Obama's EPA and Energy Nominees Could Spark Climate Change Action

  • President Obama nominates Ernest Moniz, Gina McCarthy, and Sylvia Mathews-Burwell to his cabinet. Photo: Reuters

March 8, 2013

This week President Obama nominated air-quality expert Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. If approved, she will lead the agency just as it takes on the president's sweeping climate-change agenda. The president also nominated MIT physicist Ernie Moniz to head the Department of Energy.

Coral Davenport, who covers these issues for National Journal, joined us to discuss these nominations and what they mean.

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REID: Washington, D.C. will be the stage for an environmental policy debate over the next few weeks and months. Some of it involving this person:

MCCARTHY: I will tell you that I didn’t go to Washington to sit around and wait for congressional action. Never done that before and don’t plan to in the future.

FRAZIER: That was Gina McCarthy, president Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. She was speaking in 2010 about the EPA’s decision to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from future power plants. It was one of a number of landmark rules she helped create as head of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation during Obama’s first term.

Her nomination was announced the same day this week that president Obama named MIT physicist Ernie Moniz as his pick to head the Department of Energy. Here to talk about these nominations and what they mean is Coral Davenport, who covers these issues for National Journal. Coral, thanks for coming on our show.

DAVENPORT: Sure, good to be here.

FRAZIER: You just heard Gina McCarthy talk. What can you tell us about her, and is there anything in her biography that suggests how she would approach the job as EPA secretary?

DAVENPORT: The main thing to know about Gina McCarthy is that she is an extremely experienced environmental regulator. She comes to this job steeped in an understanding of exactly what it will entail. She has been number two in the EPA for the last four years, for President Obama’s first term, and Gina McCarthy practically ran the office that executed all of the clean air and climate change regulations that were put out in the first term.

Before that she had over 20 years of experience as an environmental regulator at the state level. She worked in both democratic and republic administrations in Connecticut and Massachusetts. She actually was a chief environmental administrator for Mitt Romney.

FRAZIER: But will her work with Republican governors in the past help her with the confirmation process as she heads toward the EPA?

DAVENPORT: Her confirmation hearing is definitely going to be a high-intensity and high-profile one. And the reason is that she’s going to be the head of this environmental regulatory agency, just at the moment when it’s going to be taking on this sweeping climate change agenda. Republicans on the Senate environmental committee who will hold that hearing are going to open fire on her. There’s no question about that.

The hearing is going to turn into a pretty intense debate between congressional republicans and this Obama environmental nominee about climate change, about regulations, about the role of the EPA, but I think that Gina McCarthy will probably end up moving through, partly because she does have a lot of experience working with Republicans, and also because she has a lot of experience working with these polluting industries.

FRAZIER: Let’s talk about Ernie Moniz. He is the MIT physicist who was nominated to head up the Department of Energy. What can you tell us about him, and what does his nomination signify for us?

DAVENPORT: Well the Department of Energy is a really interesting place in president Obama’s cabinet. In his first term of course, he had an energy secretary, Steven Chu, who was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. He was a huge, huge champion of fighting climate change, shutting down coal, working for clean energy. He also became a huge political target. With the nomination this second term of energy secretary Ernie Moniz, we’re seeing a little bit more of a shift to someone who can play a more politically pragmatic role, while still considering some of these clean energy and climate change objectives.

Ernie Moniz is a former assistant secretary of energy, so he really understands the department, he understands what it does and he cares a lot about climate change. He’ll make it a priority, but he’s not committed to just all clean energy and only clean energy. He is an advocate of natural gas as a replacement fuel for coal. He’s an advocate for nuclear energy. So environmentalists don’t like him as much as they loved Steven Chu, but I think that he is positioned to be maybe less high profile, a little bit more politically pragmatic, but still positioned to continue the clean energy goals of the energy department.

FRAZIER: So Coral, we in Pennsylvania have Department of Environmental Protection secretary who's been outspoken in the belief that states--and not the federal government--should regulate fracking. And of course there's a lot of fracking going on in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania, among other places. Can we read anything into these nominations about whether fracking will be regulated by the federal government?

DAVENPORT: The administration is having, within the Obama administration, a very interesting conversation about fracking right now. The fracking boom has clearly been linked to a significant jobs boom. It brings a lot of jobs. It lowers manufacturing costs. The administration is very aware of this, especially at a moment when jobs and the economy is really the number one issue. Because of that, the white house wants to be very careful about any kind of regulations that it’s going to put on fracking. On the other hand, within the Environmental Protection Agency, there is certainly a strong push for some kind of regulation, you know, concerns about water supplies. So I would expect to see a continued push to have some kind of regulation for fracking, but I would also expect that we will not see an extremely heavy hand on this.

FRAZIER: Coral Davenport, thanks for coming on our show.

DAVENPORT: Sure. Thanks for having me.

FRAZIER: That was Coral Davenport, a reporter for National Journal. She was talking about President Obama’s nominations for EPA and Department of Energy secretary, Gina McCarthy and Ernie Moniz. I’m Reid Frazier sitting in for Jennifer Jordan. You’re listening to the Allegheny Front.