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The Week Ahead

Administration Slated To Respond To GAO Climate Risk Finding, Debate Heats Up Over Next EPA Chief

Posted: February 19, 2013

The Obama administration appears likely to respond to a recent Government Accountability Office report that finds fiscal liability from climate change is a “high risk” area policy in need of major reform.

Republicans are turning up the heat over the next EPA administrator nominee. And EPA is closing its comment docket on one of its last remaining rules regulating nutrients in Florida's waters.

The Administration's Agenda

A top White House official appears likely to offer the administration's first response to the recent announcement by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that federal financial liability due to climate change is a “high risk” area in need of policy reform.

White House environment chief Nancy Sutley is slated Feb. 20 to detail steps the administration is taking to “reduce the vulnerability of Federal programs and investments to the impacts of climate change, such as more frequent or severe extreme weather events, and support safe and prosperous American communities.” Sutley is scheduled to address the Gilbert F. White Flood Policy Forum, hosted by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) and the ASFPM Foundation in Arlington, VA.

A key part of Sutley's response is likely to include efforts by EPA to adapt to climate change.

In its Feb. 14 announcement, GAO said that climate change poses significant financial risks to the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, such as defense installations; insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program; and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters.

The announcement has already prompted one key GOP committee chairman to agree to hold hearings on the issue -- though the concern does not appear to be enough to prompt Republicans to pass legislation.

With Congress out of town, might President Obama be moving closer to a decision about the next EPA Administrator and other top energy and environment slots in his second term?

According to the Washington Post, the President returned to the White House following the President's Day weekend where he “faces a schedule largely free of public events this week, leaving time for the private political work that is key to . . . governing.”

Given the president's continuing public focus on climate change and clean energy -- most recently in his State of the Union address and in a recent public interview -- open slots at EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE) would likely take on greater significance, especially since Congress is unlikely to act.

Reports continue to suggest that EPA air chief Gina McCarthy remains the leading candidate to get the top slot at the agency ahead of the current Deputy Administrator (and acting Administrator) Bob Perciasepe.

But whoever the president selects, top Republicans are already signaling they plan to fight Obama nominations -- much as they are currently with Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), the ranking Republican on the environment committee, signaled last week that he is concerned about a possible McCarthy nomination given the air chief's failure to respond to several long-standing information requests.

And Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) is said to be considering a hold over EPA's concerns over a proposed flood control project in the Show-Me State -- though his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Clare McCaskill (D-MO), says such a move is “premature.”

But should the eventual nominee be blocked, federal law allows an official to serve in an acting capacity for several years.

At DOE, Ernest Moniz, a former Clinton era energy official who has served on several Obama advisory panels, is said to be the leading candidate, though others are said to include former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Stanford University's Dan Reicher and several others. Their prospects for Senate confirmation are not clear but if the Hagel nomination is any indication, most Obama nominees are likely to face a hard time.

In The Agencies

Two important public comment periods are slated to end in the coming days.

At EPA, the agency is scheduled to close its docket on its rule setting numeric nutrient criteria for Florida's coastal and other waters. The rule is already facing a legal test from environmentalists who charge the agency is barred from dropping measures intended to limit upstream discharges to protect downstream waters. And the pending suit may be one of the few levers environmentalists have left to pressure the agency to strengthen its nutrient control efforts.

EPA "has mailed their spine away, and doesn't seem likely to get it back anytime soon," one environmentalist involved in the litigation said recently. The source added the outcome of that litigation, where EPA is seeking permission to suspend federally crafted nutrient criteria in favor of the less-strict regulations proposed by the state, will set a precedent for what regulators "can get away with" as they craft nutrient limits elsewhere.

Meanwhile, DOE is slated to close its comment docket on a controversial draft report on the economic benefits of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports -- a document that environmentalists say fails to account for increased emissions that would result from new demands for more drilling, undercutting the benefits of EPA's new rules for the sector.

While the comment docket may be closing, a top official said recently the department is unlikely to make a decision on LNG export policies anytime soon.