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Science & Environment

Obama's Pick For EPA Head The Most Likely To Cause Controversy

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: I'm Scott Horsley at the White House. Of the three nominations the president announced today, the one likely to generate the most controversy is Gina McCarthy, to head the EPA. More because of the job than anything McCarthy herself has done. In fact, McCarthy has a strong bipartisan track record. She once worked under former Republican Governor Mitt Romney in her home state of Massachusetts.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One of her proudest moments was yelling, play ball, at Fenway before a Red Sox game.

HORSLEY: President Obama teased McCarthy about her strong Boston accent, but it hasn't kept her from talking to all different kinds of people.

OBAMA: As assistant EPA administrator, Gina has focused on practical cost effective ways to keep our air clean and our economy growing. She has earned a reputation as a straight shooter. She welcomes different points of view. I'm confident that she's going to do an outstanding job leading the EPA.

HORSLEY: During the president's first term, McCarthy played a key role in negotiating higher fuel economy standards for automobiles. Those standards will ultimately allow drivers to go twice as far on a gallon of gasoline, cutting costs and pollution. Wade Newton, who's with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says, in brokering the deal, McCarthy seems sensitive to how far the automakers could go.

WADE NEWTON: There really is the sense that she has been a pragmatic policymaker who pushes for very aspirational goals, but also realizes how important kind of real world realities are.

HORSLEY: Charles Warren represents aluminum makers and other companies that are regulated by the EPA. He agrees, McCarthy works hard to involve industries that will be effected by the agency's rules, making the process less adversarial. But, like the Red Sox and the Yankees, some tension is inevitable.

CHARLES WARREN: It only goes too far, obviously, because in the end, it's the substantive positions that people have that are going to cause problems.

HORSLEY: And the next EPA administrator could face big problems. In both his inaugural address and his State of the Union speech, the president renewed his promise to tackle climate change in his second term. He says he'd prefer to do so through legislation. But former White House climate czar Carol Browner says that's not likely to happen.

CAROL BROWNER: Clearly, Congress has demonstrated little interest in climate change across the board. And so I think that the president is going to be looking to the tools that exists under the current law and what he can do to further reduce the dangerous pollutants.

HORSLEY: And one of the president's most powerful tools is the Clean Air Act which, according to the Supreme Court, gives the EPA the right to regulate greenhouse gases. The agency is already in the process of limiting carbon emissions from new power plants. Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists says the real battle will be over what to do about existing power plants, which produce 40 percent of the country's carbon pollution.

ALDEN MEYER: Like Willie Sutton said when he was asked why he robbed banks, that's where the money is, he said this is where the carbon is. So it's a big deal and that will be a big fight.

HORSLEY: The White House cautions no decision about regulating emissions from existing power plants has been made yet, but the utility industry is bracing for tight new restrictions. That will be especially challenging for carbon belching coal-fired plants. Quin Shea of the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group, says the potential for carbon rules will make the new EPA administrator one of the most powerful policymakers of the next decade.

QUIN SHEA: We will be looking and, to their credit, I think EPA be looking at ways to advance the climate change policy objectives of the administration. But at the same time, it's very important that this be done, I think, carefully and cost effectively.

HORSLEY: The looming carbon fight could cause sparks when a divided Senate takes up McCarthy's nomination. Some Republican lawmakers from oil-rich states have already issued statements challenging the EPA over what they call its flawed science and a missing energy balance.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.