Column: Standing up for clean air rules

WASHINGTON -- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy sounded like the sort of unflinching liberal that progressives had hoped Barack Obama would be.

WASHINGTON - Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy sounded like the sort of unflinching liberal that progressives had hoped Barack Obama would be.
Not only did McCarthy roll out a broad new rule Monday that would cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent at existing power plants over 16 years, but she did so while ridiculing those on the other side.
“Critics claim that your energy bills will skyrocket. Well, they’re wrong,” McCarthy told a crowd at EPA’s headquarters. Departing from her prepared remarks, she added, to laughter and applause, “Shall I say that again? They’re wrong.”
She declared that “the critics are wrong about reliability, too,” and she scorned those “pointing to the polar vortex as a reason not to act on climate.” She adopted a singsong voice as she mockingly anticipated “special interest skeptics who will cry the sky is falling.”
McCarthy belittled those who “cried wolf” in the past with predictions that industry would “die a quiet death” - she made quotation marks with her fingers - and she predicted that “those same critics, once again, will flaunt manufactured facts and scare tactics, standing in the way of our right to breathe clean air.”
Her speech finished, the administrator went to a table to sign a page atop a five-inch-high stack of paper explaining the rule - but she returned to the microphone with a final, unscripted thought: “Whoever said the sword isn’t mightier than the pen, they’re absolutely right.”
McCarthy, not quite a year into her job, spoke with a Massachusetts accent and a Puritan’s fervor. After a career as an environmental adviser to Democratic and Republican governors alike, she sounded more like a politician herself than a regulator, savoring a standing ovation from the crowd and pointing and waving at people in the audience.
Even more than the policy itself, McCarthy’s unambiguous and uncompromising words should delight environmental advocates and frighten industrialists, who have been led by Republicans to believe that the administration is pursuing a “war on coal.” President Obama’s energy policy is inherently contradictory because he proposes carbon reduction while simultaneously pursuing record carbon production. But McCarthy, wielding the “pen” in Obama’s pen-and-phone strategy of acting without congressional cooperation, made no attempt to strike the balance that the president does between energy and climate.
She made the obligatory mention of Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, but the rest was about how Obama would “lead the world in the global fight against climate [change]” - an echo of George W. Bush’s “global war on terror.” (That war on climate change might begin close to home. In the room where McCarthy made her remarks, the chandeliers that hung from the 30-foot ceilings illuminated the room with what appeared to be incandescent bulbs, about 100 in all.) An EPA spokesman had no information about the lighting.
A strong bass line pumped through the sound system before McCarthy arrived, and she entered to woops and raucous applause. “Wow!” the administrator declared after some hugs and a handshake with Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., seated front and center. She praised EPA’s “wonderful rule-making” and boasted, “That is how you write a rule.” McCarthy assured those listening that “this was the preferred path forward.”
She rattled off the various ills attributed to climate change: “If your kid doesn’t use an inhaler, you should consider yourself a very lucky parent. ... 2012 was the second-most-expensive year in U.S. history for natural disasters. ... If we do nothing, in our grandkids’ lifetimes, temperatures could rise 10 degrees and seas could rise by four feet. ... Lower-income families and communities of color are hardest hit.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the regulation would annually cut 224,000 jobs and gross domestic product by $51 billion. But McCarthy dismissed any cost from the regulation at “about the price of a gallon of milk a month,” and she ridiculed those who will “deliberately ... overestimate the costs.”
McCarthy had a feistiness similar to that of her home-state Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., whose populism has fired up progressives. As she bemoaned the critics using “the same tired play from the same special-interest playbook,” she paused for a digression. “In the ‘60s - you remember the ‘60s? Some of you do. I’m lucky enough - sort of.”
McCarthy’s words Monday contained a bit of the 1960s, a time before unapologetic idealism gave way to “all of the above.” Love McCarthy’s message or hate it, her honesty is refreshing.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

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