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Republican puts hold on EPA nominee; hearing set for Moniz

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 Valerie Volcovici and Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican senator from Missouri on Monday said he will place a hold on President Barack Obama's nominee to head up the Environmental Protection Agency until it moves forward with a project to repair a levee on the Mississippi River.

At the same time Senator Roy Blunt announced his move on the Gina McCarthy nomination as EPA administrator, a Senate energy committee hearing said it would consider nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz's nomination to head the U.S. Energy Department.

Blunt said his hold on McCarthy would continue until the Obama administration puts out a timeline for releasing a draft environmental impact statement for the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project in Missouri after missing a March 15 deadline.

Blunt and fellow Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, said disputes between the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service have held up the project.

"Once again, the government is arguing with the government while nothing is accomplished," Blunt said. "These agencies missed their own self-imposed deadline, which is entirely unacceptable."

The proposed project would install pumping stations and close a 1,500-foot gap in the Mississippi River levee system.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the EPA, has not yet set a date for McCarthy's hearing but congressional sources said it would take place some time in April, once McCarthy completes her paperwork.

A hearing can still take place, but unless Blunt lifts the hold, McCarthy would need 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to allow her nomination to move ahead.

Her confirmation hearing is likely to be contentious because Republicans and some Democrats from large coal-producing states have voiced concern about the agency's plans to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from both new and existing power plants.

Republicans on the same panel delayed McCarthy's 2009 confirmation to lead EPA's office of air and radiation because they said she failed to respond adequately to questions about how the agency would regulate carbon emissions.

Also on Monday, four coal-state Democrats, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, wrote to Obama asking the EPA to change its proposal to set an emissions standard for new power plants that would require any plant being built to be as clean as an efficient natural gas-fired plant.

Meanwhile, the Senate energy committee scheduled Moniz's hearing to lead the Department of Energy for April 9.

The Obama administration nominated Moniz, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earlier this month to replace departing Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Moniz, a former undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration, has received a lukewarm reception from some environmental groups who raised concerns he was too supportive of shale gas and nuclear energy.

A Republican committee aide said Moniz will likely face questions about liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.

The Energy Department is currently weighing the fate of more than a dozen projects looking to sell the country's surplus natural gas abroad.

A 2011 MIT study, chaired by Moniz, said the U.S. government should not place any barriers on gas exports or imports. But those skeptical of unlimited exports, including Senate energy committee chairman Ron Wyden, have raised concerns that exports could raise domestic gas prices and harm manufacturers.

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Valerie Volcovici; editing by Ros Krasny and Leslie Gevirtz)

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