New EPA head McCarthy outlines ambitious agenda in Harvard speech

BOSTON -- In her first public speech since talking the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency two weeks ago, Administrator Gina McCarthy told an audience at Harvard Law School cutting carbon pollution will “feed the economic agenda of this country.”

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Gina McCarthy (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“Climate change will not be resolved overnight,” she told the 310-person audience. “But it will be engaged over the next three years. That I can promise you.”

McCarthy made a full-throated defense of her agency's right to address greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, detailing how the air quality regulations and brownfield cleanup efforts have produced economic benefits in the United States. “Can we stop talking about environmental regulations killing jobs, please?,” she asked, prompting loud applause.“We need to embrace cutting edge technology as a way to spark business innovation,” her Boston accent so evident in the hard “a” in spark, she then repeated, “And I said ‘spaahrk.’”

At the start of her remarks McCarthy joked about the challenge she faced in getting her post, noting that being confirmed was “the honor of a lifetime. That’s a very good thing, because I swear it took two lifetimes to get confirmed."

The speech represented a homecoming for McCarthy, a Boston-area native. Her  27-year old daughter Maggie McCarey, a program coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, gave her a glowing introduction in which she noted her mother “perfected her mediating skills” brokering arguments among her three children for the past three decades.

McCarey noted that while some might wonder why she would choose to follow in her mother’s footsteps, “But for me, the real question is, why would I not want to be like her?”

The emotional introduction left the administrator, in her own words, “inside a blubbering idiot, and a proud mom.”

Recalling how EPA had improved the environment across the country—including in Lowell, Mass., where she watched the river run blue, yellow and other colors depending on what dyes the textile mills dumped in the water,--McCarthy said the agency remains committed to making environmental progress. “And frankly, that still is, everywhere. And we’re not going to stop looking at the science. And we’re not going to stop driving for improvements.”

She identified climate change as the agency’s top priority, saying it would model its efforts on the stricter fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks the administration brokered with the auto industry during its first term.

“EPA cannot dictate solutions,” McCarthy said. “We have to engage.”

McCarthy has already been meeting with utility executives and coal industry officials, some of whom fear the administration’s plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing plants will shutter many plants.

Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, said during a March 26 meeting with McCarthy he “found her keenly interested in...our technical assessment of what will transpire because of the rulemaking at EPA” but remains worried the agency will press for an unrealistic carbon standards.

“The investments that have been made in utilities that could be jeopardized or stranded because of the [administration’s] rules on greenhouse gas emissions,” noting that the EPA’s 2011 mercury and air toxics rule had already forced utilities to retire at least 40,000 megawatts of coal-fired electricity.

At the time, Quinn noted, EPA said the new rule would result in the retirement of 9,000 MW of capacity. “Clearly their forecast was off,” he said.

In an interview, McCarthy said the announced closings have come so far ahead of when utilities are required to comply with the new mercury limit, “It’s hard for me to think our rule is the driving factor behind these closures. This is about the abundance of low-cost natural gas. It’s about how utilities are making decisions, company-wide, about how to invest in the future the way they see it right now.”

During the speech, McCarthy said the agency would also look at matters including water quality and environmental justice, a hallmark issue for her predecessor, Lisa P. Jackson.

“I have no intention of leaving behind environmental justice communities,” she said, adding that they will bear the brunt of climate change. “We need to look at who is not winning in this equation.”

On the question of the Keystone XL pipeline, McCarthy said in an interview that the next time EPA would weigh in on the matter would be once the State Department released its final environmental assessment of the revised project. While she did not indicate what position the agency would take, she noted during his June climate speech the president “sent a very strong signal that climate’s impact would be taken into consideration in this decision, and in others.”

During the question-and-answer portion of the speech, McCarthy jokingly began to cut off the session once a Sierra Club member posed a question about the Keystone pipeline. But she then vowed to “continue to work with the administration as difficult decisions are made,”

Charting national environmental policy, she concluded, was somewhat akin to reconciling competing interests among members of of a noisy family.

“It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be all the different voices coming together at screaming at the top of their lungs like three children,” she said, saying she would work to “all those voices to be heard and to listen to them. And it’s my obligation to keep peace in the family, whether it’s my EPA one or my little one.”

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Aaron Blake | July 30, 2013