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President Barack Obama nominated Ernest Moniz (far left) for Department of Energy secretary and Gina McCarthy (left) for Environmental Protection Agency administrator Monday at a White House press conference. At Obama's right is Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Walmart Foundation head,  nominated to lead the Office of Management and Budget. 

Illinois experts give mostly positive reviews to Obama nominees for DOE and EPA

by Samantha Andreacchi
March 05, 2013

Many view President Barack Obama’s nominees for DOE secretary and EPA administrator as a step in the right direction when it comes to climate change, energy efficiency and the economy. Illinois environmental and energy experts give mostly positive but mixed reviews.

Obama nominated EPA assistant administrator Gina McCarthy to head the agency and nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz for Department of Energy secretary Monday. Obama said he expects Moniz and McCarthy to lead on three levels.

“They’re 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.

“They are going to be a great team,” he said.

“Gina has been great about being very practical, being very pragmatic and also reaching out and working with the states,” said Doug Scott, former director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

McCarthy is currently the assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. Prior to that, she was the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

She is known for promoting renewable energy programs, and during her time at the EPA, she has pushed through regulations curbing mercury and soot emissions from power plants to combat air pollution.

Scott, now chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, does not speak for the Illinois EPA but has worked directly with McCarthy in the past. They first worked together on climate change initiatives while McCarthy was environmental commissioner in Connecticut and Scott worked with her again after she became the assistant administrator at the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

“We always found her very open and willing to listen to us, and she understood that what USA EPA did was going to impact us in the states,” Scott said.

He said he expects McCarthy to keep the lines of communication open between the national and state governments as EPA administrator.

Sherrie Elzinga, assistant to the director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, echoed Scott’s excitement and said McCarthy’s nomination is good news for the Illinois EPA.

“We’ve enjoyed a very good relationship with her, so we’re very excited and happy about that,” Elzinga said.

Jack Darin, director of Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter, said the Sierra Club is also looking forward to working with McCarthy.

The Sierra Club is a grassroots environmental organization that aims to end dependence on fossil fuel, reverse social, economic and environmental damages caused by climate change, restore wildlife ecosystems and further green, renewable energy.

"Gina McCarthy will be a strong leader at EPA on issues that are critical to our health and economy here in Illinois - protecting our Great Lakes, cleaning up pollution from dirty coal plants, and investing in clean water infrastructure to create jobs and safeguarding our water supply," Darin said.

And he said the organization is hopeful that Moniz will continue to create jobs in Illinois in alternative energy sectors.

"Here in Illinois we have a lot to gain from moving to clean energy, and we are off to a great start with over 20,000 jobs created in wind and solar energy in the last several years,” Darin said. “We look forward to working with Ernest Moniz to build on that progress and realize President Obama's vision of a clean energy future built on renewable energy and conservation."

Dave Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service based in Chicago, said NEIS gives McCarthy high marks on air pollution control overall. But he expressed concern over monitoring of radiation levels in response to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan in 2011. He said that 20 percent of U.S. radiation monitors were inoperable at the time of the disaster, a figure confirmed in an EPA audit.

The NEIS is a non-profit organization that is committed to ending nuclear power. Over the last 30 years, they have aggressively pushed for renewable and alternative energy sources.
And Kraft said NEIS is disappointed with the nomination of Ernest Moniz as DOE secretary.

“We find that the nominee is coming out of a background of the 'same-old same-old' … and we’re entering a world in the 21st century where energy has to be addressed in more of an 'out-of-the-box' kind of mentality,” Kraft said.

“So we’re finding that this nominee is just very much backing the traditional modes of central power stations, long transmission lines, large power plants, that sort of thing,” he added.

Moniz, a nuclear physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, directed the university’s Energy Initiative and served as undersecretary of energy in President Bill Clinton's administration. Moniz has also served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, an advisory group created in 2009 by President Obama. The group advises the president and the Executive Office of the President directly on policy matters concerning science and technology.

He has voiced support of scientific research on nuclear power, renewable energy, lower-carbon alternative fossil fuels such as natural gas, and shale gas produced by hydraulic fracking.

And this support of fracking in particular adds to the NEIS’s disappointment in his nomination, Kraft said.

“It’s moving too far too fast; not enough studies have been done,” he said. “Whoever’s coming in as the secretary is going to have to deal more responsibly with the fracking issue that we’ve seen so far in this country.”

But Scott Bernstein, president and founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, said CNT is still optimistic about both candidates.

CNT is a Chicago-based think-and-do tank for urban sustainability. The organization researches, invents and tests urban strategies that are more economically and energy efficient.

“These are two very highly qualified candidates. I think they bring a rich mix of public and private sector experience and they’re up to the job,” Bernstein said.

He said Moniz and McCarthy should not be judged on their ability to push all important environmental and energy initiatives through Washington. Instead, people should consider their performance more holistically, taking into account the nature of the political beast both nominees will have to wrestle with once they are confirmed.

“Their performance should be judged in terms of doing an increasingly improved job of making hard choices in meeting their respective agencies mandates,” he insisted. “These are very capable people…and I think we’ll find out.”

If confirmed, McCarthy would replace current EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, and Moniz would replace current DOE secretary Steven Chu. Their appointments are awaiting approval from Congress.