Nominee To Lead EPA Grilled Over Past Work At Agency

It's hard to think of a hotter seat on President Obama's cabinet than the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Republicans are increasingly attacking the EPA and its regulations as job killers. On Thursday, Republicans grilled the president's pick for that job, Gina McCarthy. Some of the toughest questions at her Senate confirmation hearing had to do with coal and climate change.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour in the hot seat - perhaps the hottest seat of President Obama's Cabinet. It belongs to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Republicans are increasingly attacking the EPA and its regulations as job killers. And today, they grilled the president's pick to take over the agency, Gina McCarthy.

As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, some of the toughest questions at that Senate confirmation hearing had to do with coal and climate change.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: For four years, Gina McCarthy has been heading up the EPA's office in charge of air quality. She's crafted rules that are cleaning up exhausts from old, coal-fired power plants. Some of those plants are opting to shut down instead of installing expensive pollution controls. Republican Sen. John Barrasso, from Wyoming, says those rules have cost jobs.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: Since you've taken office, 10 percent of coal-fired generated power in the United States has been taken offline. Do you see the EPA having any responsibility for the thousands of folks who are out of work for these plant closures?

GINA MCCARTHY: Senator, I take my job seriously, when I'm developing standards for protecting public health, to take a look at the economic consequences of those; and do my best to provide flexibility in the rules.

SHOGREN: Sen. Barrasso continues his barrage, naming coal miners he's met who are out of work for the first time in their lives.

BARRASSO: How many more times, if confirmed, will this EPA director pull the regulatory lever and allow another mining family to fall through the EPA's trapdoor to joblessness, to poverty, and to poor health?

SHOGREN: Hold on, says Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. She argues EPA's rules help workers.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: Because if you care about this economy, there's one basic fact. If you can't breathe, you can't work.

SHOGREN: Several Republican senators questioned McCarthy about a proposed EPA rule to regulate greenhouse gas pollution from new power plants, and any other plans she might have for regulating greenhouse gases. They're concerned new rules will hurt economic growth. Sen. James Inhofe is a Republican from Oklahoma.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE: I become really troubled by the EPA's actions when the agency uses discretion it has to further a climate change agenda.

SHOGREN: McCarthy refused to give senators any details about her plans. But she made it clear that under her rule, the EPA would keep looking for ways to cut greenhouse gas pollution. She says she'll come up with common sense rules that will still let the economy grow.

MCCARTHY: Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our generation; and facing that challenge with increased focus and commitment, is perhaps the greatest obligation we have to future generations.

SHOGREN: President Obama says he wants Congress to address global warming, but the divided Congress is unlikely to be able to do that. So he's calling on his Cabinet to step up. McCarthy says the Obama administration's rules cutting greenhouses gases from cars, are an example of the kind of policy she'll pursue.

McCarthy will have cheerleaders for that sort of action. Sen. Bernie Sanders is an independent from Vermont.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I want the EPA to be vigorous in protecting our children, and future generations, from the horrendous crisis that we face from global warming.

SHOGREN: Before joining the EPA, McCarthy worked for Republican governors, and has a reputation for being pragmatic. She gets kudos from carmakers and electricity executives. Even some Republican senators on the panel say they expect her nomination to go forward.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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