President Obama Nominates Heads of EPA, DOE

President Obama made two key cabinet nominations today for the cleantech and environmental communities, both of which were widely expected.

To head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he nominated Gina McCarthy who has been serving as assistant administrator for air and radiation for the agency.

Ernest Moniz is the nominee for Secretary of the Department of Energy.

In nominating them, President Obama said they would both make addressing climate change a top priority. That is "one of my top priorities going forward," he said.

A few weeks ago, he nominated Sally Jewell as Secretary of the Interior.

Gina McCarthy, EPA

McCarthy is a popular pick among the environmental community. They see her as a long-time advocate for clean air, that’s tough,EPA Nomination McCarthy but also fair-minded and practical, and who knows how to work with all sides.

As EPA’s chief of its clean air division since 2009, she played a key role in crafting the widely lauded fuel economy standards and new rules that restrict soot, mercury and other toxics and greenhouse gas emissions from new coal-fired power plants.

The next step is to regulate emissions from existing plants – the biggest source of US greenhouse gas emissions – that will meet tough opposition from the GOP and many business groups.

But she’s used to that, having testified at many testy congressional hearings to get the the initial regulations passed –  most of which have withstood extensive legal challenges.

Her background: she held senior environmental positions under five Massachusetts governors, including Mitt Romney, and then served as Chief of Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection from 2004-2009. There, she helped implement RGGI, the region’s successful cap-and-trade program.

President Obama said: "As top environmental official in Massachusetts and Connecticut, she helped design programs to expand energy efficiency and promote renewable energy. "As assistant EPA administrator, Gina’s focused on practical, cost- effective ways to keep our air clean and our economy growing."

"This is big news. She’s a veteran clean air advocate and her nomination shows that the President is serious about adopting scientific solutions to public health, environmental, and climate challenges," says the Environmental Defense Fund. 

"As moms, we know how important clean air and an environment free of toxins are to the healthy development of our children. She has been instrumental in EPA’s recent clean air victories and Connecticut’s "No Child Left Inside" program  helped restore the state’s forests and Long Island Sound, says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Executive Director of MomsRising.

"I think she is focused like a laser beam on being a smart and effective regulator. She’s not interested in anything that’s not practical, and she understands perfectly the president’s agenda," Jody Freeman, a Harvard law professor and former White House counselor for energy and climate change told the Los Angeles Times

"Gina McCarthy is engaging, effective and willing to listen to the regulated community – even if we don’t always agree with her final rules," Scott Segal, a lawyer with Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents energy companies told the LA Times.

She will be subject to a grueling confirmation process as Republicans attack EPA regulations as job-killing government overreach.

Ernest Moniz, Department of Energy

Obama’s choice of Ernest Moniz is much more controversial. Although many in the environmental community are fine withDOE nomination Moniz him taking over the DOE, just as many aren’t, largely because they fear he will favor natural gas fracking over renewable energy.

Moniz is a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the MIT Energy Initiative (backed by BP, Chevron and other big oil companies. 

He served as undersecretary of energy under President Clinton and is thus familiar with the DOE. He’s been advising President Obama on energy and is a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He also served on an administration "blue ribbon" commission on nuclear waste policy.

"Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy, while still taking care of our air, our water and our climate," said Obama.

But Moniz has called natural gas fracking the "bridge" to low-carbon energy sources, saying it is "paradigm shifting." (Before the fracking boom, natural gas was viewed that way by many, but methane emissions make it on par with coal.)

"America’s energy policy must focus on averting catastrophic climate change, so we urge President Obama to chart a course based on science, not on cheap profits for industry. There must be an immediate rethinking of the current White House support for fossil fuel fracking, which releases massive amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and also creates other enormous pollution problems," warns Bill Snape, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity.

"We’re concerned that, as energy secretary, Ernest Moniz may take a politically expedient view of harmful fracking and divert resources from solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources vital to avoiding climate disaster. We’re also concerned that Moniz would be in a position to delay research into the dangers fracking poses to our air, water and climate."

Another concern is that Moniz is too similar to outgoing secretary Steve Chu, who also was a scientist, not particularly comfortable with the political process.

Again, "President Obama has chosen invention over deployment – and R&D over job creation and carbon reduction." Although the president has mentioned goals pertaining to climate change and renewable energy in is speeches, "practical, concrete goals are absent in his speeches and absent in this choice," says Jigar Shah, who founded SunEdison and most recently led Sir Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room.

R&D is very important, Shah says, but it’s critical to combine science with execution – someone that has good political instincts, knows how to get the most out of a complex agency, and can move an entire industry.

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