President Obama has selected three Northeasterners to guide U.S. EPA's air policies, a move that observers say will likely result in a federal crackdown on industrial pollution.
In addition to appointing Lisa Jackson, former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, to lead the agency, Obama has tapped Connecticut's DEP commissioner Gina McCarthy to serve as EPA's top air official and Cynthia Giles, director of the Rhode Island office of a New England environmental group and former head of the Massachusetts DEP's Bureau of Resource Protection, as the agency's top enforcement official.
The Northeastern states are known for their strict air pollution regulations and for promoting tighter nationwide rules to curb emissions from upwind regions. States in the region have long sought to adopt air pollution limits more stringent than federal standards and 10 Northeastern states last year launched a mandatory program designed to limit carbon emissions from regional power plants under a market-based auction system.
Jackson, McCarthy and Giles have extensive experience seeking strong regional controls on air pollutants, but some groups are wary that an EPA dominated by Northeasterners may neglect the economic interests of other regions.
"It's the Northeastern EPA," said Richard Alonso, an industry attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani and former EPA enforcement official.
"I think if you were to base it on geography, you would expect a pretty aggressive air policy shop in place," Alonso said. "It's pretty unfortunate, I think, that there are not other regions of the country like the Midwest and the Southeast represented in the higher echelons of EPA management."
Obama made it clear that he would pursue an aggressive air policy, Alonso said, adding that some observers were surprised by the officials selected to move that policy forward. "We knew this was important," he said, but "we didn't know you were going to put the bulldogs out here."
Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said Obama's choices of Northeastern officials to lead EPA's air policies was not surprising. "I think it would be indicative of what this administration has done so far," he said, pointing to the administration's early moves promoting a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions and indications that EPA plans to strengthen rules to curb power plant pollution.
Carey's concern: Obama appointees won't understand energy's role in the Midwest economy. "They're not coming from the position of working with anybody within the coal fields," said Carey, whose organization ran television ads in 2004 critical of the environmental record of the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts (Greenwire, Oct. 5, 2004).
Gordon Alphonso, an industry attorney in McGuire Woods' Atlanta office and chairman of the firm's land use and environmental department, also expressed concern that new EPA officials will impose substantial costs on industry by ramping up environmental regulations.
"There's no question that we're concerned that we'll see a significant increase in environmental action, both from a regulatory and an enforcement standpoint," he said. "On the other hand, even though the new appointees may be from the Northeast, we can only hope that they will use a very objective approach in setting policy and procedures."
'All are seasoned professionals'
Environmentalists have praised Obama's choices, saying the Northeastern officials are seasoned leaders capable of carrying out the administration's bold environmental policies without alienating upwind regions.
"My sense is that these states have been the leaders on air quality, climate change and other environmental issues over the last eight years," and these officials bring the expertise and the experience needed to move these programs forward on a federal level, said Arthur Marin, executive director of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a nonprofit association of regional air quality agencies.
"They all are seasoned professionals and understand they have a different role now at EPA. It's not going to be their agenda. It's going to be the national agenda," he said.
Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said the administration has selected people who are known to be smart and effective. "I think that the folks who have been nominated to these jobs all have impeccable reputations of being not only progressive, but quite fair and objective in how they approach these issues," he said.
And while several of EPA's top officials have Northeastern roots, O'Donnell pointed out that key environmental officials at the White House -- including climate adviser Carol Browner and Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley -- bring different regional perspectives to the table. Browner was secretary of Florida's DEP before serving as EPA administrator under President Clinton and Sutley recently served as Los Angeles' deputy mayor for energy and environment.
"I think it's an overstatement to say environmental policy is solely in the hands of Northeasterners," O'Donnell said.
'The geography doesn't bother me' -- GOP senator
Several top Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee indicated last week that the nominees' geography would not likely pose a hurdle to their confirmations.
"I am not as disturbed about the geography as most people are," said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking member of the committee. "I feel very comfortable with Lisa Jackson."
Said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), "The geography doesn't bother me. The states will all benefit if we have confident, realistic officials who have policies that will make our air cleaner."
And Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee, said Jackson and Browner are very good at working with those who are concerned about overreaching regulations.
"If I'm from Arkansas, or Alabama or one of those places," Carper said, "I don't think I'd worry too much."
Andrew Wheeler, a former GOP staff director on the Senate EPW Committee now working for the firm B&D Consulting, said there is a perception that most of the environmental officials selected by the Obama administration either come from the Northeast or California, "the two areas of the country that are not dependent on carbon for their economies."
During the confirmation hearings of McCarthy and Giles, lawmakers will be asking, "Can they represent issues on the national level? And a good nominee can," he said.
Click here for E&E's round-up of top administration officials.
Giles' former position with the Massachusetts DEP was corrected on March 25.