Obama Taps McCarthy, as Expected, for EPA Administrator

Tamar Hallerman
GHG Monitor

Ernest Moniz, President Obama’s pick to lead the Department of Energy, has written extensively about the need for the U.S. government to further invest in carbon capture and storage RD&D. However, if confirmed by the Senate he will likely not see as many opportunities to extend additional financial resources to the fledging technology as his predecessor Steven Chu did, observers say. As expected, Moniz, a nuclear physicist and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, was nominated earlier this week to serve as Secretary of Energy. President Obama called Moniz a “brilliant scientist” and highlighted his energy credentials. “Most importantly, Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy while still taking care of our air, our water and our climate,” Obama said in a brief announcement at the White House March 4.

Moniz’s nomination could be notable for proponents of CCS, given that he has co-authored several high profile papers on the topic in recent years as head of MIT’s Energy Initiative. He co-wrote a landmark report in 2007 that examined coal’s future in a carbon-constrained world. That study—written before the country’s recent natural gas boom—lists CCS as a “critical enabling technology” that could extend coal’s future in a more environmentally-conscious way. The report called on DOE to tweak its Fossil R&D program to promote carbon capture technologies and enable more large-scale demonstration projects. “An aggressive R&D effort in the near term will yield significant dividends down the road, and should be undertaken immediately to help meet this urgent scientific challenge,” Moniz said at the time. The report also recommended that Congress establish a price on carbon to incentivize low carbon technologies like CCS.

Moniz co-authored another key report two years later about reducing CO2 emissions from existing coal plants, which focused heavily on post-combustion capture retrofits. Based on the input of stakeholders during an MIT symposium, the study calls on the federal government to “dramatically expand” the scale and scope of utility-scale commercial demonstrations of CCS, while focusing publically-funded R&D efforts on the cost reduction of post-combustion capture systems for existing plants. “There is no credible pathway toward prudent greenhouse gas stabilization targets without CO2 emissions reduction from existing coal power plants. We urgently need technology options for these plants and policies that incentivize implementation,” Moniz said at the time. That report also called on the expansion of DOE’s Fossil Energy R&D program to include more research into rebuilds, efficiency upgrades, poly-generation, bio-mass co-firing and natural gas capture technologies to the tune of $1 billion annually for the next decade.

‘Balanced Approach’

Despite his literature on CCS, stakeholders said in interviews this week that it is unclear whether Moniz will move to increase the technology’s visibility within the Department given current budget constraints. DOE’s energy programs are already seeing 5 percent across-the-board cuts totaling more than $500 million as part of the sequester, while the Department’s leaders must also make tough choices about hiring freezes, employee furloughs and limiting project contracts. Funding new demonstration projects or other CCS-related R&D priorities Moniz has advocated for in the past might be tough, some said. “I think CCS will still be a strong part of the portfolio if Ernie is confirmed,” Hank Courtright, senior vice president of Global Strategy at the Electric Power Research Institute, said in an interview this week. “As to what degree, I think that’s still uncertain given the government’s current budget issues.”

Several observers said they expect Moniz will take more of a “balanced approach” than Chu, who focused much of his energy at DOE on the development of renewables. “What I see in Ernie Moniz is a very broad understanding of today’s energy reality. He’s a very pragmatic person and I would expect to see that in terms of how he would position himself in the Administration,” said colleague Ruben Juanes, a professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who specializes in carbon storage and is also involved in the Energy Initiative. “I think what he brings to the table is a very broad understanding and exceptional vision of what the energy world looks like—the reality that 80 percent of the energy that fuels this planet comes from fossil fuels. At the same time, he is very well aware of the long-term risks of relying on fossil fuels.”

While Moniz and Chu share a background in physics and have both spent time in academia, those are largely where the similarities between the two men end. Whereas Chu came to DOE as largely a political novice, Moniz by comparison is a seasoned veteran. He previously served as Under Secretary of Energy during the latter years of the Clinton Administration and worked as Associate Director for Science in President Clinton’s Office of Science and Technology. In addition to running the MIT Energy Initiative, in recent years Moniz has served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, as well as the government’s Blue Ribbon Commission to study nuclear waste storage. In addition to CCS, Moniz has written other detailed reports touting the importance of nuclear energy and natural gas and has testified about energy issues on Capitol Hill in recent years.

Some Greens Criticize Moniz’s Gas Support

But while many have praised Moniz for his broader energy focus, some environmental groups have specifically questioned his support of liquefied natural gas exports and hydraulic fracturing as a gas extraction technique. Moniz angered anti-fracking environmental groups with his 2011 testimony in front of the Senate Energy Committee in which he endorsed natural gas as a “bridge” fuel on a path to a low carbon economy. “We would stress to Mr. Moniz that an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy policy only means ‘more of the same,’ and we urge him to leave dangerous nuclear energy and toxic fracking behind while focusing on safe, clean energy sources like wind and solar,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement earlier this week.

Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said the White House should instead aim to find a candidate “dedicated to forging a truly green energy future for the United States, not a cheerleader for the oil and gas industry.” She also questioned the MIT’s Energy Initiative’s sources of funding, which include oil companies like BP, Shell and Saudi Aramco. “Moniz does not have the independence or the vision to guide our nation’s energy future,” Hauter said.

Moniz Considered Largely Uncontroversial

Despite the fact that some environmental groups have stepped out against Moniz, he is still considered to be a largely non-controversial nominee and is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate. Several more moderate environmental NGOs praised Moniz following his nomination this week. Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Moniz’s nomination is “good news.” “Professor Moniz has the hands-on experience and the expertise needed to help further the climate and energy goals our country urgently needs. His background, coupled with his long history of constructive engagement with, and at, the Energy Department, will serve the American people well,” she said in a statement.

People who have worked with Moniz said he is a “pragmatic” and knowledgeable leader. “Ernie understands really well the triangle of government, academia and industry,” Juanes said.  “He has definitely shown that here at MIT. I would expect that as Secretary of Energy he would work well on the innovation front, working with academia but also understanding the reality of supporting and learning from industry.” Courtright agreed. “I have a lot of respect for the man. He’s a hard worker, a good listener and also pushes the envelope in terms of developing new ideas. I think he’ll do a good job,” he said. (Moniz previously served on EPRI’s board of directors.)

McCarthy Tapped for EPA

Meanwhile, President Obama also moved this week to nominate Gina McCarthy for the Environmental Protection Agency’s top position. The EPA deputy had long been listed as a favorite to replace former Administrator Lisa Jackson. In her four years at EPA, McCarthy has been the main architect of many of the Obama Administration’s highest-profile environmental regulations, including limits on carbon emissions from new fossil fuel plants and technology standards clamping down on mercury and air toxics emitted from coal units. In his announcement at the White House this week, Obama said “there is nobody who can do a better job in filling Lisa [Jackson’s] shoes permanently than [McCarthy].”

With 25 years of experience as a state and local environmental regulator, McCarthy has a reputation of reaching out to utilities and green groups alike when fashioning major rulemakings. She also boasts bipartisan credentials, having previously worked under both Democratic and Republican governors while the top environmental regulator in both Connecticut and Massachusetts, and at one point served as then-Gov. Mitt Romney’s chief climate aide.

Following Obama’s announcement, some coal industry groups expressed tempered support of McCarthy. “Given that the recent rules arising under the Clean Air Act are some of the most expensive in EPA history, McCarthy has significant experience with wide-sweeping stakeholder contact. What many in industry appreciate about her style is her directness and openness to engagement with the regulated community,” Scott Segal of the law firm Bracewell and Giuliani said. “We hope for a more constructive working relationship with the EPA under [McCarthy’s] leadership,” American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity CEO Mike Duncan said in a statement. “We hope that if she is confirmed she can put EPA on a more balanced path that recognizes America’s continued need for coal, and the importance of clean coal technology.”

Environmentalists Supportive of McCarthy

Environmental groups were quick to voice their support of McCarthy. “Gina McCarthy cares about progress not partisanship. She’s worked for administrations from both parties and made extraordinary progress protecting the air we breathe and defending public health," League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said in a statement. “The President could not have picked a more qualified person to lead EPA at this critical time. The combination of her experience, intelligence, energy and unquestioned expertise will make Gina an effective EPA Administrator,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in a statement. 

McCarthy’s nomination, though, is expected to face some opposition from Senate Republicans. A trio of lawmakers on the Environmental and Public Works Committee in particular are expected to slow or hold her nomination. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) put a hold on McCarthy’s nomination for a month in 2009 because of questions he had with EPA’s so-called ‘endangerment finding.’ Climate change skeptic Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) is also expected to sharply question McCarthy during her nomination hearing, as will newly-installed Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member David Vitter (R-La.), who highlighted several outstanding inquiries to EPA in a statement earlier this week. “The EPA is in desperate need of a leader who will stop ignoring congressional information requests, hiding emails and more from the public, and relying on flawed science,” Vitter said. “McCarthy has been directly involved in much of that, but I hope she can reverse those practices with Lisa Jackson's departure.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski underscored that her support of McCarty and Moniz will depend on their willingness to “take immediate steps to restore balance to our nation’s energy and environmental policies.” “That balance has been missing for the past four years but must play a more prominent role going forward if we are to bolster our struggling economy,” Murkowski said in a statement. “I’m willing to work with both DOE and the EPA to address the shared challenges we face, but it truly must be done in a way that recognizes the benefits of an energy supply that is not only clean, but also abundant, affordable, diverse and secure.”

Obama Urges Focus on Climate

During his introduction of Moniz and McCarthy at the White House, Obama underscored that both nominees for DOE and EPA will focus heavily on fighting climate change if confirmed, furthering the pledge he made during his State of the Union address last month. McCarthy and Moniz are “going to be making sure that we're investing in American energy, that we're doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change, that we're going to be creating jobs and economic opportunity in the first place … these are some of my top priorities going forward,” he said.