By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate confirmed Gina McCarthy on Thursday to head the Environmental Protection Agency, a long-awaited move that could help President Barack Obama revive his plans to fight climate change.
The Senate voted 59 to 40 for McCarthy, who oversaw rules on mercury and soot pollution from power plants in her prior job as the EPA's top air official, a position she held since 2009.
Obama nominated McCarthy in early March, but her confirmation was held up by a partisan battle over his nominees for other positions, and by broader opposition to the EPA from some Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Obama said in a statement that he looks forward to working with McCarthy in her new role as "we work to slow the effects of climate change and leave a cleaner environment for future generations".
A Boston native with a quick wit, McCarthy has long worked at state and federal levels to regulate emissions, winning the confidence of many officials leading heavy industries, such as power plants and manufacturers.
She has also worked for several Republican governors, including 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he headed Massachusetts.
The experiences made McCarthy a solid choice for the task of balancing coal, natural gas, and political interests in implementing the new rules on greenhouse gas emissions Obama wants, analysts say. Any EPA rules on emissions face legal challenges.
The EPA is first expected to finalize carbon rules on new power plants and then to propose rules on existing ones. Thousands of existing power plants account for about a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The head of an industry group of power generators cautiously welcomed McCarthy's confirmation. "Gina has a keen understanding of the challenges facing our industry, and we have had a long and constructive relationship," Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, said in a statement.
Still lawmakers from big energy producing states expressed opposition to Obama's climate plans. Senators from big coal-producing states, including John Barrasso of Wyoming, a Republican, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, have said regulations targeting coal-fired power plants will strangle the economy and kill jobs.
After leading a fight against McCarthy over EPA transparency issues, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said last week he would not block a vote on her appointment.
All three senators voted against McCarthy on Thursday, Manchin was the only Democrat in the chamber to do so.
Vitter said the nominee had been part of a "war on coal" and had helped lead a "methodical march against affordable, reliable energy."
Manchin said he was not against McCarthy personally, but against the EPA's "regulatory rampage."
The Senate killed a wide-ranging climate bill early in Obama's first term. Continuing opposition in Congress on fighting climate change has pushed Obama to use executive actions, including EPA regulations, to tackle the issue that is one of his top priorities.
Obama wants the climate rules on existing power plants to be finalized by June 2015.
McCarthy will also oversee rules on hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas, auto emissions, and the use of biofuels. Her agency is expected to play a role later this year or early next in working with the State Department to determine whether the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil sands petroleum to refineries along the Gulf Coast, is in the national interest. The State Department will make the final decision.
McCarthy's confirmation rounds out Obama's environment and energy team. Ernest Moniz, a former physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was confirmed in May to head the Energy Department, and Sally Jewell, a former outdoor goods executive, was confirmed in April to head the Interior Department.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Ros Krasny, Eric Beech and Tim Dobbyn)