EPA head's top regret: failing to connect with rural America

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Among the millions of rural Americans who voted for incoming president Donald Trump, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's legacy of hard-nosed regulation earned it a reputation as a jobs killer - a fact that outgoing EPA Director Gina McCarthy says could prove to be one of her biggest regrets.

"We tried to change the outreach and messaging in rural America in a number of ways, but ... has it changed the rhetoric that people hear? It hasn't," McCarthy said in an interview this week at EPA headquarters in Washington. "We couldn't get it, but I wish we had."

During Barack Obama's presidency, the agency tackled climate change with a raft of new rules targeting carbon dioxide emissions, measures McCarthy credits for spurring other countries to join a global climate agreement in Paris in December 2015.

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What do the Cabinet positions do anyway?
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What do the Cabinet positions do anyway?

Vice President of the United States

Originally, the Vice President's main job was to preside over the Senate. But beginning in the 1970s, the Vice President's powers grew. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, is considered to have had a large role in shaping George W. Bush's foreign policy. Former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will take over the office from Joe Biden when Trump is inaugurated in January.

Pictured: Vice President-elect Mike Pence

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Secretary of State

The secretary of state serves as the President's main adviser on foreign policy issues, negotiates treaties and represents the U.S. at the United Nations. Trump has yet to say who will replace current Secretary of State John Kerry in his administration, but former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Bob Corker and retired General and former CIA Director David Petraeus are reportedly under consideration, though the New York Times reported Sunday that Trump is still interviewing candidates, so that list may still grow.

Pictured: Current Secretary of State John Kerry

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Secretary of the Treasury

The secretary of the treasury is in charge of the administration's financial and economic policies. Trump named hedge fund manager and movie financier Steven Mnuchin as his replacement for current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

Pictured: Trump's pick, Steven Mnuchin

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Secretary of Defense

The secretary of defense is the president's adviser on military and international security policy. James "Mad Dog" Mattis is Trump's pick to fill the role, which is currently occupied by Ash Carter.

Pictured: Trump's pick, James Mattis

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

United States Attorney General

Dubbed the "pople's lawyer," the attorney general helms the United States Department of Justice and advises the president on legal matters. The position is currently held by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Trump has picked Sen. Jeff Sessions to fill the role. 

Pictured: Trump's pick, Jeff Sessions

(Photo credit ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of the Interior

Known to some as the "department of everything else," the DOI "protects America's natural resources and heritage, honors our cultures and tribal communities and supplies the energy to power our future" and is currently headed by Secretary Sally Jewell. Trump has yet to name his pick, but the drilling advocates on his short list — which apparently includes former Vice-presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — have environmental activists concerned. 

Pictured: Current Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell

(Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

Secretary of Agriculture

Thomas J. Vilsack currently heads the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees policies relating to food, agriculture and rural development. No word yet on who will fill that role in Trump's administration, but one of the names Trump has mentioned is Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner and Trump adviser who once called Hillary Clinton a "cunt" on Twitter.

Pictured: Current Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Secretary of Commerce

As the department's mission statement puts it: "The Secretary of Commerce serves as the voice of U.S. business within the President's Cabinet." Businesswoman Penny Pritzker currently serves in the role, for which Trump has tapped billionaire investor and longtime Trump business associate Wilbur Ross Jr.

Pictured: Trump's pick, Wilbur Ross Jr.

(Photo by Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Secretary of Labor

Thomas E. Perez is the current United States Secretary of Labor and is tasked with overseeing the welfare of U.S. workers. Trump has yet to officially announce his choice, but reports indicate that he is considering Obama-critic Andrew Puzder, the CEO of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's parent company CKE Restaurants.

Pictured: Current Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez

(Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

Secretary of Health and Human Services

The Department of Health and Human Services oversees all health-related policy. Trump has tapped Rep. Tom Price, a staunch opponent of the Affordable Care Act, to replace current Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell.

Pictured: Trump's pick, Tom Price

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

Earlier this week, Trump announced the nomination of one of his former Republican presidential primary opponents, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, despite his lack of formal qualifications. In that role, he will take over for Julian Castro as the president's adviser on issues relating to housing and cities, including homelessness, sustainability and equal opportunity. 

Pictured: Trump's pick, Ben Carson

(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Secretary of Transportation

The Department of Transportation secretary became an official Cabinet post in 1967. Trump has chosen former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to head the department — which is currently under the guidance of Secretary Anthony Foxx — in what some have described as one of Trump's more conventional picks.

Pictured: Trump's pick, Elaine Chao

(Photo credit EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of Energy

According to its mission statement, the Energy Department seeks to "ensure America's security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions." The current secretary of energy is Ernest Moniz; Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative democrat, is reportedly under consideration for the role in Trump's administration.

