Gina McCarthy is locked in a race against time to complete landmark climate change regulations before President Obama leaves office.
With just 22 months left in Obama’s presidency, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator and her team are burning the midnight oil to enshrine emissions regulations for power plants in federal law.
McCarthy says she’s “busier than [she’s] ever been” as the caretaker of what Obama hopes will be a legacy-defining achievement on climate change.
“One of the main focuses of the White House right now is to make sure that the administration is coordinated, so that the entire breadth of the climate action plan can be basically realized before the president leaves office,” McCarthy said during an exclusive sit-down interview in her office.
With the departure of John Podesta, Obama’s former climate adviser, from the White House, McCarthy is meeting more with Obama than ever before.
White House climate and energy adviser Dan Utech called McCarthy’s role “essential” to the president’s vision over his final two years.
“Climate change is a top priority for the president over the next two years and the EPA and Gina McCarthy are really at the center of what the administration is trying to do,” Utech said.
Describing her style as “hands on,” McCarthy said she spends as much time as she needs to at White House to update the administration and flesh out strategy.
Last week, she met with Brian Deese, who replaced Podesta as adviser to the president, and Utech to walk through “big issues” the agency is dealing with on the carbon pollution standards.
The White House is equally engaged, McCarthy said, which is crucial at a time when the administration will have to be coordinated in order to withstand the onslaught of challenges Republicans and industry opponents plan to throw its way.
Within their first two months of taking control of both chambers, Republicans have held multiple hearings challenging the EPA on the president’s carbon pollution rules, which seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ran his reelection on a promise to dismantle as many pieces of those and other EPA regulations as he possibly could, looking to attach riders to energy packages or spending bills.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack put it bluntly last month, saying, “I wake up every morning, I say my prayers and I’m thankful I’m not the EPA administrator.”
Heather Zichal, Obama’s former climate czar, described the president’s selection of McCarthy as calculated and deliberate. He made it knowing that, after his reelection, climate change would be high on the administration’s to-do list.
“Going back to the very beginning after the president got reelected we asked, ‘how do we make sure this climate legacy piece is done and done as best as we can?’ ” Zichal said.
“We looked at the 111-D regulations as a high priority and a consensus was clearly reached that Gina was perfectly suited to get those regulations across the finish line,” Zichal added, referencing the section of the Clean Air Act section that the administration has used as its statutory authority to impose the carbon pollution rule.
Having helped spearhead the administration’s fuel economy standards and mercury toxics regulations, McCarthy was the clear choice.
“She is respected on both sides of aisle and has a reputation for being pragmatic,” said Zichal, who left the administration in 2013 after a four-year run.
Still, Republicans are adamant that they will fight not only the administration’s proposals to curb carbon emissions from new and existing power plants but the first-ever proposal to rein in methane emissions and a deal struck with China to slash greenhouse gases.
McConnell called upon states this week to defy the EPA and to refuse to comply with the carbon regulations.
“Think twice before submitting a state plan … when the administration is standing on shaky legal ground,” McConnell wrote in an op-ed.