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Former EPA administrator watches as Trump tries to undermine her legacy

Former U.S. EPA Chief Gina McCarthy left office Jan. 20 knowing that her desk in the agency's Washington, D.C. headquarters would be filled by someone vehemently opposed to her every action as administrator. Nevertheless, as President Donald Trump signed an order to unwind climate policies from the Obama administration, including the Clean Power Plan, McCarthy appeared upbeat as she made TV and radio appearances to discuss the news.

"It's pretty disappointing and a little bit embarrassing to have signed that executive order," McCarthy told PBS NewsHour in a March 28 interview. "But there's a lot of time in between here and actually undoing the legacy of President Obama on this, and I want people to understand that ... it's going to be a difficult slog for this administration to undo the great work that we did the prior eight years."

Repealing regulations, ironically, requires a typical notice and comment rulemaking process. One energy insider, Megan Berge, an attorney at Houston-based firm Baker Botts, expects an "onslaught of rules" to come as Trump's team seeks to deregulate.

"This is a professed de-regulatory administration. But there is going to be a lot of rulemaking involved in getting there," Berge said.

SNL Image

Former Administrator of the U.S. EPA Gina McCarthy signs the proposed version of the Clean Power Plan at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. in June 2014.

Source: The Associated Press

McCarthy, now a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is confident that power utilities will continue to invest in clean energy, such as wind and solar, regardless of Trump's policies. As for the coal industry, McCarthy said Trump's claim that the executive order will create "jobs, jobs, jobs," as he said prior to signing the order, is disingenuous to coal miners.

Time to get real

"What they really need is support in a transition that's already happening with or without the Clean Power Plan," McCarthy said on PBS. "We know that the industry has been struggling for a while. The simple fact is that it's not competitive now. It's time to get real with those people and offer them the support they need, but not simply say that climate change isn't happening, or that EPA is taking away those jobs."

Trump's order singled out her signature Clean Power Plan as a regulation that must be repealed. "Perhaps no single regulation threatens our miners, energy workers, and companies more than this crushing attack on American industry," Trump said during his remarks. Even though the rule faced fierce opposition and legal challenges from over half of the states and other industry stakeholders, McCarthy said the lawsuits were a symbolic gesture, because many of those same states are already achieving the emissions reductions assigned to them in the rule.

"We never expected this to be the complete answer ... we never pushed it beyond where we thought the energy world was heading," McCarthy said. "And right now ... you're seeing states achieving levels [that would have been required] in 2022."

The order also attacked many of Obama's climate change initiatives and canceled guidance for agencies considering climate change in their National Environmental Policy Act reviews. McCarthy expects that Trump's plan will prove unpopular, as 70% of the country understand that the climate is changing.

"That is certainly a significant number, in fact it's twice the popularity of this president," she quipped.

In an earlier interview with Boston radio station WBUR, McCarthy said she could not believe that the president would allow other countries to lead in clean energy and climate initiatives, when those actions can create jobs and strengthen the economy.

"For him to simply say I'm taking a pass on this, it's like going back to a 'Back to the Future' movie where Biff won," McCarthy said. "You know, I don't want to live in that world."