Gina McCarthy’s Thin Skin on the Origins of the Obama Greenhouse Regs

Washington, D.C., July 12, 2014 – In public, Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, comes across as a no-nonsense, rough-and-tumble, tough cookie. But a recent flap over the origins of her agency’s proposed rules for controlling carbon dioxide from existing coal-fired power plants shows her to be defensive and thin-skinned.

The revelation of McCarthy’s touchiness began last week with an in-depth analysis by New York Times environmental reporter Coral Davenport on how the Natural Resources Defense Council was able to advance its internally-developed 2012 plan for tiptoing around the problems inherent in the 1990 Clean Air Act in order to go after carbon dioxide emissions to the EPA. It was a well-reported article that traced how NRDC’s veteran air team, including David Doniger, David Hawkins, and Daniel Lashof put together the 110-page, innovative proposal for new regulations.

It came as no surprise to anyone who has followed the development of the Obama administration’s greenhouse rule that the NRDC proposal became the essence of the EPA approach. Doniger, Hawkins and Lashof have more experience and greater knowledge of the intricacies of the air law than anyone in Washington, including anyone on McCarthy’s EPA team. Hawkins, for example, is a founder of NRDC and was the EPA chief air regulator in the Carter administration. He has continued to devote his professional career to the topic of regulating air pollution.

Doniger also has some 30+ years of experience with clean air issues, and Lashof is a veteran of similar depth. Doniger and Hawkins are lawyers and Lashof is a climate scientist.

McCarthy, after reading the article, was in high dudgeon. She blasted out an internal email to her EPA colleagues praising the agency’s staff for its “historic” rule and claiming that Davenport’s report of NRDC’s role was “preposterous.” She wrote to her staff, “According to the article from Monday, you just cut and pasted a particular proposal and called it a day. If you’re laughing now, it’s because you know just how preposterous that is.”

And how preposterous is it? Writing for New York magazine, veteran environmental reporter Jonathan Chait wrote that he tried to suss out the story of the role of NRDC in the EPA plan, independent of Davenport, but got stonewalled by EPA officials. He then praised Davenport for her reporting, noting that she was unable to “prove” the connection between the EPA plan and NRDC’s own regulatory blueprint, although he believes the connection is valid. Chait concluded, “The NRDC finds itself in the awkward position of not being able to claim full credit for what probably ranks as the most important policy triumph ever recorded by an American advocacy organization.”

I find that claim overblown, as advocacy organizations from the left, right, and center have long had major policy triumphs in Washington over the years. It’s premature to put the EPA plan on such a high pedestal, as it has not yet been enacted.

But it seems clear that NRDC’s 2012 proposal had a decisive influence on EPA. Eric Wolff at the trade publication SNL did a side-by-side comparison of the 2012 NRDC proposal and the EPA’s 2014 proposed rule. They are largely identical. Chait remarked, “The main difference is that the EPA’s version is weaker.”