With the Environmental Protection Agency set to play the central role in President Obama's second-term climate change agenda, would-be agency chief Gina McCarthy on Thursday tried to calm Republican fears that she would continue the perceived "war on coal" and other harsh regulations under her predecessor.
She had limited success, as her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works became as much a back-and-forth about climate change as it did a referendum on whether Ms. McCarthy, a tough-talking New Englander with more than three decades of experience in the sector, is qualified for the job at the helm of perhaps the most controversial arm of the federal government.
"This is not a debate about Gina McCarthy. It is a debate about global warming and whether we are going to listen to the leading scientists of this country and address that crisis in a serious manner," said Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent.
Many Republicans on the Senate committee took direct aim at EPA rules and regulations that were designed at least in part to fight climate change. As head of the EPA's air and radiation office, Ms. McCarthy played the lead role in establishing emissions standards for coal-fired power plants.
The standards have yet to go into effect and may be weakened. But as drafted, they would impose a de facto moratorium on new coal-generated electricity and put many miners out of work.
"Are coal miners no longer heroes to the nominee and the EPA?" asked Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican.
He said the EPA is pushing coal miners through a "trap door to joblessness, poverty."
"These people are heroes and they deserve better than they're getting from the EPA," he said.
Members of the committee spent much more time talking than did Ms. McCarthy. The hearing began at 10:30 a.m., and it was nearly 12:30 p.m. before Ms. McCarthy uttered a word. That two-hour window included a 30-minute break for the senators to head to the chamber floor for a vote on gun control legislation.
When she did speak, Ms. McCarthy appeared confident and prepared for Republican criticism. That came as little surprise, given that Ms. McCarthy and her former boss, former EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, have been political punching bags for the past four years.
She also didn't back down from a commitment to fight climate change, if confirmed by the Senate.
"We must, as the president has made clear, take steps to address climate change. [It is] perhaps the greatest obligation we have to future generations. But I am convinced we are up to that task," she said.
Ms. McCarthy also said that "environmental protection is not a partisan issue," a notion she repeated several times during the hearing.
Her track record suggests that she is capable of working with Republicans. She has served in state environmental agencies under several Republican governors, including Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.
Ms. McCarthy also was the architect of fuel efficiency standards for automobiles that were hailed by the environmental community as some of the most important steps by the federal government thus far to combat climate change.
But she was largely mum on what steps the EPA would take to continue that fight. With congressional action unlikely, Mr. Obama has said he would take executive action in the effort, including directing the EPA to enact further regulations.
Ms. McCarthy said "common-sense steps" would continue and promised "opportunities for mitigating carbon pollution going forward."
She will be the most controversial member of the White House's revamped energy and environmental team. No date has been set for a Senate vote on her confirmation.
Sally Jewell on Wednesday was confirmed by a strong bipartisan vote to be interior secretary. Ernest Moniz, the president's nominee to head the Energy Department, skated through a confirmation hearing Tuesday.
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