President-elect Joe Biden taps Gina McCarthy, former EPA chief, for top domestic climate job

Gina McCarthy was born in Brighton, raised in Dorchester, and graduated from UMass Boston and Tufts before embarking on a career in environmental work.

Gina McCarthy, former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama, will serve as senior White House adviser on climate change to President-elect Joe Biden, coordinating climate change policy throughout the government. (Sarah Blesener/The New York Times)

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WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden is expected to announce a significant part of his energy and environment team this week.

In the coming days, Biden intends to name prominent leaders in the climate and clean-energy world to two senior positions: Gina McCarthy, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, will be his senior adviser on climate change, and Jennifer Granholm, a former governor of Michigan, will lead the Department of Energy.

Biden on Tuesday named Pete Buttigieg, the former Democratic presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to be his secretary of the Department of Transportation, a job that is expected to become climate-centric in the next administration as Biden pushes policies to promote electric vehicles and climate-resilient infrastructure.


Still undecided, though, is the president-elect’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. That person will be central to Biden’s campaign pledges to enact an ambitious agenda of fighting climate change and reinstating environmental regulations that President Donald Trump rolled back.

“A new era of climate accountability is upon us,” former Vice President Al Gore said in a statement. “The U.S. is back on task.”

Gore described McCarthy as “uniquely suited for the job” and said her appointment, along with John Kerry’s role as global climate envoy, “affirms that Joe Biden is serious about America leading by example and driving deep reductions in pollution and climate emissions.”


McCarthy, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, was the architect of landmark rules to cut planet-warming pollution. In her new role, she would be in charge of coordinating domestic climate change policies across the federal government.

In addition to developing the Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever national limits on carbon emissions from power plants, she also pushed forward rules to cut mercury emissions from power plants, to increase fuel efficiency in automobiles and to limit methane leaks from oil and gas wells.

The coal, gas and oil industries opposed all these policies, which were ultimately repealed or weakened by the Trump administration.


McCarthy’s deputy will be Ali Zaidi, New York state deputy secretary for energy and environment. Zaidi served in the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget, where he helped to coordinate and enact climate change policies and served as a top adviser on climate change to Biden’s campaign.

John Podesta, the founder of the Center for American Progress and onetime adviser to former President Barack Obama on climate change, called McCarthy and Zaidi a “powerhouse team.”

Some Republicans were less enthusiastic. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said in a statement that he was concerned about reviving Obama-era policies that he described as “punishing” to his state as well as other states with economies reliant on fossil fuels.


“Increased innovation — not the appointment of countless unchecked czars — will help protect our environment without punishing our economy,” Barrasso said.

In her new position, McCarthy will be empowered to direct agency heads across the federal government to enact climate policies, from emissions rules at the EPA to financial regulations on companies in connection with their bottom-line financial exposure to climate risks.

However, it is not yet clear who will hold her old job of EPA administrator — a position that will come with the authority to reinstate and strengthen the very Obama-era climate rules that McCarthy once wrote.

Biden’s first choice to lead the EPA was Mary Nichols, California’s top climate change regulator. But liberal activists contended that she had not done enough in her state to address racial disparities in environmental policy.


That has set off a scramble to find a new candidate to lead the agency. Possibilities now include Richard Revesz, a law professor and former dean of the New York University School of Law; Michael S. Regan, head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality; and Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles.

One member of the Biden transition staff said that a final EPA choice might not come until after Christmas.

Granholm and Buttigieg are also expected to serve among McCarthy’s top clean-energy lieutenants.

As head of the Energy Department, Granholm will oversee the U.S. nuclear weapons complex as well as 17 national laboratories and a wide range of energy research and development initiatives, including a major loan office that backed the launch of Tesla.


Several people close to the transition said advisers had struggled over whether the Energy Department should be led by someone steeped in its core mission, ensuring the safety of the country’s nuclear arsenal, or whether Biden should select someone with a vision for leading a clean-energy transformation.

Granholm, a longtime champion of renewable energy development, is widely credited during her two terms as Michigan governor with steering her state through a recession and working with the Obama administration on a 2009 bailout of the automobile industry that included clean energy investments and incentives for carmakers to invest in technologies like battery storage.


After her second term ended, in 2011, she became an advocate for renewable energy development. She has given a TED Talk on how investing in alternative energy resources can bolster state economies, something Biden has focused on in his coronavirus recovery plan.

Buttigieg, as Transportation Secretary, is expected to play a key role in setting tougher rules on auto emissions, the leading source of climate-warming pollution in the United States, to encourage electric vehicles and to provide funding for mass transit.

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