Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member David Vitter (R-La.) likely will grill U.S. EPA administrator nominee Gina McCarthy at her Thursday confirmation hearing over what he says is a flood of aggressive and costly regulations.
But he and other EPA critics may avoid directly attacking McCarthy, the agency's current assistant administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation, said John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"I think you'll see the cascade of usual grievances from conservative EPA haters that they've raised almost since the start of this administration and certainly with increased feverish rage since the start of the 112th," Walke said. "I don't think there's any plausible case, even a partisan one, to declare her unqualified. Instead, her confirmation will probably be an unfortunate proxy for criticism of EPA by the agency's most virulent critics."
With a stacked regulatory agenda on tap for the agency in Obama's second term, the hearing will offer an opportunity for opponents to challenge what they see as costly overreach by the federal government.
Vitter has been especially harsh, writing a flurry of letters challenging the agency's lack of transparency, its scientific backing for rulemaking and its regulatory reach. In an email last week, Vitter's office took aim at "EPA's garbage can of regulations and failures," accusing the agency of failing to provide a legal backbone for its expensive rulemaking.
In a floor speech last month, Vitter slammed EPA's "reputation for ignoring congressional information requests, for ignoring and frustrating [Freedom of Information Act] requests, for hiding emails, completely contrary to EPA policy, and for hiding other important information from the public."
He added, "It's in desperate, desperate need of a new leader who will reverse these anti-sunshine, anti-transparency practices and build a true culture of transparency and openness. Unfortunately, President Obama's nominee, Gina McCarthy, comes from inside the very troubled agency and she's been directly involved in many of these problem areas."
A spokesman for Vitter declined to comment on the ranking member's plans for the hearing.
Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) issued a call last month for Idaho citizens to send him horror stories of EPA regulations. A spokesman for Crapo said that material could provide the backing for some questions to McCarthy but said specific questions had not yet been drafted.
But many of the queries will likely revolve around transparency and the agency's economic and scientific analysis for its rulemaking. That could bode well for McCarthy, said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund.
"There's nobody better prepared to defend EPA's analytical work than Gina McCarthy," he said. "I'd expect the role of science and economics to be front and center and what commitments Gina is prepared to make about ensuring that the science meets the highest standard for the basis of future regulatory action."
In short, Holstein said he didn't expect a "difficult hearing for her at a personal level."
"She's widely regarded as a thoughtful and accessible person, and even some of EPA's harshest critics, including those who have objected to some of the work she's done, regard her as a good listener," Holstein said. "That's all good news for her."
EPA critic and former committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has spoken well of McCarthy, saying he has a good rapport with her as he did with former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Inhofe spokeswoman Donelle Harder said last night that her boss's questions would center on "EPA's role in the administration's war on fossil fuels."
"Senator Inhofe believes regulations coming out of the EPA have been rushed and become a direct threat to the bipartisan goal of achieving domestic energy independence," Harder said.
Other questions will deal with inconsistency of regulatory enforcement across regions and EPA’s "collusion with environmental groups," she said.
The senator will also raise his concerns about EPA's collusion with environmental groups, she said.
Thursday will not be the first time McCarthy faces the EPW panel. Her path to confirmation for the air chief position did not run smoothly. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) placed a "hold" on her nomination for months in 2009 because he was concerned about the Obama administration's plans to regulate industrial greenhouse gas emissions.
Emily Lawrimore, a spokeswoman for Barrasso, yesterday said that he has no current plans to stall McCarthy's confirmation but that he remains "concerned about regulations from EPA that discourage job creation and economic growth."
Barrasso is particularly concerned that the agency's actions are inhibiting energy production, she said.
McCarthy's nomination already is subject to a hold by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), which may not be lifted by Thursday's hearing.
Blunt made the move to block her confirmation last month over an ongoing dispute with the administration over missing a deadline for releasing a draft environmental impact statement for the controversial St. John's Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project in his home state (Greenwire, March 18).
Climate change policies are expected to figure prominently in Thursday's hearing, as they did during McCarthy's hearing four years ago. Obama's first term saw the realization of several GOP fears, including an EPA finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health, new tailpipe emissions rules for vehicles, and the proposal of a standard for future power plants that utilities say would effectively ban new coal-fired electric generation in the United States. All of these could be fodder for pointed questions by committee Republicans.
Republican panel members are also likely to quiz McCarthy on whether EPA might use the Clean Air Act to implement a cap-and-trade system for transportation fuel, even though the agency has announced no such plan.
The Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University has threatened to sue EPA if it does not consider implementing the rule. The think tank says a market-based program of that kind would be the best way to reduce emissions from the transportation sector while limiting cost. It would ultimately apply to fuels for all motor vehicles and aircraft.
But Vitter, Inhofe and Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) responded late last month by demanding that McCarthy say whether the agency planned to quickly accommodate IPI's petition (E&ENews PM, March 28).
Matt Dempsey, a consultant for the anti-regulatory group Secure Our Fuel and a former Inhofe aide, said he expected the issue to come up Thursday.
"It fits well within the sue-and-settle front that Senator Vitter has made a priority," he said, adding that panel Republicans would be particularly interested in any administration plans to use the Clean Air Act to implement cap and trade.
But Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress Action Fund said Vitter's strategy could backfire.
"Anti-climate screeds from these senators will further alienate their party from middle-class Americans that want solutions to climate change rather than the defense of Big Oil," he said.
McCarthy has been making the rounds on the Hill with a series of meetings in the Senate over the past few weeks. She will meet with other members of the EPW Committee before Thursday's hearing.
It's unlikely that McCarthy will face tough questions from the panel's Democrats.
EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a statement that Obama "could not have picked a more qualified person to lead EPA at this critical time," praising her "experience, intelligence, energy and unquestioned expertise."
Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, April 11, at 10:30 a.m. in Dirksen 406.
Witnesses: Gina McCarthy, U.S. EPA assistant administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation.