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McCarthy's Republican history should smooth path to EPA

Nominee for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy listens to U.S. President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White
Nominee for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy listens to U.S. President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White

By Patrick Rucker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After a long career in public service including work for two Republican governors, Gina McCarthy is expected to win confirmation as the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency, thanks to her reputation as a practical, fix-it regulator.

If confirmed, she will have her work cut out heading an agency that is a magnet for controversy as it seeks to balance the need for economic growth with the impact of development on human health and the environment.

In the next few months, the EPA is due to present rules for curbing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and it is now investigating the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Nevertheless, when President Barack Obama said on Monday that McCarthy was his pick to lead the EPA, leaders of the energy and industry quickly signaled their acquiescence.

"We congratulate Gina McCarthy on her nomination," Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that it too would not stand in the way of Obama's pick.

McCarthy's nomination will have to be confirmed by the Senate and she will likely face searing questions from foes of the EPA. But even those lawmakers expect the official with more than 25 years experience on clean air and water issues to assume office.

David Vitter of Louisiana, the most senior Republican on the senate environment panel, said he would demand answers for past EPA decisions but that he could envision McCarthy in office.

Obama's prior EPA director Lisa Jackson, the first African-American to hold the cabinet-level post, stepped down last month after four years often spent defending the agency against political attacks.

Jackson said EPA foes damaged the agency with rumors of looming regulatory crackdowns, such as a fictitious EPA plan to treat bovine excretions as dangerous pollutants.

McCarthy, 58, who now serves as the EPA's clean air chief, could be grilled over rules written in the last four years, but two stints working for Republican governors may well guarantee her eventual confirmation.

As the top environmental enforcer in Massachusetts under then Governor Mitt Romney and later in neighboring Connecticut, McCarthy proved herself a master administrator, according to former colleagues and policy partners.

"She has a natural grasp of how to make bureaucracies work better," said Doug Foy, who coordinated environmental and development policy for Governor Romney. "Part of that is accepting that 85 percent of what an agency does is routine. The key is to make a difference with the 15 percent that's left."

Those who worked with McCarthy at the state level say she is more motivated by booking successes than pushing a rigid agenda.

"It's rare to find an official who can combine vision and persuasiveness with a real practical sense of how to get things done," said Don Strait, director of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

McCarthy was elevated from a junior state post in Massachusetts after Romney took office in 2003 wanting to find a way to "bust silos" that stood between agencies for housing, transportation, energy and the environment, Foy said.

She helped promote the initiative by balancing the big picture with retail messaging such as a plan to retire the state's fleet of gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles.

"Setting an example is important when you're asking more from voters," Foy said. "Gina has a knack for that kind of thinking."

McCarthy worked well with industry in an effort to clean up Boston Harbor, Foy said, but she was also able to soothe the power sector when Romney set tough goals to curb the greenhouse gases blamed for climate change.

That work continued when McCarthy took over as head of Connecticut's environmental protection agency under Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell in 2004.

With a mandate to curb greenhouse gas without unduly increasing power rates for consumers, McCarthy was setting policy at the crossroads of energy needs and conservation.

"I'm doing my best to get the environmental world to understand the energy world is part and parcel of the environmental world," McCarthy said in 2007, Connecticut's Hartford Courant reported.

Connecticut led an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the Northeast - an endeavor that Romney initially supported and then opposed.

If she does step into the top role at the EPA, one of McCarthy's big tasks will be to set emissions rules for the power sector that accounts for about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Strait, of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, ranks McCarthy top among the five heads of the state environmental agency he has known and he said she has the touch to lead the roughly 17,000 employees of the EPA.

"If you meet an official at that level and you feel energized... that's extraordinary," he said of McCarthy's time in Connecticut.

(Reporting By Patrick Rucker; Editing by Claudia Parsons)

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