With New Leader in Place, EPA Can Recommit to Its Environmental Agenda

hand ripping picture of smog-filled sky to reveal idyllic blue sky behind it

On July 18, the Senate confirmed Gina McCarthy to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ending a 136-day delay. Nominated by President Obama in March, McCarthy was finally cleared by a bipartisan vote of 59-40.

Chosen to succeed former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, McCarthy is a seasoned environmental professional who led the agency's Office of Air and Radiation over the past four years. McCarthy's previous work to reduce air pollution made her a target for regulatory opponents and members of the coal industry during the confirmation process. McCarthy endured a difficult and protracted confirmation battle, answering more than 1,000 questions and meeting with at least 60 senators during the nearly five-month long process.

Environmental allies have high expectations for McCarthy, who will now continue the agency's current work to regulate power plant emissions and carry out the president's new climate change agenda.

Environmental Protections Under the Obama Administration

In the first term of the Obama administration, Jackson encountered sharp industry criticism and political resistance from Congress but was able to establish a number of agency priorities, including improved air and water quality standards, tougher chemical safety standards, and a new examination of environmental justice inequities. Observers expect McCarthy to advance these important priorities.

At the beginning of Obama's first term, EPA pledged to revise public health standards for each of the six major air pollutants identified in the Clean Air Act. McCarthy, then head of the air office, said in October 2009 that the agency would review the pollutants under the act's National Ambient Air Quality Standards program and determine whether changes to the standards were necessary by the end of 2011. Unfortunately, these efforts came under intense political pressure, and in September 2011, the president ordered the EPA to withdraw a rule that would have established a new standard for ground-level ozone pollution.

Nonetheless, EPA issued a number of new clean air protections, strengthening public health standards for nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. EPA also contributed to joint fuel efficiency standards by issuing limits on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes, an effort in which McCarthy played a crucial role.

By comparison, EPA's Office of Water has been far less active on the rulemaking front. Over the course of the Obama administration thus far, the water office has finalized fewer than 10 significant rules.

EPA also initiated a number of actions to strengthen oversight of toxic chemicals, but three proposed rules on chemical safety submitted for review in 2010 and 2011 remain stalled at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). And, although EPA proposed new standards for the regulation of coal ash in 2010, little progress has been made toward issuing comprehensive national standards.

EPA's Agenda Under McCarthy

A primary responsibility of McCarthy's will be implementing the president's climate action plan, released in June. The plan directs the EPA to finalize standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants, which are responsible for the majority of carbon dioxide released into the air. McCarthy worked on a rule limiting emissions from new power plants, but it has been stalled since it was first proposed in March 2012. Under the president's plan, EPA must complete a proposed rule for new power plants by Sept. 20, 2013, and the final rule is to be published within "a reasonable time," although no firm deadline is set.

The plan also directs the EPA to propose limits on emissions from existing power plants, an even more significant and challenging task, by June 1, 2014, and finalize the rule within the following year. This means EPA will have to get the rules through OIRA in two years. It will be up to the president and the newly appointed OIRA administrator, Howard Shelanski, to ensure that the rules move expeditiously through the review process.

EPA is also expected to complete its review of the ozone standard, which was extended when the agency withdrew its rule in 2011. The to-do list also includes reviewing and revising a number of air pollution standards that are out of date or have been sent back to the agency by the courts.

Clean air is just one piece of a hefty agenda. EPA also has unfinished business in water quality, chemical safety, and toxics control. There are incomplete actions pending on coal ash regulation, improvements in drinking water standards, and strengthening toxic chemical protections.

Environmental groups applauded McCarthy's confirmation and are eager for her to begin. Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke said, "Her agenda includes safeguarding Americans from toxic chemicals in our air, water and land; and cleaning up pollution driving dangerous changes in our climate. That means standing up to naysayers who may try to block President Obama's climate plan and the special interests opposed to life-saving carbon pollution limits for the nation's power plants."

Standing up to opponents of environmental regulations will be crucial. McCarthy has worked under both parties throughout her career, but she has been a target of industry groups and politicians opposed to environmental protections. It took significant, behind-the-scenes negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Republicans to break through the "silent filibuster" that was holding up a vote on McCarthy's nomination. In spite of that success, congressional attempts to gut EPA regulations, limit the agency's authority, and slash its funding are ongoing, starkly illustrating the need for ongoing vigilance.

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