rules save lives and create the conditions for a healthy environment and a strong economy.
The central functions of the agency have been "obfuscated by ideology," said Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the committee. He also criticized the agency’s transparency, including a practice in which top officials used secondary email accounts to communicate, and some used private email accounts. The agency has flouted Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional inquiries as well, he said.
"The nominee recently stated that information is power," Vitter said. "Apparently she also believes that withholding information is power."
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., argued that tougher emission rules for power plants have stunted the market for domestic coal and the environmental review of overseas coal terminals has slackened demand, effectively killing the industry. He said the EPA was failing the country, and cited a man interviewed in a Wyoming newspaper who was among several hundred who recently lost coal-mining jobs. It’s the same in West Virginia, he said.
"I haven’t heard yet any plain statements from EPA – hopefully we will today from this nominee – about the negative health impacts and lives lost from chronic unemployment caused by the EPA policies," he said. "This is a serious health epidemic and it seems to go unnoticed by the EPA."
Wyoming’s 4.9 percent unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the nation, thanks to an oil and gas boom in the state.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said Barrasso had made it clear that the debate over McCarthy’s nomination was less about her qualifications than about how Congress should address climate change. Republicans want to do as little as possible to address some of those consequences, Sanders said.
"It is a debate about global warming, and whether or not 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 that we and the global community face, and whether we are going to address that crisis in a serious manner," he said.
The agency has oversight over pesticide and chemical use, water quality, air pollution and other environmental matters. Some Republicans have complained that the agency is responsible for burdensome permitting requirements, and McCarthy’s predecessor, Lisa Jackson, fielded criticism from manufacturers and utilities, who are concerned that the agency may have overstepped its regulatory authority.
In Obama’s first term, the EPA put standards for mercury pollution in place, tightened rules on soot pollution and established tougher emissions standards for new power plants. It also set higher fuel-economy standards for automobiles, which the administration boasts will do more to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions than any action taken by other nations. McCarthy was instrumental in drawing up those standards.
The agency’s biggest forthcoming challenge will be on climate change and whether to enact new pollution rules that target existing power plants. Such rules are likely to face opposition from regional energy interests, as well as pressure from the energy sector.