Washington, DC — President Barack Obama turned to experienced political hands Monday to fill out his cabinet, choosing a top-ranking official at the Environmental Protection Agency as the nation’s top clean air and water watchdog, and a veteran of the Clinton administration as his energy secretary.
Gina McCarthy, currently an assistant administrator in charge of air and radiation, would replace Lisa Jackson, the well-liked but controversial EPA leader in Obama’s first term. Obama tapped Ernest Moniz, a physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to replace Steven Chu at the Department of Energy. Both must be confirmed by the Senate.
Obama, who held his first Cabinet meeting of his second term Monday, also announced a new budget director: Sylvia Mathews Burwell. He said his EPA and Energy Department picks will be charged with investing in American energy and creating jobs and economic opportunity, as well as “doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change.”
“They are going to be a great team,” Obama said. “And these are some of my top priorities going forward.”
In his first term, the EPA implemented standards for mercury pollution, 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, who played a major role in developing the tougher fuel standards, earned praise from clean air advocates for her work on air pollution. She’s a former state environmental regulator who once worked for Obama’s 2012 opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Environmental groups praised McCarthy’s appointment. They wanted the EPA to be led by someone who would uphold the agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act and they got that with McCarthy, said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
She “knows what it means to protect our air, water, land and health and stand up to the growing threats we’re seeing from climate change,” Beinecke said.
But industry offered fainter praise, as did lawmakers from states where energy dominates the economy. The president of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, said in a statement he was concerned about pending regulations that could raise the price of gasoline, rules for greenhouse gas emissions from refineries, and new ozone standards.
"President Obama says his top priority is creating American jobs, and we will continue working with the EPA and the administration to help avoid jeopardizing that goal," he said. "The problem is that EPA, in many cases, is not proposing regulations that meet this goal."
Republican lawmakers, who’ve attacked the EPA for what U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue called “burdensome permitting requirements,” are expected to put up more of a fight. McCarthy’s predecessor was a lightning rod for criticism from manufacturers and utilities, who’ve are concerned the agency has overstepped its regulatory authority.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she wanted the leaders of both agencies to consider energy security.
“I’m willing to work with both DOE and the EPA to address the shared challenges we face, but it truly must be done in a way that recognizes the benefits of an energy supply that is not only clean, but also abundant, affordable, diverse and secure,” she said. “My support will depend on both nominees demonstrating that they can lead DOE and the EPA in a way that restores balance to these objectives.
It was no coincidence that Obama announced his top energy and environment picks the same day as he announced a new director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Congress wasn’t able to pass cap-and-trade legislation in 2010 and is unlikely to take up a sweeping climate bill again. So the challenging and politically fraught work of curtailing greenhouse gas emissions likely will continue within the executive branch, where the Office of Management and Budget will be a key part of the deliberations.
The administration now is finalizing emission rules for new power plants. Its next fight could be writing rules that would target existing power plants, which will pose the political challenges of regional energy interests as well as pressure from big polluters and the influential energy sector.
Moniz, whom Obama called “another brilliant scientist,” drew a ringing endorsement from the nuclear power industry, but is opposed by some environmental groups for describing domestic natural gas production, which commonly uses a process known as fracking, as a bridge to lower-carbon sources of energy.
“The next Secretary of Energy will play a key role in deciding how we address climate change, and President Obama needs to appoint an actual proponent of green energy to guide our nation’s energy future,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of the environmental group Food & Water Watch.
Moniz served as both a scientific adviser and an undersecretary in the Energy Department during President Bill Clinton’s administration. In his time at the Department of Energy, he oversaw science and energy programs and led a comprehensive review of nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship. He also served as the secretary’s special negotiator for Russian nuclear materials disposition programs.