What Obama's climate plan means for his pick to head EPA

President Obama's plan to combat climate change may help the environment, but it will likely put one potential member of his cabinet in political jeopardy. Gina McCarthy, his pick to head the EPA, is already facing heated opposition from some lawmakers. The climate change plan Obama outlined Tuesday could make McCarthy's confirmation process even more complicated.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Barack Obama gestures during a speech on climate change, Tuesday at Georgetown University in Washington. Obama's proposal to limit heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants may mean trouble for his nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

The broad climate plan President Obama put forth Tuesday may cost him an important member of his second-term energy and environment team. That won't stop his administration from implementing the proposals, but the fight over one nominee to the president's cabinet could slow it down.

Gina McCarthy, Mr. Obama's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has faced an uphill battle in the Senate, where lawmakers have upheld her confirmation over questions of transparency and Ms. McCarthy's role in regulations curtailing emissions from future power plants. In Tuesday's speech, Mr. Obama outlined plans to broaden those rules to include existing power plants.

That won't sit well with those in Congress who say such regulations do more to slow economic growth than global climate change. House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio called the new regulations "absolutely crazy" during a time of stagnant job creation, Politico reported.

McCarthy is likely to take the brunt of the backlash to Tuesday's announcement. 

"The opposition to Gina McCarthy in the Senate is not based on policy or facts," John Coequyt, a spokesman for environmental group Sierra Club, said in a telephone interview. "It’s based on a desire to demonstrate their opposition to the EPA to the base of their party. McCarthy has worked for five Republican governors, she is an incredibly competent civil servant, and none of that matters to the Republican leadership that is holding her confirmation hostage."

Some have already gone on the offensive, saying Obama's announcement contradicts previous statements from his administration about greenhouse gas (GHG) rules. In April, McCarthy told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that "the EPA is not currently developing any existing source GHG regulations for power plants."

Technically, that may have been true. Plans to develop regulations on existing plants could have come after McCarthy's statement. But not everyone sees it that way.

"I would say it is clear with today’s announcement by President Obama about existing power plants, that Gina McCarthy is either arrogant or ignorant," Sen.John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming said in a statement. “She either didn’t tell the truth to the Senate or she doesn’t know what is going on within her own agency. Either way, such a person cannot lead the EPA."

Obama did his part Tuesday to diffuse the impact of his broad new proposals, praising McCarthy's work as head of the EPA's Air and Radiation office.

"Unfortunately she’s been held up in the Senate for months, made to jump through hoops no cabinet member should ever have to," the president said in his speech. "The Senate should confirm her without any further obstruction or delay."

Even if that never happens, McCarthy's detractors will have a hard time getting rid of her. As head of the office responsible for enforcing the Clean Air Act, McCarthy will still play a leading role in any new regulations on carbon emissions, according to Mr. Coequyt of Sierra Club.

"Either way, she’s going to be a central player in these decisions; there’s nothing the Senate can do to change that," Coequyt said. 

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