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Obama picks dynamic duo to push forward green priorities

President Barack Obama pauses in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 4, 2013, where he announced will nominate, from left; MIT physics professor Ernest Moniz for Energy Secretary; Gina McCarthy to head the EPA; and Walmart Foundation President Sylvia Mathews Burwell to head the Budget Office.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

As Canada continues to herald its collaboration with the United States on climate and energy, U.S. President Barack Obama has announced his picks to helm the powerful Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department – two new faces who will now have indirect sway over Canadian policy.

Mr. Obama tapped his so-called green quarterback, Gina McCarthy, to become head of the EPA on Monday. The pick is a promotion for Ms. McCarthy, a top agency official who's been a fierce champion for tougher carbon emissions standards for years.

Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is Mr. Obama's pick as energy secretary. Mr. Obama praised him as a "brilliant scientist" who knows the United States can produce more energy while protecting the climate and the environment.

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"So these two … they're going to be making sure that we're investing in American energy, that we're doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change, that we're going to be creating jobs and economic opportunity," the President said in the East Room of the White House. "They are going to be a great team."

He urged the Senate to confirm both picks as soon as possible.

The vast majority of Mr. Obama's second-term agenda on climate change and energy will be achieved through Ms. McCartney's agency, not Congress.

Ms. McCarthy's nomination, in particular, has delighted environmentalists, who are still reeling from the U.S. State Department's near-blessing of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline last week in its latest environmental assessment of the project.

The EPA is also one of several federal agencies advising the Obama administration on the $7.6-billion pipeline, a project that would carry millions of barrels of bitumen a week from Alberta's carbon-intensive oilsands to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The agency was critical of the State Department's previous ecological analysis of the project, viewed by the environmental movement as a symbol of "dirty oil."

"A lot of voices still have to weigh in on the pipeline, and the EPA has a role to play in that," Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a conference call of environmentalists on Monday who uniformly expressed elation over Ms. McCarthy's nomination. "We expect the EPA's voice to be elevated on Keystone moving forward."

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Some of Keystone XL's most bitter foes in the U.S. capital also praised Ms. McCarthy's nomination. "The President could not have picked a more qualified person to lead EPA at this critical time," California Senator Barbara Boxer said in a statement.

Andrew Weaver, a Canadian climate change expert, was equally pleased by Ms. McCarthy's nomination given the Canadian government is facing mounting pressure, even from the oil industry, to introduce federal climate change regulations.

"It's fantastic because Canada has shown no leadership at all on this portfolio – we've been deal-breakers, not deal-makers," said Mr. Weaver, a University of Victoria climate modeller who's been a lead author on two reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"And now we're starting to see real leadership, at last, from the U.S. and the Obama administration on climate change – including this nomination – and so the more Obama does, the more that Canada has to do. He's going to drag Canada kicking and screaming into dealing with climate change."

Ms. McCarthy, 58, spent much of Mr .Obama's first term writing and rolling out federal power-plant emissions regulations. Her determination to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions angered Republican lawmakers from coal-rich states, suggesting her appointment won't be a cakewalk.

Now Ms. McCarthy is expected to oversee the drafting and implementation of similar rules for existing power plants.

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There have been growing concerns among Keystone proponents in the U.S. capital that Mr. Obama may insist on something in return for approving the pipeline, including a carbon levy imposed at the border. That could significantly increase the costs of importing oilsands bitumen into the United States.

Some observers wondered, however, if tougher emissions standards for existing power plants could provide the Obama administration with some cover if it decides to approve Keystone.

Chris Damas, a Canadian energy sector investment analyst for BCMI, pointed out that the new rules could be a "show to offset a KXL thumb's up."

Cracking down on coal plant emissions stateside, however, also spells trouble for Canada if it's serious about its oft-stated intentions to fall in step with American federal regulations, said Mr. Weaver, who pointed out that coal plants are still up and running in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia.

"We're even still seeing new coal plants being proposed in those provinces," he said. "To say that we're a leader in coal is absolutely not true."

Last week, Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent said Canada will need heavy-duty vehicles to meet stricter fuel standards beginning with next year's models, taking pains to stress Ottawa's co-operation with the Obama administration. Mr. Kent's office didn't reply to a request for comment Monday on Ms. McCarthy's nomination.

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