WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday named two people to his Cabinet who will be charged with making good on his threat to use the powers of the executive branch to tackle climate change and energy policy if Congress does not act quickly.
Obama nominated Gina McCarthy, a tough-talking Boston native and experienced clean-air regulator, to take charge at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and Ernest Moniz, a physicist and strong advocate for natural gas and nuclear power as cleaner alternatives to coal, to run the Department of Energy.
The appointments, which require Senate confirmation, send an unmistakable signal that the president intends to mount a multifaceted campaign in his second term to tackle climate change by using all the executive- branch tools at his disposal.
But even with McCarthy and Moniz in place, Obama would have to confront major hurdles in trying to refashion the American way of producing and consuming energy, the same hurdles that stymied climate and energy policy in his first term.
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Among the first of those is a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which the administration appears inclined to approve over the vociferous objections of environmental advocates.
Obama, in introducing the nominees at the White House on Monday, recognized the political and economic delicacy of the task facing both of them.
“So these two over here,” he said, gesturing toward McCarthy and Moniz, “they’re 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.”
Obama described Moniz as “another brilliant scientist” to succeed Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, at the Energy Department. And for the EPA, the president said McCarthy was well suited with her experience as a state environmental official in both Massachusetts — for former Gov. Mitt Romney — and Connecticut. She has “a reputation as a straight-shooter” who “welcomes different points of view,” he added.
Together, 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,” Obama said, implicitly addressing the criticism, especially from Republicans, that environmental policies inhibit the economy.
The choice of McCarthy is likely to generate considerable opposition because she is identified with several of the Obama administration’s most ambitious clean-air regulations, including proposed greenhouse-gas regulations for new power plants.
In choosing Moniz, Obama has once again selected a nuclear physicist, although one with more political experience. Moniz was the undersecretary of energy in President Clinton’s second term.
Moniz, like his predecessor, Chu, is highly focused on how to meet a skyrocketing global demand for energy while mitigating adverse effects on the environment. And like Chu, he has focused on the need for technology innovation.
He also shares with Chu a scientist’s view of politics. In a memo posted on his program’s website in November, he said that the MIT Energy Initiative was continuing to supply technical research “in the interest of providing some degree of rationality in the ongoing political discussion.”
McCarthy, 58, is a native of Massachusetts and was a top environmental official there and in Connecticut, serving under Democratic and Republican governors.
She has a reputation as a blunt-speaking, assertive voice for strong environmental policies, particularly health-related clean-air policies. As a senior EPA official in Obama’s first term, she helped fashion tough new emissions standards for cars and light trucks, tightened standards for mercury and other harmful pollutants in the air, and issued the first proposed regulations for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas pollutants for new power plants. Those new rules would make it virtually impossible to build any new coal-fired power plants in the United States.
Coal and utility industry officials accused her and other EPA officials of waging a “war on coal,” and that issue is likely to come up in her confirmation hearings.
Jeffrey Holmstead, who led the EPA’s air and radiation office in the George W. Bush administration, predicted that McCarthy would win confirmation, although the hearings might produce some sparks.
“I assume many people on the GOP side will want to use confirm hearings to express concerns,” Holmstead said. “But there is a sense among industry folks that Gina took the time to listen to and understand their concerns. She’s certainly not pro-industry, but she does try to understand an issue and address it.”
Obama has embraced the boom in unconventional natural-gas production, which has brought lower energy prices and reduced emissions as utilities switch from coal to natural gas to produce electricity. But the production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, presents difficult environmental issues, including the possibility of groundwater contamination and the unregulated release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but it is still a fossil fuel that even its advocates see as a bridge fuel rather than a long-term answer to climate change.
Obama has also pursued increased offshore drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean, an enterprise fraught with environmental peril, as the BP oil spill in the gulf in 2010 and Shell’s mishaps in the Arctic last year dramatized.
In leaning toward construction of the pipeline, the administration would be embracing a project to carry heavy crude oil from tar sands formations in Alberta to refineries in Texas. That would result in the delivery of 800,000 barrels of oil a day from a friendly source and thousands of construction, refinery and spinoff jobs. But a State Department environmental-impact report issued Friday notes that extracting, shipping and refining the Canadian oil would produce measurably more greenhouse gas emissions than other types of oil.
Michael Levi, a climate and energy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the appointments of McCarthy and Moniz represent a continuation of the president’s first-term policies rather than a sharp break. The two are practical, practiced insiders who put a premium on finding workable solutions and have more experience navigating the federal bureaucracy and Congress than the officials they have been tapped to succeed.