6:02am

Mon March 4, 2013
It's All Politics

President Obama To Nominate New EPA, Budget And Energy Heads

Originally published on Mon March 4, 2013 1:02 pm

President Obama plans to announce three Cabinet-level nominations Monday, including a new administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, who could be on the hot seat in the looming battle over global warming.

Gina McCarthy, currently an assistant administrator in the wing of the EPA that regulates air pollution, is the president's pick to head the EPA.

Obama will also tap the director of MIT's Energy Initiative, Ernest Moniz, as his new energy secretary, and the president of the Walmart Foundation, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, to head the Office of Management and Budget.

The nominations will be announced at the White House on Monday morning. All three require Senate confirmation.

The new EPA Administrator could be the biggest lightning rod, given that agency's high profile in administration efforts to combat climate change. While the president has said he would prefer to attack greenhouse gases through legislation, the odds of passing a bill appear slim. A comprehensive climate bill failed in 2010, even though Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress.

That leaves regulation as the most likely course for climate action. The EPA is expected to craft rules limiting heat-trapping gases from existing power plants, which generate 40 percent of the country's carbon pollution.

"Like Willie Sutton said when he was asked why he robbed banks, 'That's where the money is,' " said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "This is where the carbon is."

McCarthy has already overseen regulations that will limit carbon emissions from new power plants. And she played a key role in doubling automotive fuel-economy standards, which was one of the few big climate accomplishments in the president's first term.

The extra miles per gallon were the product of cooperation between the administration and automakers. McCarthy is described as a pragmatic regulator, with a reputation for reaching out to industry. Before joining the EPA in 2009, she served in state environmental roles under two Republican governors: Jodi Rell in Connecticut and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

"She's tough, she's independent, she's fair," said Meyer. "She will listen closely to the views of all the interests, including affected industries, and if she sees a reason to change her stance, she'll do that."

Like McCarthy, the president's pick for energy secretary is familiar to both the industry and Washington. Moniz served as undersecretary of the Energy Department during the Clinton administration.

The White House points to his selection as evidence of Obama's commitment to an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy. The initiative Moniz runs at MIT devotes much of its research to alternative forms of energy, including solar. But Moniz has also championed natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to a future with less carbon pollution.

A nuclear physicist by training, Moniz has been a scientific adviser to Obama. He also served on a blue-ribbon panel looking for new ways to store nuclear waste, after the president nixed a planned disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Obama's choice for budget director is also a veteran of the Clinton administration. Burwell served as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in the late 1990s, when the federal government ran a budget surplus. For the past decade, she has been working in the world of big philanthropy. Before taking over the Walmart Foundation last year, she was chief operating officer and the leader of global development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama is to announce three Cabinet-level nominations today - for the Energy Department, for the Office of Management and Budget, and the Environmental Protection Agency. It's that last one for the EPA that will likely be the biggest lightning rod during Senate confirmation hearings. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is here with us now to talk about the president's picks. Good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Why is the EPA administrator such a flashpoint?

HORSLEY: Two words, Renee - climate change. The president has said he wants to make a difference in global warming and while he'd like to do that through the legislative process, that seems unlikely. So it's going to fall to regulation and that means the EPA. The agency has already drafted rules to limit greenhouse gases from new power plants.

But a big battle could come over limits on heat trapping gases from existing plants if the EPA decides to pursue those. Quin Shea is with the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for utility companies. His members are bracing for that.

QUIN SHEA: The new EPA administrator will have a tall task to perform here. This is a big deal. The new administrator will be one of the most influential public policy officials in the next decade.

HORSLEY: Whatever the EPA tries to do is likely to be contested both in Congress and the courts but the Supreme Court has given the agency the power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

MONTAGNE: All right. Tell us a little bit about the woman that the president has chosen for this job at the EPA.

HORSLEY: She's Gina McCarthy. She is now an assistant administrator at the EPA and heads the division that regulates air pollution, so she's well known to the industry. She's also had a hand in crafting earlier rules, including one that doubled fuel economy for automobiles which was one of the few big climate achievements in the president's first term.

She's known as a pragmatic regulator who tries to seek industry involvement in the process. That's what she did with the automakers. Alden Meyer, who's with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says she's well respected.

ALDEN MEYER: She's tough, she's independent, she's fair. She listens to arguments. She respects the law and the finance. She will listen closely to the views of all the interests, including affected industries, and if she sees a reason to change the stance, or a position or a policy, she'll do that.

HORSLEY: She also has a bit of a bipartisan pedigree, having worked under a couple of Republican governors in the Northeast, including a former Massachusetts governor named Mitt Romney.

MONTAGNE: Well, on to the new energy secretary who will replace Steven Chu. Now, Chu brought some Nobel Prize luster to the president's Cabinet. The nominee now is another PhD physicist but also an old Washington hand.

HORSLEY: That's right. Ernie Moniz is a nuclear physicist from MIT, but he's also served as an undersecretary of energy back in the Clinton administration. At MIT he runs something called the Energy Initiative which does a lot of research on alternatives like solar energy. But he's also spent considerable time looking at natural gas. He's called that a kind of bridge fuel that can help make the transition to a less polluting energy mix. So the White House sees Moniz as one who would carry on the president's all-of-the-above energy strategy.

MONTAGNE: And finally, the president's announcing a new budget director today. Tell us about her.

HORSLEY: She is Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the president of the Wal Mart Foundation. Before she took over there last year she spent about a decade at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So she's well versed in big philanthropy. But she's also another old Washington hand. She was deputy budget director back in the late 1990s which is, we remember, was a time when we had a rare budget surplus in this country.

And if confirmed, Burwell would be taking over the budget office at a time when it's trying to manage all those automatic spending cuts we've been talking about under the fiscal sequester.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. Tough job, then. Scott, thanks very much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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