EPA administrator races to finish landmark climate rules

Source: By Laura Barron-Lopez, The Hill • Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2015

Gina McCarthy is locked in a race against time to complete landmark climate change regulations before President Obama leaves office.

With just 22 months left in Obama’s presidency, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator and her team are burning the midnight oil to enshrine emissions regulations for power plants in federal law.

“One of the main focuses of the White House right now is to make sure that the administration is coordinated, so that the entire breadth of the climate action plan can be basically realized before the president leaves office,” McCarthy said during an exclusive sit-down interview in her office.

With the departure of John Podesta, Obama’s former climate adviser, from the White House, McCarthy is meeting more with Obama than ever before.

White House climate and energy adviser Dan Utech called McCarthy’s role “essential” to the president’s vision over his final two years.

“Climate change is a top priority for the president over the next two years and the EPA and Gina McCarthy are really at the center of what the administration is trying to do,” Utech said.

Describing her style as “hands on,” McCarthy said she spends as much time as she needs to at White House to update the administration and flesh out strategy.

Last week, she met with Brian Deese, who replaced Podesta as adviser to the president, and Utech to walk through “big issues” the agency is dealing with on the carbon pollution standards.

The White House is equally engaged, McCarthy said, which is crucial at a time when the administration will have to be coordinated in order to withstand the onslaught of challenges Republicans and industry opponents plan to throw its way.

Within their first two months of taking control of both chambers, Republicans have held multiple hearings challenging the EPA on the president’s carbon pollution rules, which seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ran his reelection on a promise to dismantle as many pieces of those and other EPA regulations as he possibly could, looking to attach riders to energy packages or spending bills.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack put it bluntly last month, saying, “I wake up every morning, I say my prayers and I’m thankful I’m not the EPA administrator.”

Heather Zichal, Obama’s former climate czar, described the president’s selection of McCarthy as calculated and deliberate. He made it knowing that, after his reelection, climate change would be high on the administration’s to-do list.

“Going back to the very beginning after the president got reelected we asked, ‘how do we make sure this climate legacy piece is done and done as best as we can?’ ” Zichal said.

“We looked at the 111-D regulations as a high priority and a consensus was clearly reached that Gina was perfectly suited to get those regulations across the finish line,” Zichal added, referencing the section of the Clean Air Act section that the administration has used as its statutory authority to impose the carbon pollution rule.

Having helped spearhead the administration’s fuel economy standards and mercury toxics regulations, McCarthy was the clear choice.

“She is respected on both sides of aisle and has a reputation for being pragmatic,” said Zichal, who left the administration in 2013 after a four-year run.

Still, Republicans are adamant that they will fight not only the administration’s proposals to curb carbon emissions from new and existing power plants but the first-ever proposal to rein in methane emissions and a deal struck with China to slash greenhouse gases.

McConnell called upon states this week to defy the EPA and to refuse to comply with the carbon regulations.

“Think twice before submitting a state plan … when the administration is standing on shaky legal ground,” McConnell wrote in an op-ed.

Opponents argue the administration’s climate regulations will hurt the fossil-fuel industry and damage the economy and are representative of a president that has “unilaterally overreached.”

The EPA logged grueling hours to issue the draft carbon rule on time, and it will be doing that again in the lead-up to its release of the finalized version, McCarthy said.

The work includes poring over the millions of public comments, criticisms and recommendations for the rule that have flooded the agency.

The “specific criticisms that you might hear over and over, they tend to be the ones that you need to pay the most attention to,” she said.

Public submissions that have started to “take a theme” include objections to the interim goals the EPA set for states, which require the majority of their emissions reductions by 2020. State officials, utilities and power plant operators have raised questions about an option the EPA provided for states to cut pollution by going “beyond the fence” of the facility itself.

That means states could avoid retiring a power plant by investing in cleaner technology, pushing energy efficiency programs that will cut demand or investing in wind and solar.

“We certainly have enough information to know what the big issues are that we need to tackle so I have been meeting at least once a week every week with the team of people in the agency that are working on 111-D,” McCarthy said.

In the end, she isn’t terribly worried about attacks on the rule.

“For a rule like this there is no way that we are not going to be challenged,” McCarthy said of pending and future court challenges. “We think we have appropriately used 111-D for this sector and that the rule will be not just be legally defensive, it’s going to be solid.”

Similarly, Zichal said, the “president will have no problem vetoing anything that attacks his authority under the Clean Air Act.”

There is one other elephant in the room that could complicate the administration’s plans, however — the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Asked if that single decision will make or break the climate change legacy she and the president have set out to achieve, McCarthy answered with an emphatic “no.”

“I don’t think that is really going to speak to the president’s legacy,” McCarthy said. “I think the work that he is doing and the climate action plan is his legacy. I know what this agency needs to provide for him and deliver as part of that plan.”

As for what her own future holds, McCarthy said that as long as she has her “spunk” she is “going to continue to work.”

Asked if she’d be open to returning under a Hillary Clinton presidency, McCarthy laughed and said “I actually think I will consider that at some other point in time.”

“But right now, this is the time of my life,” McCarthy said. “I feel like I’m 25, not 60.”

“I fully expect that any next president will have their own team to pull together, and frankly I’ve had a wonderful run both as assistant administrator and administrator and I don’t expect that I’ll be staying on.”