U.S. EPA head’s top regret: failing to connect with rural America

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By Valerie Volcovici | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON Among the millions of rural Americans
who voted for incoming president Donald Trump, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency’s legacy of hard-nosed
regulation earned it a reputation as a jobs killer – a fact
that outgoing EPA Director Gina McCarthy says could prove to be
one of her biggest regrets.

“We tried to change the outreach and messaging in rural
America in a number of ways, but … has it changed the rhetoric
that people hear? It hasn’t,” McCarthy said in an interview this
week at EPA headquarters in Washington. “We couldn’t get it, but
I wish we had.”

During Barack Obama’s presidency, the agency tackled climate
change with a raft of new rules targeting carbon dioxide
emissions, measures McCarthy credits for spurring other
countries to join a global climate agreement in Paris in
December 2015.

U.S. environmental policy is now set for a massive reset
after Trump won November’s election on a wave of populist
sentiment that was driven in part by his vow to unburden energy,
mining and other industries of excess regulation.

That message resonated with farming and coal mining
communities grappling with job losses and stagnant economies,
and helped win him a majority of the rural vote.

Key parts of Obama’s environmental legacy are now in the
crosshairs, including the Clean Power Plan that requires states
to curb carbon output, the Waters of the United States rule that
expands the number of waterways under federal protection, and
U.S. participation in the global climate pact signed in Paris.

In December, Trump nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott
Pruitt, a longtime opponent of EPA regulation who has repeatedly
taken the agency to court, to succeed McCarthy.

“There’s no question that he will come in here with policies
he wants to implement and changes he wants to make,” said
McCarthy, adding she hoped that EPA career staff would temper
his agenda by providing him science-based advice.

She said even if major EPA rules do not survive under the
new leadership, the shift Obama’s administration triggered
toward lower-carbon energy would likely continue. “These are
today’s technologies not yesterday’s. These are the jobs of
tomorrow, not of yesterday,” she said, referring to growth in
renewables technologies like solar and wind.

“POLITE, SHORT CONVERSATION”

McCarthy said her struggle to convince rural Americans that
a clean energy economy can also provide jobs was a major
disappointment in a four-year tenure that she felt was mostly
positive.

She said crafting the country’s first carbon regulations for
power plants and taking strong enforcement actions against
companies like Volkswagen – accused of cheating on
emissions tests – were high points that proved the agency’s
serious approach.

She had tried to build more visibility and stronger
partnerships in rural communities to emphasize the value of the
EPA’s role, particularly in protecting local air and water. But
she said political baggage around the term “climate change” had
hampered those efforts.

“Just because climate continues to be bandied about as a
partisan issue instead of just a science issue, it’s made EPA’s
job more difficult,” she said.

She added coal mining communities also unfairly blamed the
EPA for a downturn in the industry that began decades before the
regulatory shift against carbon, and which has accelerated
because of competition from natural gas.

Many Republicans are opposed to efforts to combat climate
change, even though an overwhelming majority of scientists say
it is real and poses a threat to the planet.

McCarthy said the agency’s response to the Flint water
crisis, viewed by many as too slow, was one of the low points of
her time as administrator but offers lessons to Pruitt.

Flint, Michigan, has been at the center of a public health
crisis, when tests found high amounts of lead in blood samples
taken from children in the poor, predominantly black city of
about 100,000 residents.

“Flint and other issues really point out where there are
resource limitations at the state level and why you need a
federal government to support that effort and oversee it,” she
said.

McCarthy said she has only met her prospective successor
once. That was at a D.C. Circuit Court hearing late last year on
a legal challenge he and other states attorneys general had
launched against the Clean Power Plan.

“He seemed very polite and introduced himself and we had a
polite, short conversation,” she said. She added that, after
hearing the judges’ comments that seemed to lean in favor of the
agency, “I think I left the building a little bit happier than
he did.”



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