Obama nominates 3 to Cabinet-level post

President Barack Obama passed over Jim Bernhard, founder of The Shaw Group Inc., of Baton Rouge, on Monday in selecting MIT nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz as his new energy secretary nominee.

Obama also nominated Gina McCarthy, a 25-year veteran of environmental policy, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, which drew quick concerns from Sen. David Vitter, R-La. And the president also tapped Wal-Mart’s Sylvia Mathews Burwell to head the budget office.

McCarthy, who currently heads the EPA’s air and radiation office, has worked for Republicans and Democrats including Obama’s presidential rival, Republican Mitt Romney, who tapped her to help draft state plans for curbing the pollution linked to global warning. A Boston native, the 58-year-old McCarthy has led the EPA’s air pollution division since 2009, ushering in a host of new rules targeting air pollution from power plants, automobiles, and oil and gas production.

Vitter, who is the ranking GOP member of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, frequently criticized former EPA chief Lisa Jackson and Obama’s environmental policies and industry regulation. In recent years, Vitter has sought more information on the EPA’s scientific methods for developing its “regulatory agenda.”

“The EPA is in desperate need of a leader who will stop ignoring congressional information requests, hiding emails and more from the public, and relying on flawed science,” Vitter said in an email response to questions on Monday. “McCarthy has been directly involved in much of that, but I hope she can reverse those practices with Lisa Jackson’s departure. I look forward to hearing answers from her on a number of key issues.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., also said in an email response that she has questions: “While her credentials seem impressive, I have many questions about how Gina McCarthy plans to balance the needs of our important energy, petrochemical, manufacturing and agricultural industries with the need for a healthy environment.”

McCarthy has orchestrated many of the agency’s most controversial new rules, such as placing the first-ever limits on greenhouse gases on newly built power plants and a long-overdue standard to control toxic mercury pollution from burning coal for electricity. On her plate, should she be confirmed by the Senate, will be even more rules — from lowering sulfur emissions from gasoline to controlling global warming pollution from the older coal-fired power plants.

“As assistant EPA administrator, Gina has focused on practical, cost-effective ways to keep our air clean and our economy growing. She’s earned a reputation as a straight shooter. She welcomes different points of views. I’m confident that she’s going to do an outstanding job leading the EPA,” Obama said.

Former Obama climate adviser and Clinton EPA administrator Carol Browner said McCarthy has “a good understanding what the president needs to do, wants to do on climate change, which is to find the sweet spot for everyone, from the environmentalists to the states to companies.”

But conservatives immediately stressed her role in what they view as destructive policies from EPA.

“McCarthy will continue the regulatory attack on oil, coal and natural gas with the result that Americans will experience increasing energy costs and high unemployment rates,” said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a conservative think tank that receives some support from the fossil fuel industry.

Earlier this year, Bernhard, a Baton Rouge energy executive, had said that he was up for the energy secretary’s job and was being considered by the White House. Bernhard received support from Democrats and Republicans alike in Louisiana. Obama instead chose Moniz.

Bernhard is selling Shaw to Texas-based CB&I for more than $3 billion.

Moniz would replace outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

“Ernie (Moniz) knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy while still taking care of our air, our water and our climate,” Obama said Monday. “And so I could not be more pleased to have Ernie join us.”

Moniz, 68, was a former Energy Department undersecretary under Clinton. He’s advised Obama on numerous energy topics, including how to handle the country’s nuclear waste and the natural gas produced by the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing.

Associated Press writers Dina Cappiello, Matthew Daly and Julie Pace contributed to this report.