Obama Nominates a Fighter and an Engineer at the EPA and the Energy Department

President Obama announces new nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy—and both candidate will be tested in the years ahead.

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President Obama, center, introduces Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz (far left) and EPA nominee Gina McCarthy (next left)

Perhaps nowhere is President Obama’s temperamental tendency towards compromise clearer than in his environmental and energy policy. Obama has overseen the largest government investment ever in renewable energy, laid out aggressive standards on auto efficiency and supported some air pollution regulations that have restricted coal power. But he’s also ruled over a boom in domestic oil and gas production—including exploration that uses the process of hydrofracking, which remains incredibly unpopular among many environmentalists.

So perhaps it’s fitting that Obama’s second-term nominees to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) would symbolize that difference. To replace the popular—at least among environmentalists—EPA head Lisa Jackson, the White House announced today that Obama will nominate Gina McCarthy, a tough-talking, veteran EPA regulator who has been at the forefront of the agency’s effort to enact tough greenhouse gas standards. That’s a nomination that will undoubtedly cheer greens who are still smarting from a State Department report issued last week that seemed to set the stage for the approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

To replace the Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu at DOE, Obama will nominate Ernest J. Moniz, a nuclear physicist and the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Energy Institute. Moniz is an energy wonk’s wonk—his institute has produced a series of five major interdisciplinary studies on various energy sources, and he chaired or co-chaired four of them. That includes one study on natural gas that came under criticism from some environmentalists for being too soft on fracking, and he’s also been a supporter of nuclear power. In a statement, Environment America federal clean energy advocate Courtney Abrams noted:

President Obama’s expected nominee for Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz, has a history of supporting dirty and dangerous energy sources like gas and nuclear power with polluting partners including BP, Shell, Chevron and Saudi Aramco.  We are concerned about the Department of Energy’s priorities given this track record and hope Moniz will focus on clean, renewable ways to get our energy that don’t put our families and our environment in harm’s way.

Greens couldn’t happier about McCarthy’s nomination, which has been rumored for weeks. Said Fred Krupp, the president of Environmental Defense Fund:

As head of EPA’s national air office, Ms. McCarthy led the development of historic national emission standards for the mercury discharged from power plants, and helped forge new greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles. She has worked with both parties, including serving as a key environmental official under Mitt Romney when he was Governor of Massachusetts. She is well known for listening and responding to the concerns of both environmental advocates and industry stakeholders, and for pursuing a regulatory approach that is flexible, reasonable and cost-effective.

For the record, Krupp was also a fan of Moniz, noting his “deep expertise, broad experience, a pragmatic approach to problems.” Moniz—unlike Chu—also has real-life political experience, serving as energy under secretary during President Bill Clinton’s second term. While some greens may grumble, Moniz will likely have little trouble winning confirmation—and his engineering experience could serve the DOE well as it adjusts to what is likely to be a more conservative term.

The same won’t be true for McCarthy. She does have a bipartisan background, holding key positions in the Republican state governments of Connecticut and Massachusetts—including under then-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. (As you may recall, Governor Romney unsuccessfully ran for the White House in 2012. It feels like a lot longer ago.) But she’ll still face a tough fight in the Senate. Her initial nomination in 2009 to run the EPA’s air and radiation office was held up for two months by Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming because of his fears that the EPA would move to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Those regulations were never forthcoming during Obama’s first term, as the White House focused most of its energy on the ultimately failed effort to pass comprehensive climate legislation. But with carbon cap-and-trade deader than dead, EPA regulations offer the best hope for further restricting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—and Obama’s nomination of McCarthy, who is associated with the EPA’s most ambitious air pollution rules, sends a signal that he’s willing to push a regulatory solution to climate change. That means McCarthy is likely to run into serious pushback from Republicans in the Senate, who are dead set against greenhouse gas regulations—though most Congressional observers believe that she will ultimately win confirmation. But that will only be the first step in what’s likely to be a four-year war over the regulation of climate change. In Gina McCarthy, Obama will at least know that he has a fighter at the helm.