President Obama on Monday nominated MIT professor Ernest Moniz as energy secretary, Environmental Protection Agency official Gina McCarthy as EPA administrator and Wal-Mart executive Sylvia Mathews Burwell as White House budget director.
In a ceremony at the White House with all three nominees, Obama hailed their predecessors and said he was confident that their successors would pursue his administration’s goals of achieving energy independence, creating more clean-energy jobs, fighting climate change and reigniting economic growth.
Moniz, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served in the Bill Clinton administration, lends Obama’s Cabinet scientific heft and brings prior Washington experience. At MIT, he directed the school’s Energy Initiative, where he oversaw reports on almost every aspect of energy.
Obama hailed Moniz on Monday as “another brilliant scientist” who already “knows his way around the Department of Energy. If confirmed, Moniz would replace Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
“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.
Burwell, head of Wal-Mart’s philanthropic efforts, is a veteran of President Bill Clinton’s economic team. If confirmed by the Senate, she will replace Jeffrey Zients as director of the Office of Management and Budget, bringing gender diversity as well as corporate experience to Obama’s inner circle at a time of budget battles with Congress.
Burwell is president of the Walmart Foundation, one of the nation’s biggest corporate philanthropies, which supports such initiatives as women’s economic empowerment, hunger relief and environmental sustainability.
Obama praised Burwell as “the right person to continue Jeff’s great work” at OMB. He noted that in the 1990s, she served under Jack Lew as deputy director of OMB and was “part of a team that presided over three budget surpluses in a row” during the Clinton administration.
“Later, she helped the Gates Foundation grow into a global force for good, and then she helped the Walmart Foundation expand its charitable work,” Obama said. “So Sylvia knows her way around a budget.”
As the granddaughter of Greek immigrants, Burwell “also understands that our goal when we put together a budget is not just to make the numbers add up,” the president said. “Our goal is also to reignite the true engine of economic growth in this country, and that is a strong and growing middle class — to offer ladders of opportunity for anybody willing to climb them.”
Obama also used the ceremony to address once more the deep, automatic budget cuts, known as the sequester, that are taking effect this month after the administration and congressional Republicans failed to agree on a plan to head them off.
Zients and Burwell “will do everything in their power to blunt the impact of these cuts on businesses and middle-class families,” Obama said. “But eventually, a lot of people are going to feel some pain. That’s why we’ve got to keep on working to reduce our deficit in a balanced way — an approach that’s supported by the majority of the American people, including a majority of Republicans. And I’m confident that we can get there if people of goodwill come together.”
In a statement Sunday, Mike Duke, president and chief executive of Wal-Mart, said, “Sylvia does a great job leading the Walmart Foundation, and if confirmed by the Senate, will do a tremendous job serving our country.”
Obama’s selection of a woman to fill one of his top economic positions comes after he faced criticism earlier in his second term for appointing men to many of his administration’s top posts, including White House Chief of Staff Denis R. McDonough, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
The president said his choice of McCarthy, who heads the EPA’s air and radiation office, as the agency’s next administrator would help promote renewable energy programs. He said that as a top environmental official in Massachusetts and Connecticut, she helped design such programs.
“As assistant EPA administrator, Gina has focused on practical, cost-effective ways to keep our air clean and our economy growing,” Obama said. “She’s earned a reputation as a straight shooter. She welcomes different points of views.
McCarthy, who would replace former EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson, helped usher through many of the EPA’s most contentious rules during Obama’s first term, including regulations curbing mercury and soot emissions from power plants. But she has also cultivated a strong working relationship with members of the business community, dampening much of the opposition her selection might otherwise have encountered.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement that she would withhold judgment on the nominations of Moniz and McCarthy until she could talk to them directly. She said her “main concern is that both agencies take immediate steps to restore balance to our nation’s energy and environmental policies.”
Murkowski added: “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.... My support will depend on both nominees demonstrating that they can lead DOE and the EPA in a way that restores balance to these objectives.”
Criticism of McCarthy’s nomination Monday came from the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, which said she has enacted “some of the EPA’s most intrusive regulations” during her four years as head of the agency’s air and radiation office.
“Gina McCarthy’s nomination to head the EPA sends a clear message that the president’s plan is to encumber the economy with rising energy costs, rather than encouraging growth in the energy sector to help bring costs down,” Emily Wismer, a policy analyst for the forum, said in a statement.
Sen. David Vitter (La.), the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which will hold a confirmation hearing on the nomination, also struck a critical note and signaled that McCarthy faces tough questioning from the panel.
“The EPA is in desperate need of a leader who will stop ignoring congressional information requests, hiding e-mails and more from the public, and relying on flawed science,” Vitter said in a statement. “McCarthy has been directly involved in much of that, but I hope she can reverse those practices with Lisa Jackson’s departure. I look forward to hearing answers from her on a number of key issues.”
But Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said Obama “could not have picked a more qualified person to lead EPA at this critical time.” Boxer said McCarthy “has a deep understanding that the health and safety of the American people depends on clean air and clean water.”
In March 2009, public health advocates S. William Becker and Frank O’Donnell were walking the halls of the EPA when they spotted McCarthy poring over briefing books. She was preparing for her Senate confirmation hearing as head of the agency’s air and radiation office, and she was intent on defusing any controversy surrounding global warming.
“I know greenhouse gases are important, but I’m committed to strengthening public health protections,” she told them.
It was an early indication of how the politically savvy McCarthy was prepared to get her way in Washington. A veteran of Republican administrations in Massachusetts and Connecticut, she has devoted much of the past four years to shepherding through air regulations that have protected public health — but that also have helped shutter power plants emitting greenhouse gases linked to climate change.
“She’s very data- and fact-driven, and that’s been helpful for us as well as the entire business community,” said Donna Harman, president and chief executive of the American Forest and Paper Association. “It doesn’t mean I always got what I was looking for, but we can have a dialogue.”
Many environmentalists, for their part, see her ability to broker deals with potential opponents as an asset. “What she’s tough about is the science-based standard,” said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “She’s very pragmatic about how you get there.”
Still, the nomination of McCarthy, 58, comes amid questions about the agency’s responsiveness to lawmakers’ requests and its sensitivity to economic considerations.
For four years, the EPA and Jackson, the woman who led it until late last month, have been a lightning rod for criticism, with many manufacturing and utility executives accusing it of imposing job-killing regulations. The tensions have run so high that McCarthy, speaking at a luncheon in Kentucky in November 2011, felt compelled to say, “The EPA is not the enemy.”
Now she will have to prove it to the agency’s critics. Some Republican senators have already expressed reservations about her nomination.
Coal companies have also privately expressed reservations about McCarthy, though none of them would respond to requests for comment.
American Chemistry Council President Cal Dooley, who said he and his group’s members “have a lot of confidence in McCarthy’s leadership ability,” noted that her division oversaw several of the EPA’s most controversial regulations over the past four years on issues including greenhouse gas limits on new power plants and curbing mercury emissions from existing utilities. “For some elected officials, part of the issue becomes she has been identified as the owner of those regulations,” he said.
McCarthy, a skilled pool player who grew up just outside Boston and headed Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection before moving to the EPA, has managed to win over many skeptics with her blunt, humorous style. She rarely reads speeches, and her tendency to crack jokes and deliver harsh comments in a heavy Boston accent can alleviate tension in a room.
A year ago, McCarthy addressed the board of the American Chemistry Council, whose members had loudly protested an EPA proposal to curb toxic air emissions from industrial boilers. After reviewing some of the data the group and others submitted, the EPA decided to revamp its proposed rule.
“We got it wrong, and we recognized we need to do some work on it,” McCarthy told the council’s board, according to Dooley.
Late last year, the agency finalized a revised boiler rule that drew plaudits from industry and criticism from environmentalists.
Bob Durand, who served as Massachusetts’s secretary of environmental affairs under Gov. Paul Cellucci (R), said McCarthy picked her fights wisely while serving under him. She went after the state’s five biggest polluters in a campaign called “the Filthy Five,” helped assemble a coalition of sporting and environmental groups to pressure dentists and others to reduce mercury contamination under the banner “Mercury is Rising,” and boosted the state’s solid-waste recycling rate by hashing out an agreement between environmental and business groups.
“I remember one of the pesticide guys telling me, ‘I can’t stand going in a room when Gina’s in there, because I know when I come out I’ll be mad, but I can’t get mad because I love Gina,’ ” said Durand, who now heads the consulting firm Durand & Anastas Environmental Strategies.
By the same token, McCarthy has routinely parried with environmentally minded officials at the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, fielding questions in a format they have dubbed “Face the Air Administrator.” Recently she declared she was going to talk about her “greatest disappointment,” and before she could describe how she felt about a federal court overturning the administration’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, someone in the audience cried out, “The Red Sox?”
“You really know how to hurt someone,” McCarthy retorted, according to Becker, the group’s executive director.
McCarthy will face several tough policy questions if she is confirmed in the new position, including whether to impose greenhouse gas limits on existing power plants and whether to tighten the nation’s smog standards. Howard Feldman, who directs regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said that even though his group has had “a good working relationship” with McCarthy, “we have concerns about how regulations will go forward” in Obama’s second term.
But McCarthy, who has commuted from Boston for the past four years, appears eager to take on the next round of fights. Last year at her daughter’s graduation party, she told Durand she loved “the give and the take” of her current job, even though it was often tough. “It’s exactly what you’d expect it to be,” she informed her former boss.