Likely EPA pick talks big game on climate

"We are going to take action," vows Gina McCarthy, front-runner to head the Environmental Protection Agency

Topics: Climate Change, Environmental Protection Agency, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Cabinet appointments,

Likely EPA pick talks big game on climate (Credit: AP/Ian Joughin)

Even though there’s no chance that this Congress will pass a comprehensive bill to address climate change — failing to get the House-passed cap-and-trade bill through the Senate in 2009 was perhaps the biggest disappointment of Obama’s first term — that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done.

Obama laid out the strategy in his State of the Union address this month: “I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” he said.

Senate Democrats have already moved ahead on phase one of that plan. Just days after the speech, Sens. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Environment Committee, and Bernie Sanders introduced a sweeping climate bill. The bill is an environmentalist’s wish list — it includes putting a price on carbon, regulating fracking, and money for green energy investments — and thus is probably little more than a sacrificial lamb so that Obama can move on to phase two: executive action.

So will Obama act? As Jillian Rayfield pointed out, Obama often talks big on climate, but results are more elusive.

Well, here are some good signs from the woman who is likely to be Obama’s next EPA chief. Via the Hill:

The front-runner to fill the vacancy atop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pledged to push ahead with actions to confront climate change during a wide-ranging speech Thursday.

“As President Obama said, climate change is a priority — and we are going to take action,” Gina McCarthy, the EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, told attendees at the Georgetown Climate Center Workshop in Washington, D.C.

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Among the regulations she mentioned is the biggie: carbon emissions limits for existing power plants. Environmentalists say this is the most important action the administration can take, as the plants are responsible for a third of all carbon emissions nationally. And McCarthy said it could be “next” on the agency’s agenda.

In 2007, the Supreme Court not only empowered the EPA to regulate carbon as a pollutant, but mandated the agency to do so under the Clean Air Act. The agency has been drawing out the rule-making process since then, given the political pitfalls and technical challenges.

McCarthy’s statements are not a huge surprise, as the administration has been telegraphing its intentions for some time now, and Obama himself addressed the issue last week, but it’s a big step forward coming from the person who may be tasked with implementing the plan.

But there are dangers here as well.

While Republicans can’t block an EPA rule, they can exact revenge in other ways. They could try to torpedo McCarthy’s nomination, for instance, using the playbook they developed for Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel. And right now, Republicans are trying to legislate by hostage taking, demanding rule changes at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before they confirm its chief.

McCarthy has one trick up her sleeve here: She was Mitt Romney’s environmental chief when he was governor of Massachusetts, giving her some bipartisan credibility. But it’s unclear how much favor that will buy her.

And Congress still controls the purse strings, so Republicans could try to defund the EPA’s implementation of new carbon rules. They (with a big assist from many Democrats) used a similar tactic to block the closure of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, which is theoretically the domain of the administration as well.

They could also pass a law to prevent the EPA’s regulation, or something like the REINS Act, which would give Congress more oversight authority over regulations, though schemes like that have been fended off in recent years.

The White House is clearly aware of all of this and seems to be determined to proceed anyway. And Obama’s liberal base seems ready to crank up the pressure, as demonstrated by a massive march on the mall last week.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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