Front-runner to lead EPA vows more action on climate change

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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Obama is reportedly leaning toward tapping McCarthy as the next EPA administrator. She would replace Lisa Jackson, who left the post last week after four years with the White House.

McCarthy was hardly unaware of that development.

“There’s more suits this time. I don’t know why,” McCarthy joked when comparing the crowd to the one that showed up for her speech at the same conference four years ago.

McCarthy discussed a list of emissions rules rolled out during Obama’s first term, touting them for their public health benefits and effects on tackling climate change.

Among the rules were stronger fuel economy standards for vehicles, proposed rules for new coal-fired power plants and limits on mercury and other toxic air pollutants.

Some of those rules also would likely subject McCarthy to GOP criticism if she gets the nomination to head the EPA.

Republicans have slammed the emissions standards, calling them economically burdensome.

McCarthy said, however, that tackling climate change “hasn’t hurt the economy,” and that “there are tremendous opportunities to address climate change that build the economy, that grow jobs.”

She challenged those in the audience to “be clear on the cost and benefits on all these programs moving forward.”

The agency has said its emissions rules would benefit public health, saving billions in healthcare costs. The agency also has said the more stringent vehicle fuel efficiency standards would save consumers money at the pump.

She explained that climate change discussions should therefore involve “what matters to people in every aspect of their lives.”

And McCarthy said the EPA was not going to stop at some of the “historic achievements” it reached on emissions during the past four years.

Moving ahead with emissions rules for existing power plants could be one of the EPA’s next actions on emissions.

Environmental groups want the White House to impose standards for existing power plants, contending the administration has authority to do so through the Clean Air Act.

Republicans and the industry would oppose that measure, and GOP lawmakers would likely air their concerns during a McCarthy confirmation hearing.

While such a rule wouldn’t sit well with Republicans, McCarthy does have experience working for a GOP administration: She held senior roles for then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the early 2000s.

She later led Connecticut’s Department on Environmental Protection from 2004-2009 before joining the EPA, which required Senate confirmation.

McCarthy reflected on her time at the state level Thursday, spending much of her speech talking about the role the agency could play with state and local governments.

McCarthy said tackling emissions on the “front end” — at buildings, manufacturing facilities and elsewhere — would help reduce emissions and save consumers money.

To do so, she said the EPA should offer incentives through rulemaking that encourage states, manufacturers and industrial facilities to upgrade energy efficiency and incorporate renewable energy.

McCarthy also praised several local pilot programs that she hoped to replicate across the country.

“We have to look more comprehensively at ways in which we can do more than one thing at once,” she said.