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Obama's energy, environment picks face Senate grilling this week

U.S. President Barack Obama stands next to two new nominees for senior positions in his Administration while in the East Room of the White H
U.S. President Barack Obama stands next to two new nominees for senior positions in his Administration while in the East Room of the White H

By Ayesha Rascoe and Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's picks to lead energy and environmental policy face scrutiny this week as Senate panels try to tease out details of the administration's agenda, which had been maligned by Republicans and some Democrats during Obama's first four years.

Both nominees are Massachusetts natives with Washington experience. Nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz, Obama's nominee for energy secretary, will appear before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Tuesday.

On Thursday, Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency's top air quality official since 2009, will sit before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in her effort to succeed Lisa Jackson as EPA administrator.

After accusations of regulatory overreach at the EPA and scandals surrounding the failure of Energy Department-backed companies during Obama's first term, the pair - and McCarthy in particular - are likely to face tough questioning.

Republican Senator Roy Blunt placed a hold last month on McCarthy's nomination over a spat involving a levee project in his home state of Missouri.

Until that hold is lifted, McCarthy would need 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to be confirmed in the post, instead of a simple majority.

MONIZ' CONCERNS

Moniz, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is well known in Washington after working at the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration.

The nation's shale oil and gas bonanza will likely be front and center when he faces the Senate energy panel.

Committee chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon has made confronting the shale gas revolution a top priorities of the panel this year, holding a hearing on the issue earlier this year and scheduling a series of public forums for May.

Moniz will almost certainly face questions on his views of allowing companies to export large amounts of natural gas. More than a dozen companies have requests pending with the Energy Department for liquefied natural gas exports.

While Wyden has raised concerns about allowing unlimited exports, as a recent government-commissioned study supported, his Republican counterpart, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, is pushing for expediting the permit process.

Lawmakers will likely also press Moniz on how he plans to handle the department's controversial loan guarantee program for energy development. Murkowski has called for reforming the program after the high profile failure of solar panel maker Solyndra during predecessor Steven Chu's four-year tenure at the agency.

Although Moniz will not have the billions of dollars in stimulus funding to dole out as Chu did, he will oversee the current loan portfolio and decide how to proceed with the still active loan program that has offered conditional loan aid to two nuclear projects.

Moniz is also likely to face questions from Wyden about the U.S. government-led, decades-long cleanup effort at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a World War Two-era nuclear weapons site leaking radioactive waste in Washington state.

Wyden said last week that he will emphasize during the confirmation hearing that the Department of Energy "needs a viable plan to clean up" the site, which includes millions of cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris and the construction of a special treatment plant to immobilize waste.

EPA CLIMATE AGENDA ON TRIAL

McCarthy, meanwhile, could be fully in the firing line at her confirmation hearing. Republicans on the committee have been pressing the nominee to disclose personal and agency emails about its plans to regulate carbon emissions.

Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, the lead Republican on the panel, requested information from McCarthy as soon as her name was floated for the EPA's top job.

Vitter has said the EPA is needlessly opaque about its plans to regulate carbon emissions from new and existing power plants, and of secretly trying to impose a national carbon tax.

"A lot of my questions will focus on openness and transparency - how is she going to change the abysmal record we have had so far with the Obama EPA," Vitter said in a radio interview last week.

Vitter also said McCarthy and the EPA have worked with left-leaning environmental groups on crafting stringent carbon regulations and hiding this from Congress.

He sent a letter to McCarthy in March to ask her about the intent of the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law to threaten litigation as a way to "force a cap-and-trade system on the transportation fuels sector" - a process known as "sue and settle."

"Such a process is wholly unacceptable, especially considering the administration's pattern of excluding states and economically impacted individuals and businesses from important rule-making decisions," Vitter wrote.

Analysts said the candidates have enough experience with the rough-and-tumble world of politics to win confirmation and set about implementing Obama's vision of an "all of the above" energy strategy that address climate change at a time of tight budgets and a polarized Congress.

"We're in a time where you need someone ... that really knows how to navigate Washington because there are a lot of things that are changing very quickly," said Ken Medlock, an energy fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston. "If you put someone in there that's a novice, then they're going to get eaten alive," Medlock said.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Ayesha Rascoe; editing by Ros Krasny and Jackie Frank)

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