Top EPA contender draws fire

Senate Republicans are stepping up their complaints about the Environmental Protection Agency’s top clean air official as she emerges as President Barack Obama’s likely pick to head the agency.

Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator for air and radiation, on Thursday faced fresh criticism from Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who blamed her for stonewalling his requests for information about science and regulations at the agency.

“I want to know who will respond to my outstanding request of one year and nine months regarding the scientific methods used to base the EPA’s regulatory agenda,” Vitter said. “Assistant Administrator McCarthy is directly responsible for these concerns, and the failure to respond is not a good sign.”

“The administration should be looking for someone who will end the standard of ignoring congressional requests, undermining transparency and relying on flawed science,” Vitter added. “Instead it looks like they may double down on that practice.”

Vitter, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is waiting for responses to letters dating back to June 30, 2011, that ask how the EPA assessed health risks from air pollution, question the denial of permits to a coal-fired power plant proposed in Corpus Christi, Texas, and question a missed deadline for publishing the agency’s regulatory plans.

Obama has not yet named a nominee to replace Lisa Jackson, who stepped down as EPA administrator on Thursday. Potential candidates include EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. But in recent days, D.C. insiders have been buzzing about McCarthy as the most likely pick, amid reports she has emerged as the top contender.

With climate change in the spotlight — following Obama’s State of the Union pledge to tackle the issue administratively — and Republicans already angry over new and looming environmental regulations, any EPA nominee is sure to face a tough fight in the Senate. Even without an official nomination, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has reportedly threatened to place a “hold” on Obama’s EPA pick, effectively slowing any confirmation, because of concerns about a stalled levee proposal.

But McCarthy could be an especially divisive choice, having played a major role in crafting some of the administration air pollution policies that Republicans find most objectionable.

During her four-year tenure heading the Office of Air and Radiation, McCarthy had a hand in writing greenhouse gas emissions standards for new power plants that the EPA could soon extend to existing facilities. McCarthy also championed higher fuel efficiency standards. And she was involved in plans to slash sulfur emissions allowed from gasoline, which the EPA is expected to formally propose this spring.

A frequent witness on Capitol Hill, McCarthy has tangled with lawmakers over smog regulations and the dangers of climate change.

Before she was confirmed to her current job in 2009, McCarthy was the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. She also helped develop climate policy as the undersecretary for policy at Massachusetts’ Executive Office for Environmental Affairs, when Republican Mitt Romney was governor of the state.