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New EPA chief Gina McCarthy faces tough challenges

Today is Gina McCarthy’s first day as the USA’s Environment Protection Agency chief. What should she be expecting in her inbox?

Republicans say McCarthy (L) will be charged with President Obama’s “draconian” plan to target greenhouse gas emissions

By Sophie Yeo

The work starts now for Gina McCarthy, the newly appointed chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Narrowly voted in by the Senate yesterday at 59 to 40 votes, she now shoulders the burden of implementing Obama’s Climate Action Plan proposals, while staving off the opposition of the Republicans, which is likely to manifest itself in a flurry of legal challenges.

Along with John Kerry, the Secretary of State, and Ernest Moniz, the Secretary of Energy, she will be part of the core team helping Obama to reach US emissions targets, a 17% reduction by 2020.

The vote puts an end to a four month battle with the Republicans who have tried to delay her election.

For many, this was because they oppose the EPA itself, rather than McCarthy, who is known for her bipartisan work ethic, having served under five Republican governors as well as her current work under the Obama administration.

Senator Joe Manchin, the only Democrat to vote against McCarthy in yesterday’s standoff, said in a statement, “I voted against Gina McCarthy to be the next Administrator of the EPA, but my fight is not with her.

“My fight is with President Obama and the EPA, the regulatory agency that has consistently placed unreasonable regulations and unobtainable standards on energy production, rather than focus on efforts to develop a domestic all-of-the-above energy strategy for the future.”

His views echo those of many Republicans, who object to what they see as the aggressive extension of power by the EPA.

Obama issued a directive to the agency during his speech last month at Georgetown University to bypass the deadlocked Congress and curb emissions from the power plants, which currently generate 40% of carbon emissions in the USA.

To many, McCarthy’s confirmation represents a consolidation of Obama’s “war on coal” at the heart of the government.

War on coal?

­Taking action on power plants is likely to feature high on McCarthy’s agenda.

The EPA started taking action on the emission from existing power plants last year, yet there are currently no regulations on the carbon emitted by existing plants.

This will soon change: the memorandum issued to the EPA by the President has set a deadline of June 2014 to decide on proposed carbon pollution standards, which they then have a year to finalise.

According to John Mitchell, Associate Fellow for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House, McCarthy’s “active agenda” is what the EPA needs to prompt it into action on its emissions targets.

“There’s a great deal of administrative follow up that needs to be done to make those things effective. It’s important to have somebody at the head of the EPA who has sympathy with the objective,” he told RTCC.

Keystone pipeline

She will come under pressure in her handling of the Keystone XL pipeline controversy, a construction project that would pump 800,00 barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta’s tar sand to refineries on the US Gulf Coast – a move deemed catastrophic by environmentalists.

The EPA is one of the eight government agencies currently responsible for reviewing the project. The agency has tried to persuade TransCanada Corp. to power its pumps using renewable energy, a measure rejected by the company.

Although Obama has been less authoritative on this matter, his speech has been celebrated by campaigning groups such as 350.org as a sign that he might reject the project.

“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest,” he said.

“Our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”

As from 1 October, McCarthy will be working under a new budget.

The Senate budget has proposed $296 million in cuts to the EPA, while the competing proposal from the House of Representatives is critical of the Senate’s subsidising of the renewables industry, and states its intention to “roll back such federal intervention and corporate-welfare spending across energy sectors.”

Whatever McCarthy puts at the top of her “to do” list, she can be sure that she will face legal challenges.

“There are always legal challenges in the United States whatever happens,” says Mitchell, “but she’s in as good as position as she can be. I think her appointment is positive news.”

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