Senators question EPA nominee McCarthy in contentious hearing

Gina McCarthy, President Barack Obama’s nominee to serve as administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), faced a round of difficult questions from senators April 11, but top senators still expect the Massachusetts native’s confirmation to be approved.

Members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said that given the lack of a comprehensive energy policy from Congress, the task of regulating greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, would fall to the EPA.

Still, the questions asked by the senators had less to do with McCarthy’s credentials and qualifications to serve as head of the EPA and more about the agency’s ability to regulate a significant portion of the U.S. economy.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.), who is senate minority leader as well as a senator from a state invested heavily in coal, said McCarthy would follow a “radical” agenda. However, the Senate’s top Republican said she would likely face no serious resistance to her confirmation from his party’s senators.

McCarthy, if confirmed, would head the EPA at a time when several important regulations are under consideration, including whether to enact new emissions standards that would include existing power stations. From an economic point of view, McCarthy’s tenure would be marked by a time of increased use of natural gas and declining coal use – a trend that some blame on federal regulations and others say is a result of low natural gas prices.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said strict emissions standards for power plants are harming the power generation industry, as well as the market for domestic coal. He said that while air pollution may be a threat to public health, EPA regulations are a threat to people’s jobs.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said the EPA has ignored Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional inquiries. He also criticized what he called EPA officials’ use of private email addresses for communication.

Democratic senators, for their part, defended McCarthy against charges of radicalism, pointing out that she has worked for both Republicans and Democrats before arriving at the EPA in 2009. In her native Massachusetts, McCarthy advised three Republican governors on environmental matters, including former Gov. Mitt Romney, Obama’s opponent in the 2012 election.

The chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.) said McCarthy was qualified for the position, adding that she understands the EPA’s role in protecting public health and safety.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Va.) said Republicans on the committee were less interested in talking about McCarthy than they were in addressing how Congress would tackle the issue of climate change. The debate, he said, was over whether the U.S. can address the problem in a serious way.

Obama’s first administrator of the EPA, Lisa P. Jackson, put the EPA’s standards on mercury emissions into place and enacted rules on fine particulate pollution. These regulations primarily concerned power plants to be built in the future. The question of how seriously to regulate the nation’s existing fleet of power plants is as of yet unsettled, and could fall to Jackson’s successor.

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