Acting air chief seen as ‘perfect fit’ for rulemaking hot seat

Source: Jason Plautz, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 1, 2013

President Obama is expected to keep leadership steady at U.S. EPA’s critical Office of Air and Radiation when he announces a nominee to replace Gina McCarthy, who was confirmed as EPA administrator in July.

The smart money is on Janet McCabe, McCarthy’s former deputy and acting chief of the air office, the primary rule writer in Obama’s push to use the Clean Air Act to curb emissions of greenhouse gases.

McCabe and McCarthy have a lot in common. Both have extensive experience as state regulators, reputations for straight talk and a willingness to engage with friend and foe alike and backgrounds in public health.

They differ in style.

“Janet’s a little more quiet, while Gina is more gregarious,” said Margo Oge, who retired last year as EPA’s director of transportation and air quality. “She comes across as a great listener and someone who’s very open-minded. She has a real grasp on the issues, and I found her to be a very quick learner.”

McCabe has been praised by environmentalists and industry officials alike for her handling of complex regulations both at the state level in Indiana and at EPA. If she’s nominated for the full-time job or stays as acting air office chief, McCabe would be tasked to tackle the dirty work on the climate plan, including advancing a proposal on limiting emissions from new power plants and moving ahead with rules on existing plants.

That’s not to mention work on several air quality standards and revisions to the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), which regulates harmful emissions that cross state lines.

“I think she’s a perfect fit for that job. She’s got a keen awareness of how these issues affect state governments, and states are such critical partners with EPA on air programs,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “Janet not only hits the ground running, she’s in the middle of it already.”

It’s McCabe’s experience in the air office that appeals to environmentalists. And industry groups will be more prepared to deal with an official with whom they’ve worked for years. For EPA — already grappling with senior-level retirements in the air office — a steady hand at the tiller is seen as invaluable (Greenwire, May 15).

The fact that McCabe has so much in common with McCarthy as a regulator also doesn’t hurt.

“Wholly apart from the fact that McCarthy is still her boss, she would approach that job very much the way McCarthy did,” said David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program.

“She’s smart, she’s competent and she’s really part of the team. Her approach is pragmatism, openness and a very thorough understanding of the subject matter, both legal and substantive.”

Move to Indiana

According to her official EPA biography, McCabe was brought up in Washington, D.C., and got both a bachelor’s and a law degree from Harvard University. After leaving Harvard Law School in 1983, she began her career in Massachusetts — as did McCarthy — rising to become a assistant state attorney general for environmental protection and assistant secretary for environmental impact review before departing in 1993.

She switched states when she followed her husband back to his home state of Indiana, joining the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM).

Over 12 years at IDEM, she held several positions, including chief of the air programs branch, where she was in charge of outreach and modeling for air rules. That meant McCabe was tasked with developing the state implementation plans (SIPs) for compliance with federal ozone standards and enacting the Title V permitting program.

Pat Ross, an IDEM official who worked in the air office with McCabe for her entire tenure, said McCabe quickly established herself as adept at not only nimbly crafting air rules but ensuring that the full regulated community was on board.

“She got to know everybody in the state, and I mean everybody,” Ross said. “She knew the steel mills, the electric utilities and the pharmaceutical industries, but she also reached out to people like furniture manufacturers and smaller businesses. She was very careful to make sure that the parties affected by a regulation had a chance to participate in what was going to affect them.”

She also developed a close working relationship with utilities, particularly the coal-fired power plants that provide roughly 90 percent of Indiana’s electricity.

“We have operations in Indiana and worked with Janet McCabe when she was with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management,” said John McManus, vice president of environmental services for American Electric Power Co. Inc. “She was willing to listen to industry views at that time, and we would hope that if she is named assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, she will continue to be receptive to hearing our opinions about issues and regulations that affect our business.”

McCabe eventually took on a role as the assistant commissioner before departing in 2005 when an administration and party change brought Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) into office. She then moved to become executive director of Improving Kids’ Environment (IKE), an Indianapolis nonprofit dedicated to improving public health for children.

Indra Frank, the former president of IKE’s board of directors, said McCabe was a good fit for the group, given her experience in environmental health. The group had largely focused on preventing lead poisoning and addressing asthma in children, including improving air quality near schools and child care centers.

But McCabe quickly moved the group in another direction, Frank said, by engaging them in the high-stakes debate over reducing mercury emissions from power plants.

“She proved very capable in meetings about that by crossing the lines between the regulators and the regulated,” Frank said. “That’s not an issue we had been involved in, but it does affect our environment and children’s health.”

During that time, McCabe also worked as an adjunct professor for Indiana University School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health.

Frank said that part of McCabe’s strength in the role was in drawing people in and “managing to be an expert without being off-putting,” a quality that helped her in tough negotiations.

“We’re very sad to lose her from Indianapolis, but it’s really to the nation’s benefit,” Frank said.

‘Continuity is ensured’

McCabe still returns home to Indianapolis on weekends, her former colleagues say, meaning her state-level experience hasn’t faded.

“She’s got a real handle on the state-level issues and a real sense for being interested in outside views,” Oge said. “She’s going to make a great [assistant administrator] for that group with her experience.”

McCabe worked closely with McCarthy on a number of proposals, including on carbon emission rules for new power plants released this month. And McCabe has already started work on another heavy lift, talking to utilities and states about revisions to the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.

The job, however, will entail more than just working with states and utilities. Given the controversial nature of the administration’s power plant rules and ongoing discontent with EPA among congressional Republicans, McCabe might well spend as much time on Capitol Hill as in EPA headquarters, the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building.

Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, said that McCabe would be a “superb” pick and no doubt able to defend the agency’s policies against its harshest critics.

McCabe would likely face a tough slog in the Senate confirmation process, likely due to discontent over Obama’s proposed power plant rules and other agency-transparency issues that held up McCarthy’s confirmation for several months. But sources on both sides say they expect McCabe to be confirmed eventually and enter the full-time job at a sprint.

“These are hard issues to deal with if you haven’t been a part of them, but Janet comes in with no learning curve,” Clean Air Watch’s O’Donnell said. “Just as McCarthy was a great fit for this office, so is McCabe. … And now continuity is ensured.”