Washington – Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy became the face of President Obama’s climate change initiative and her nomination was slow-walked by Republicans who opposed the president’s plan.
She was finally confirmed after a record-breaking 136 days. On her watch, the EPA toughened the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act regulations and finalized the regulations for the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce emissions from power plants to combat climate change.
Now President-elect Donald Trump has chosen Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, an ally of the fossil fuel industry, to succeed her. Pruitt has led a campaign to push back on Obama’s regulatory agenda – including the Clean Power Plan.
Before her confirmation, McCarthy was, from 2004 to 2009, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. She said the job gave her “a great launching spot.”
She recently gave the Connecticut Mirror a wide ranging interview and spoke, in her distinct Boston accent, of her hopes that her legacy will survive in a time “we can’t get facts on the table that everybody can agree with.”
Q. Were you surprised that you had such problems with so many things, that your Clean Power Plan was challenged?
A. No, I wasn’t surprised. You don’t have to be at EPA too long to realize that every major rule we do is challenged in some way or another. One of the surprises I have right now is that it continues to be looked at as challenging by so many states, because if you look at the clean energy that’s already in place, you can see that in 2005, our emissions are about the same as the clean power plant’s first goal, our first compliance window, which isn’t until 2022. So I’m a little disappointed that people aren’t recognizing just how reasonable and appropriate the Clean Power Plan is.
Q. The next EPA administrator, if he is confirmed, would be Scott Pruitt, someone who as Oklahoma’s attorney general challenged the Clean Power Plan in court. What do you say about being replaced by Mr. Pruitt?
A. This next administration has the right to propose somebody that replaces me, and we’ll see how the confirmation goes. But again, it’s a little too soon to tell what somebody is going to do when they are in my chair. They are going to have to look at the records that we’ve developed and understand how hard we’ve worked to keep the science and the data where it’s supposed to be and make sure it’s factual and strong and based on the law. There are rules that we’ve already put in place that are going to be good ones going forward, and we’ll just have to see where the next administrator wants to make his or her mark.
Q. You are not concerned at all that some of your work might be undone?
A. I will always be concerned about that because I think we did a great job, and our legacy speaks for itself. I think the public health improvements are something people really care about…. As a citizen and as a mother I want those protections. So yes, of course I’d be disappointed if we shifted direction, but we’ll just have to wait and see…I’m not going to allow this to be disrupted by people who kind of want to put us back in the closet. We’re not going back in the closet… So hopefully anybody who sits here will get the same phone calls I get and read the same documents I read and come to the conclusion that EPA has done a great job.
Q. Were you disappointed that environmentalists sometimes criticized the agency for not doing enough? That there were uproars about the EPA’s initial report on fracking and drinking water and the “Roundup” herbicide decision? Did that upset you?
A. No, not at all. Any more than it upsets me that I get sued on a rule. That’s what we do here. You know we have to look at the science, and there will be people who read things differently. You know environmentalists don’t always appreciate the kind of science that this agency needs to have available to it and properly analyze in order to make the decisions it makes, and I need to look at the science myself and make decisions that I think are right. And I want to make sure that every decision is respectful of the science, respectful of the law, and can be reasonably implemented in many steps forward. But there will always be those who think that we didn’t go far enough – and there will be people who say that we went too far – but I’ve got to use my best judgment.
Q. What do you think is your greatest achievement?
A. I came to EPA to try to do a few things. One thing is when we were in Connecticut we were always concerned about all the pollution coming from the states above. That we started making everybody do their fair share and keep the air clean was a big thing. I love the fact that we took such aggressive action on climate change. We’ve made some really good progress there under this president’s leadership…I think we’ve made a lot of progress, and I think about Connecticut every day. It’s a beautiful state.
Q. You say Connecticut cares a lot about the environment and its coastline….
A. I learned a lot there. I learned how people can work together. How you can have real strong rural communities that care a lot about the environment. I just had very positive experiences all around, and I learned that the Republicans there are not like the Republicans here. The Republicans there are like conservative Democrats. I learned a lot when I got here, but Connecticut gave me a great launching spot, and I won’t forget that. It was a wonderful experience.
Q. What was your biggest disappointment?
A. Well, there are always going to be a few. I was a little disappointed that there continued to be discussion about the science around climate change. Clearly that’s an issue that we’ve nailed pretty well. As well as the fact that the clean energy train has left the station already and that its moving forward. I would have preferred that at the end of administration there would have been additional action on climate, but all and all I think this administration has a tremendous legacy as far as statutes to clean our air, to clean our water, to clean up where we have contaminated land…
Q. But you said you are disappointed more hadn’t been done on climate change…
A. I wish that we were in a better spot to continue to move forward. We’ll see what happens. But the work we did was remarkable. The work we did was built on very good science and very good law. We followed the science and the law. So anything that we did, and there are a great deal of things that were done, like better fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for our vehicles, methane standards for our landfills and new oil and gas production, all the things that we did are going to be very solid moving forward, including our Clean Power Plan, which is regulating the amount of greenhouse gases that are coming from our utilities.
Q. Is there anything about Washington that surprised you?
A. I didn’t expect that it would be quite as partisan as it turned out to be, and that Congress could not get done many of the things that we thought were fairly routine work – like budgets. That surprised me that there was so much drama in budgets moving forward. I was tremendously disappointed in the budget shutdown, as many folks were. But we’re living in a slightly different world than it was when I left Connecticut. There’s a lot more bipartisanship in Connecticut.
Q. But times have changed…
A. There was a time when everyone agreed on the facts, and what you did with them you argued about. Now we can’t get facts on the table that everybody can agree with. To have anyone deny climate change now doesn’t seem like a realistic thing to do with what we know about the facts. And it’s disappointing to think we may go back.
Q. Do you have plans for the future?
A. I have no idea other than I’m going to take a little bit of a break – meet my family again, go home to Boston for a while. I will be back in some capacity speaking to these issues because this is what I’ve devoted my life to. But while I’m going away for a while, I’m not thinking about retirement.
Q. So you are going to be devoted to environmental issues.
A. It is in my blood.
This Q&A was edited for length.