Obama administration not waging war on coal, EPA chief says

Critics say new Obama administration rules to regulate power plants' greenhouse gas emissions will have 'devastating impacts' on the coal industry. But EPA chief Gina McCarthy disagrees.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at at a breakfast for reporters sponsored by the Monitor in Washington Monday.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says that if Congress fails to pass a stopgap spending measure by the Oct. 1 start of the new budget year, “it will mean that EPA effectively shuts down with only a core group of individuals who are there in the event of a significant emergency.”

Given the agency's role enforcing laws that protect the environment, Administrator McCarthy added, “I don’t think anyone sees that as optimal for the United States to have EPA not fully up and running,” she said at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters.

The EPA chief defended new rules the agency released last week that would set the first national limits on heat-trapping carbon pollution from existing power plants. To meet the new standards, coal-fired plants would have to install expensive new technology to capture a portion of their carbon dioxide emissions and bury them underground. Experts say new gas-fired plans could meet the proposed standards without new technology.

The rules triggered a storm of protest from coal-related companies and their political supporters. In a statement, Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia said the regulations “will have devastating impacts to the coal industry and our economy.” Speaking on the Senate floor, minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky called the rules, “the latest administration salvo in its never ending war on coal – a war against the very people who provide power and energy for our country,” Investor’s Business Daily editorialized that the rules were “part of an ideologically driven fight to tear the capitalist heart out of western civilization.”

When asked about the criticism, McCarthy said, “This is not an energy policy statement, this is not an ideological statement. This is the application of currently existing law in a way that it was supposed to be applied.” She added: “We have very good history of 40 years indicating that technology innovates, that businesses adjust, that we can both reduce pollution and maintain the healthy economy that we are all looking for.”

McCarthy also defended the EPA from criticism leveled by Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. In a Sept. 23 letter to the editor of The Boston Globe, Representative Smith noted that the EPA had not provided the committee with data from a 1993 Harvard University study on the link between air pollution and health, something he said McCarthy promised to do during congressional testimony. 

“Virtually all Clean Air Act regulations under the Obama administration have been justified based on these data. The American people deserve all the facts and have a right to know whether the EPA is using good science,” Smith wrote. He promised to protect any personal health information. “If the EPA has nothing to hide, why not make the information public?” he concluded.

“We are basing our decisions on world-renowned science that the scientists themselves don’t seem to be questioning,” McCarthy said. “The issue really is they are asking us to present basically 30 years of science that deals with personal information and medical confidential information that we don’t have, that we don’t own.” She added that the EPA was “working through the issues.”

McCarthy was appointed to environmental posts in her home state of Massachusetts by Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis and by GOP Gov. Mitt Romney. She was later head of Connecticut’s EPA before President Obama named her as assistant administrator of the EPA in 2009. She assumed the top post this year.

When asked what she hoped to accomplish during her term, McCarthy said: “My whole goal will be to try to explain the science and to do what we are supposed to do under the law."

"I do not intend to be the energy policy person," she added. "I intend to work collaboratively with the administration and with states to really try to get the politics aside and do what I have always done at the state level. I don’t care whether I am working for a Republican or a Democrat. The science is the science. The law is the law. I want it applied and we will make … progress moving forward.”

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