President Barack Obama is close to choosing two veteran Washington policymakers for top energy roles in his Cabinet who would continue many policies on clean energy and air-pollution curbs, according to people familiar with the decisions.
Physicist Ernest Moniz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is Obama’s top candidate to run the Energy Department, and Gina McCarthy, an aide to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, is the leading contender to head the Environmental Protection Agency, according to people familiar with the selection process.
Obama may announce their nominations as soon as this week, said the people, who asked for anonymity because the choices haven’t been formally made.
While both will pick up the broad approach laid out over the past four years, they also have a political touch analysts said will be necessary to counter longstanding criticisms from congressional Republicans and some industry lobbyists. McCarthy is assistant administrator for air pollution at the EPA, a role she held throughout Obama’s first term.
“Gina’s a true-blue environmentalist,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a Bracewell & Giuliani LLP lobbyist who represents energy companies including Atlanta-based Southern Co. “But I have to say she is at least willing to sit down and listen and understand the issues people have with EPA’s regulations.”
McCarthy and Moniz would round out Obama’s second-term energy and environment team as he seeks to combat the risks associated with climate change and weighs regulation of hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique behind increasing domestic oil and natural gas production.
Obama this month nominated Sally Jewell, chief executive officer at outdoor retailer Recreation Equipment Inc., as Interior secretary to oversee energy development on federal land. Moniz would replace Steven Chu, also a physicist, who announced Feb. 1 that he’ll leave the administration to return to academia. McCarthy would take over the EPA from Lisa Jackson, who left the agency on Feb. 14.
The nominations are subject to Senate confirmation.
McCarthy currently leads the EPA office that during Obama’s first term issued broad regulations to cut pollution from coal-fired power plants and automobiles.
Environmentalists have praised her efforts, saying the rules would cut mercury, sulfur dioxide and other toxic emissions now responsible for causing asthma, heart attacks and premature death.
They have come under fire from Republicans in Congress, who contend the new rules would put a drag on the economy without offering significant health benefits. That criticism probably will be renewed in McCarthy’s confirmation hearings.
Last April, McCarthy announced a measure to curb emissions when oil and gas wells are first tapped, while giving drillers until 2015 to comply. That delay drew praise from the American Petroleum Institute, the Washington-based trade group.
“We hope McCarthy shares the president’s stated vision for an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy and will support only sound EPA regulations that reduce potential adverse impacts on employment and energy costs while protecting the environment,” Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement today.
Up until now, “the problem is that EPA, in many cases, is not proposing regulations that meet this goal,” Gerard said.
McCarthy, a Boston native, worked for Republicans before joining the Obama administration, including for Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as a top state environmental official. She left to head up the Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection from 2004 to 2009, where she worked with Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell.
Moniz served as Energy Department undersecretary from 1997 to 2001 after an earlier stint as science adviser to President Bill Clinton.
He now directs the MIT’s Energy Initiative, which is supported by BP Plc, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Chevron Corp., and other energy companies, and has promoted natural gas as a bridge fuel -- a way to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions as cleaner sources of energy are developed.
Even while at MIT, Moniz was a frequent visitor to Washington, testifying before congressional panels on energy issues and serving both on the President’s Council Advisors on Science and Technology as well as the blue-ribbon commission Obama formed to study nuclear waste storage after he pulled the plug on Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the nation’s permanent repository.
Moniz has advocated the U.S. develop a national energy strategy to drive investment.
“It’s perhaps the primary area for the application of science, engineering, and policy to meet real human needs,” he said in a 2009 interview with Boston College, his undergraduate alma mater.
Moniz would be “a choice closer to Chu than necessarily that of the history of most secretaries,” said Paul Bledsoe, an independent energy consultant in Washington. He is “a guy a little more focused on technology and research, and in a sense would continue that Obama emphasis more than say a former governor or member of Congress.”
While clean-energy advocates credit Chu with promoting wind and solar power, his tenure has at times been turbulent. He was criticized by Republicans in Congress for placing big bets on companies like Solyndra LLC, the Fremont, California-based solar panel maker that filed for bankruptcy two years after receiving a $535 million U.S. loan guarantee.