The Administrator: New EPA Head Gina McCarthy Has the Toughest Job in D.C.

The new head of the EPA had to wait some five months for confirmation. Now that she's got the job, the really difficult part begins

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New EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, left, stands with President Obama in March

The counter on the website—which counted the number of days the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been without an administrator since Lisa Jackson stepped down at the end of 2012—finally stopped at 147 on July 18. Gina McCarthy, a veteran environmental regulator and President Obama’s pick to run the EPA in his second term, has been waiting almost five months to get a confirmation vote from the Senate, the longest an EPA nominee has ever had to wait. She received more than 1,100 questions from the members of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee—tasked with examining her record—all but 25 of which came from Republicans. McCarthy even had one member of the President’s party—Democrat Joe Manchin of the coal mining state of West Virginia—vote against her nomination, angry about what he’s called the Obama Administration’s “war on coal.”

Despite Republican obstructionism and Manchin’s theatrics, however, McCarthy finally got her up-and-down vote in the Senate on July 18, and she won confirmation, 59 to 40. Environmentalists are very happy with McCarthy’s selection, as well they should be. A veteran of state administrations in Massachusetts and Connecticut—where she served under both Democratic and Republican governors—McCarthy has spent the last four years pushing through vital air pollution regulations have helped reduce carbon emissions and improve public health. Michael Brune, the head of the Sierra Club, said in a statement: “Gina McCarthy has a proven record of protecting American families and getting things done.” Said President Obama after the confirmation was finalized: “Gina is a proven leader who knows how to build bipartisan support for commonsense environmental solutions that protect the health and safety of our kids while promoting economic growth.”

It might be hard to believe, but the 147 days McCarthy spent waiting for her confirmation vote and the hundreds of questions she endured from Republicans may turn out to be the easiest part of her job. With the chance of legislative action dead, McCarthy will now be charged with carrying out the Obama Administration’s planned regulations on climate change—and her success or failure may well determine the President’s legacy on global warming.

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It wasn’t supposed to be like this. While the Supreme Court gave the EPA the power to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, the White House made it very clear that it did not want to use that power. The idea—which was even bipartisan for a time—was to pass comprehensive cap-and-trade legislation that would establish a price on carbon. Direct EPA regulation of carbon emissions was the second-best fallback, a backup in the event that climate legislation didn’t pass.

Which, in the end, is exactly what happened. So the EPA under McCarthy will be developing regulations that will limit carbon emissions in the power sector. EPA will establish those limits, and then tell individual states how to meet them. Which will not be easy—electricity production, and the resultant carbon emissions, varies wildly from state to state. More than 20 state attorney generals have announced that they’re against carbon regulations, including those from Texas and Virginia, while nearly a dozen other states, including Massachusetts and New York have threatened to sue the EPA if it doesn’t go ahead with those same regulations. Utilities will will surely challenge the rules in the court if they’re seen as too onerous, and environmental groups will do the same if they’re too lenient. She’ll also have to deal with the controversy over hydraulic fracturing, with the EPA continuing what it claims will be the definitive study the safety—or not—of fracking. If there’s a harder job in government than McCarthy’s, I don’t want to know what it is.

A Boston native—with the accent to show for it—McCarthy has the necessary experience, and just as importantly, the requisite toughness. Still, she will be attempting something no EPA administrator has tried to do before. But given the fact that Congress has largely abdicated on climate policy, McCarthy—and President Obama—have no other choice.

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