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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday made three Cabinet nominations — for budget, energy and environmental policy — hours before his first Cabinet meeting of his second term.
Obama introduced Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the president of the Walmart Foundation in Arkansas and a familiar figure in the Democratic administration from her service in the Clinton administration, to be the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Ernest J. Moniz, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, is the president’s choice to take over for Steven Chu at the Energy Department. And Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator in charge of air and radiation at the Environmental Protection Agency, is the pick to replace the departing administrator, Lisa P. Jackson. All three positions are subject to Senate confirmation.
McCarthy most likely faces the greatest scrutiny given Republicans’ opposition to Obama’s environmental and climate policies.
’’I hope the Senate will confirm them as soon as possible," Obama said as he introduced the three nominees and thanked the current holders of the Cabinet posts in the East Room, which was packed with family, friends and administration staff members.
Obama described Moniz as "another brilliant scientist" to succeed Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, at the Energy Department. And for the EPA, the president said McCarthy was well suited with her experience as a state environmental official in both Massachusetts — for former Gov. Mitt Romney — and Connecticut. She has "a reputation as a straight-shooter" who "welcomes different points of view," he added.
Together, McCarthy and Moniz are "going to be making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change, that we’re going to be creating jobs and economic opportunity in the first place," Obama said, implicitly addressing the criticism, especially from Republicans, that environmental policies inhibit the economy.
The applause that greeted Burwell as the budget nominee reflected how familiar she remains, having served President Bill Clinton at the budget office, where she was the deputy director, as well as at the Treasury Department and in the White House. In that time, she worked closely with Jacob J. Lew, now Obama’s Treasury secretary, who recommended Burwell for the budget director’s job, which he held for both Clinton and Obama. Since then, Burwell has lived far from Washington, first in Washington state during her time leading the Gates Foundation and then in Bentonville, Ark., Wal-Mart’s headquarters.
Obama used his announcement of Burwell’s nomination to once more address the across-the-board cuts to military and domestic spending, known as sequestration, that took effect Friday, after he and congressional Republicans failed to agree on a more deliberate set of deficit reduction actions.
She and the acting budget director, Jeffrey D. Zients, "will do everything in their power to blunt the impact of these cuts on businesses and middle-class families," the president said. "But eventually a lot of people are going to feel some pain. That’s why we’ve got to keep on working to reduce our deficit in a balanced way."
Obama also hinted that he would find another post in his administration for Zients, a former business executive, who is well respected within the White House. He has been mentioned as a possible nominee to be Obama’s trade representative or commerce secretary — two of the last Cabinet posts that Obama must fill to complete his second-term team.
’’I expect he will continue to serve us well in the future," Obama said.
The choice of McCarthy is likely to generate considerable opposition because she is identified with several of the Obama administration’s most ambitious clean-air regulations, including proposed greenhouse gas regulations for new power plants. Obama has pledged to address climate change in his second term, and he is expected to use the authority granted to the EPA under the Clean Air Act to reduce climate-altering emissions from power plants and other major sources.
In choosing Moniz, Obama has once again selected a nuclear physicist, although one with more political experience; Moniz was the undersecretary of energy in Clinton’s second term.
Moniz, like his predecessor, Chu, is highly focused on how to meet a skyrocketing global demand for energy while mitigating adverse effects on the environment, and like Chu, he has focused on the need for technology innovation.
He also shares with Chu a scientist’s view of politics. In a memo posted on his program’s website in November 2012, he said that the MIT Energy Initiative was continuing to supply technical research "in the interest of providing some degree of rationality in the ongoing political discussion."
McCarthy, 58, is a native of Massachusetts and was a top environmental official there and in Connecticut, serving under Democratic and Republican governors, including, for a time, Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president.
She has a reputation as a blunt-speaking, assertive voice for strong environmental policies, particularly health-related clean-air policies. As a senior EPA official in Obama’s first term, she helped fashion tough new emissions standards for cars and light trucks, tightened standards for mercury and other harmful pollutants in the air, and issued the first proposed regulations for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas pollutants for new power plants. Those new rules would make it virtually impossible to build any new coal-fired power plants in the United States.
Coal and utility industry officials accused her and other EPA officials of waging a "war on coal," and that issue is likely to come up in her confirmation hearings.
Jeffrey Holmstead, who led the EPA’s air and radiation office in the George W. Bush administration, predicted that McCarthy would win confirmation, although the hearings might produce some sparks.
’’I assume many people on the GOP side will want to use confirm hearings to express concerns," Holmstead said. "But there is a sense among industry folks that Gina took the time to listen to and understand their concerns. She’s certainly not pro-industry, but she does try to understand an issue and address it."
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Environmental advocates generally applauded the choice of McCarthy, which has been circulating in Washington for weeks.
’’Every American is or will soon be breathing cleaner air because of Gina McCarthy," said Frank O’Donnell, the director of Clean Air Watch, an advocacy group. "She has spearheaded vital public health improvements, including cleanup of mercury and other toxins from coal-burning power plants, a more protective health standard for fine-particle soot and landmark greenhouse gas standards for motor vehicles."
’’But huge challenges remain," he added, "including the need for smog-fighting lower-sulfur gasoline, a tougher national smog standard, and greenhouse gas limits on both new and existing power plants."
At MIT, Moniz has delved deeply into the practicalities of various energy sources; the institute has produced a series of five major interdisciplinary studies on energy topics, and he was the chairman or co-chairman of four of them, on the future of coal, of natural gas, of the nuclear fuel cycle and of nuclear power. (He skipped the one on the power grid.) All four showed an engineer’s realism; the study of coal, for example, said that greater use would be an environmental blow but that it was inevitable, given the world’s energy needs and the widespread dispersal of the resource.
And the studies, over the last 10 years, were not always right; the 2003 study on nuclear power, for example, underestimated the price of building a new reactor by at least half.
Like many academic leaders, he has strong ties to industry, some of them certain to draw fire now. The Energy Initiative recently announced that ENI, the Italian oil company, had renewed its participation as a founding member, and would contribute at a level that "significantly exceeds the founding member support level of $5 million per year." The other corporate founding members are BP, Shell and Saudi Aramco. Other sponsors include Chevron and several utilities, including the parent company of Southern California Edison, Entergy, Duke Energy and Electricite de France, all nuclear reactor operators.
Moniz attracted some opposition even before the president announced his intention to nominate him. At Food and Water Watch, an organization that opposes hydraulic fracturing, Wenonah Hauter, the director, called him "a known cheerleader" for fracking.
’’His appointment to the DOE could set renewable energy development back years," she said. "The oil and gas industry will thrive while true energy efficiency and renewable solutions languish."
His previous support of expanding nuclear power as a way to meet energy needs while limiting climate change is also likely to make him a magnet for opponents.
Before serving as energy undersecretary from 1997 to 2001, Moniz, 68, was the associate director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Clinton White House. At the Energy Department, he led a major effort to determine how the nation would maintain its stockpile of nuclear weapons without test explosions; he was also the department’s negotiator on the disposition of Russian nuclear-weapons materials.