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Coal to stay important in U.S. energy mix -environment agency pick

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's pick to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told a Senate panel on Thursday that coal will remain important in the U.S. energy mix and that the EPA will be flexible in applying new pollution rules for coal-fired power plants.

Gina McCarthy, EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, was questioned by Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the agency's plans to roll out regulations soon to curb carbon emissions from power plants, blamed for contributing to global warming.

The Boston native is seeking confirmation by the Senate to replace Lisa Jackson, who resigned as EPA chief in February.

"Coal has been and will continue to be a significant source of energy in the United States, and I take my job seriously when developing those standards to provide flexibility in the rules," McCarthy said.

Republican Senators John Barrasso of Wyoming and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, among others, quizzed McCarthy about the economic impact of its rules on states that rely on coal as a primary energy source, and about her feelings toward job losses when coal plants close.

Barrasso said rules that prevent new coal plants from being built and would potentially shut down existing coal plants are already causing "chronic unemployment" in Wyoming.

"How many more times will an EPA administrator pull the regulatory lever that will allow another mining family to fall through the EPA's trap door of joblessness, poverty and poor health," he said.

McCarthy, who leads the unit that is developing some of the emissions regulations, said the agency will give companies leeway to make changes to comply with those standards.

In their opening remarks, Democrats highlighted McCarthy's bipartisan background, including her work as chief environmental regulator for 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.

The hearing featured several rounds of questions by Republican lawmakers about transparency of the agency and the way it uses email accounts. Republicans suggested agency officials had used personal email to mask some of the agency's controversial rulemaking deliberations.

"There has been a pattern of abuse using personal email accounts at EPA," said Louisiana Republican David Vitter. "It is clear that this practice in many cases was used to hide information from the public."

Before leaving the agency, Jackson came under fire from Republicans for using a government-assigned email address under a fake name, Richard Windsor.

Emails written by Jackson using that account may not have been captured by Freedom of Information Act requests or made it to the national archives, according to lawmakers and a public interest watchdog group.

McCarthy said the inspector general of the EPA is doing an internal audit of the agency's communications. "We are doing everything we can to improve the system at the EPA," she said.

But McCarthy told the panel that she does not use personal email for agency business, and quipped that "One good thing about being 58 is I don't know how to use" instant messaging.

McCarthy also told lawmakers she recognized the need for cooperation between federal regulators and state and local authorities.

"I have worked for states and local communities. I understand the stress they are under," McCarthy said.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who heads the committee, said McCarthy's nomination "should enjoy smooth sailing." No date has been set for a committee vote to forward her nomination to the full Senate.

If confirmed, McCarthy will be one of a team of officials dealing with divisive energy issues including climate change, hydraulic fracturing and determining the level of U.S. natural gas exports.

Ernest Moniz, Obama's nominee to lead the Department of Energy, had a confirmation hearing this week and Sally Jewell was confirmed on Wednesday as interior secretary.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Ros Krasny, Vicki Allen and Cynthia Osterman)

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