In March, when President Obama chose Gina McCarthy, who previously served as the EPA’s chief air quality regulator, to lead the entire Environmental Protection Agency, Brad Plumer said she might well be the administration’s “most significant” nominee.
I still think that’s right, and now that McCarthy has been confirmed – she overcame Republican opposition and was approved late yesterday – it’s worth pausing to appreciate why McCarthy is so important.
The success or failure of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda now rests squarely on Gina McCarthy’s shoulders.
She’s charged with doing the things that Republicans warned she would do: Sweeping crackdowns on toxic pollution from power plants, a massive expansion of federal greenhouse gas regulations, and steps to stem the increasingly controversial water pollution problems caused by coal and minerals mining. Her work as EPA administrator may determine whether Obama’s legacy on climate change is a historic shift in carbon pollution or a fizzled effort, lost to lawsuits and bureaucratic fumbling.
Just last month, President Obama unveiled a sweeping policy on combating the climate crisis, using his authority under the Clean Air Act to, among other things, sharply reduce carbon pollution from power plants. It now falls on McCarthy to sharpen, defend, and enforce those public protections.
This also reinforces the significance of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where polluters will challenge the EPA’s efforts. With McCarthy in office and a narrow majority of the Circuit bench leaning to the left, for the first time in many years, there’s reason for optimism among those who take environmental policy seriously.
While she’s at it, McCarthy will also crack down on methane leaks from natural-gas infrastructure and deal with a flurry of pollution rules that have been postponed, all while working with Republicans at the state and federal level who tend to consider environmental safeguards and the entirety of climate science with contempt.
Everyone who knows McCarthy believes she’s easily up to the task, but that doesn’t change the fact that the task is certainly daunting.