Pictured: Current Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Secretary of Education

Trump's selection of Betsy DeVos, a republican donor and so-called "school choice" advocate, has been met with significant criticism. DeVos, who would be Trump's primary voice on educational policy, is considered the face of a struggling school system in her native Michigan. The department is currently run by Secretary John King. 

Pictured: Trump's pick, Betsy DeVos

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Trump has promised to "fix" the VA, which is currently run by Secretary Robert McDonald. But some veterans advocates worry that the incoming Trump administration will gut the department, which is tasked with providing assistance to military veterans. Reports that Sarah Palin and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry are under consideration for the role add to concerns that the new administration will privatize the VA.

Pictured: Current Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald

(Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

Secretary of Homeland Security

One of the central tenets of Trump's presidential campaign was immigration. His calls to build a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, to conduct massive deportations of undocumented immigrants and to halt immigration from Muslim countries were among his signature tunes at campaign rallies. That potentially makes the head of the Department of Homeland Security, which was created in the wake of September 11th, one of the most significant roles in the Trump administration. The agency, which focuses on terrorism, national security and the enforcement of immigration laws, is currently headed by Secretary Jeh Johnson. Trump has yet to officially announce his secretary of homeland security pick, but Politico reported that top Trump aides have mentioned retired Marine General John Kelly as the top candidate. Far-right Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke is also reportedly under consideration

Pictured: Current Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson

(Photo via REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Cabinet-level positions

There are currently seven positions that are not considered to be an official part of the president's Cabinet, but that have Cabinet-level rankings. They are: the White House chief of staff, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the United States Trade representative, the United States mission to the United Nations, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and the head of the Small Business Administration. 

On Nov. 13, Trump named Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus chief of staff.

Pictured: Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus

(Photo credit JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

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U.S. environmental policy is now set for a massive reset after Trump won November's election on a wave of populist sentiment that was driven in part by his vow to unburden energy, mining and other industries of excess regulation.

That message resonated with farming and coal mining communities grappling with job losses and stagnant economies, and helped win him a majority of the rural vote.

Key parts of Obama's environmental legacy are now in the crosshairs, including the Clean Power Plan that requires states to curb carbon output, the Waters of the United States rule that expands the number of waterways under federal protection, and U.S. participation in the global climate pact signed in Paris.

In December, Trump nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a longtime opponent of EPA regulation who has repeatedly taken the agency to court, to succeed McCarthy.

"There's no question that he will come in here with policies he wants to implement and changes he wants to make," said McCarthy, adding she hoped that EPA career staff would temper his agenda by providing him science-based advice.

She said even if major EPA rules do not survive under the new leadership, the shift Obama's administration triggered toward lower-carbon energy would likely continue. "These are today's technologies not yesterday's. These are the jobs of tomorrow, not of yesterday," she said, referring to growth in renewables technologies like solar and wind.

"POLITE, SHORT CONVERSATION"

McCarthy said her struggle to convince rural Americans that a clean energy economy can also provide jobs was a major disappointment in a four-year tenure that she felt was mostly positive.

She said crafting the country's first carbon regulations for power plants and taking strong enforcement actions against companies like Volkswagen <VOWG_p.DE> - accused of cheating on emissions tests - were high points that proved the agency's serious approach.

She had tried to build more visibility and stronger partnerships in rural communities to emphasize the value of the EPA's role, particularly in protecting local air and water. But she said political baggage around the term "climate change" had hampered those efforts.

"Just because climate continues to be bandied about as a partisan issue instead of just a science issue, it's made EPA's job more difficult," she said.

She added coal mining communities also unfairly blamed the EPA for a downturn in the industry that began decades before the regulatory shift against carbon, and which has accelerated because of competition from natural gas.

Many Republicans are opposed to efforts to combat climate change, even though an overwhelming majority of scientists say it is real and poses a threat to the planet.

McCarthy said the agency's response to the Flint water crisis, viewed by many as too slow, was one of the low points of her time as administrator but offers lessons to Pruitt.

Flint, Michigan, has been at the center of a public health crisis, when tests found high amounts of lead in blood samples taken from children in the poor, predominantly black city of about 100,000 residents.

"Flint and other issues really point out where there are resource limitations at the state level and why you need a federal government to support that effort and oversee it," she said.

McCarthy said she has only met her prospective successor once. That was at a D.C. Circuit Court hearing late last year on a legal challenge he and other states attorneys general had launched against the Clean Power Plan.

"He seemed very polite and introduced himself and we had a polite, short conversation," she said. She added that, after hearing the judges' comments that seemed to lean in favor of the agency, "I think I left the building a little bit happier than he did."

(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Marguerita Choy)


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