Biden Picks Michael Regan, North Carolina Environment Chief, to Head EPA
Posted December 17, 2020 9:44 p.m. EST
Updated December 17, 2020 9:48 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden has selected Michael S. Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Biden’s transition team announced Thursday. The decision elevates for the first time a Black man to lead the powerful department, which is central to achieving the new administration’s climate change agenda.
Regan was not the president-elect’s first choice, and he lacks some of the political star power of Biden’s other Cabinet picks. But he will be on the front lines of the incoming administration’s effort to undo one of President Donald Trump’s most sprawling transformations of the federal government: the unraveling of a half-century of pollution and climate regulations, and the diminishment of the science that underpinned them.
“He faces a massive reconstruction and rebuilding operation,” said Jody Freeman, a Harvard University law professor who served as White House counselor for energy and climate change in the Obama administration.
Regan “has to go in and restore the morale of the career staff,” she said. “He has to make it clear that science and integrity are back. He’s got a raft of rules that he’s got to rescind and replace and strengthen.”
And, Freeman added, “He’s got to do this under some time pressure.”
The decision rounded out Biden’s emerging climate team, which will be led by two political heavyweights: Gina McCarthy, who served as President Barack Obama’s EPA chief, will lead a new White House Office of Climate Policy to coordinate domestic efforts, and John Kerry, the former secretary of state, will be Biden’s international climate envoy.
Biden also chose Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico to lead the Department of Interior. She would be the first Native American to lead the department and is expected to curtail the oil and gas leasing on federal lands that Trump has overseen. Brenda Mallory, an experienced former federal lawyer, will lead the Council on Environmental Quality.
But no agency will be more fundamental to the politically sensitive work of actually reducing the country’s planet-warming emissions than the EPA.
Biden has vowed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and, along the way, eliminate fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035. With a partisan, deadlocked Congress, those tasks will fall almost entirely to the EPA.
The new administrator will need to first eliminate barriers that the Trump administration erected to make new rules difficult to enact, and then to expand Obama-era efforts to curb greenhouse gases from power plants, automobiles and oil and gas sites.
Environmental activists in North Carolina praised Regan’s work in the state. He is credited with reaching the largest coal-ash cleanup settlement in the country and for ordering chemical company Chemours, a former DuPont subsidy, to take fresh steps to clean up the toxic substances known as PFAS from the Cape Fear River.
Such contaminants have been called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and can build up in human bodies.
Regan also has been a key figure in helping Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, carry out his pledge to achieve carbon neutrality in North Carolina by 2050, and oversees the state’s climate change interagency council, a working group of state agencies set up to meet that goal. In 2018 he created an environmental justice and equity board at the state’s environmental agency.
“He has navigated well through really tough terrain,” said Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “North Carolina is as tough a place as any to uphold environmental laws in the face of opposition from utilities, the farm lobby, and hostile legislators.”
But Regan also has faced criticism, including from groups that focus on environmental justice, who have accused him of not standing up enough to fossil fuel and agricultural interests.
Under Regan, the state agency granted a water quality certification to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have carried natural gas across the Appalachian Trail. This year, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy announced they had canceled plans for the project in the face of environmental opposition.
Biden’s transition declined to comment. But Regan has won praise from other environmental groups for giving poor and minority communities a larger voice in the state’s decision-making.
A longtime air quality specialist at the EPA under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, Regan later worked for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group. In 2017, after defeating Pat McCrory, the Republican incumbent, Cooper appointed Regan to lead North Carolina’s environmental agency.
There, he replaced Donald R. van der Vaart, an ally of Trump who has questioned the established science of climate change and fought Obama-era rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and championed a pro-business agenda of deregulation in North Carolina.
Supporters of Regan said he improved low morale and emphasized the role of science at the department. Several called it an obvious parallel to what he would be expected to do at the EPA where Andrew Wheeler, Trump’s administrator and a former coal lobbyist, has discouraged the agency from working on climate change, and where independent auditors have identified a “culture at the top” of political interference in science.
Van der Vaart disputed the assertion that morale at the state agency had declined under his leadership.
Mike Sommers, chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, said in a statement that the oil industry was “ready to work” with Regan. But he added, “We will also be watching closely to ensure that the incoming administration keeps President-elect Biden’s campaign promises to the energy workforce and protects the millions of jobs supported by our industry.” The selection of Regan is in many ways a conventional choice. Democratic presidents have a history of poaching EPA leaders from state environmental agencies. Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson, who both ran the agency under Obama, had been the heads of state environmental agencies; McCarthy in Connecticut and Jackson in New Jersey.
Jackson was the first Black person to lead the EPA.
Regan only emerged as a leading contender Sunday. For weeks before, it appeared that Mary D. Nichols, California’s air quality regulator, had a lock on the EPA job.
Nichols, who has worked on clean air and climate change policy since 1979, is arguably the most experienced climate change official in the country. She worked as the EPA’s top clean air official during the Clinton administration. During the Obama administration, it was Nichols who helped broker a deal with the federal government and the nation’s largest automakers, which took California’s stringent regulations on planet-warming auto emissions and applied them nationwide.
Trump rolled back those rules, but Biden hopes to reinstate them as one of his first major actions on climate change — and had seen Nichols as the obvious person to do that.
Nichols had been expected to face fierce opposition from Republicans, something for which the Biden team was prepared. But, several people close to the Biden transition said, the president-elect was caught off guard by intense criticism of Nichols from liberals who argued that the cap-and-trade policies she helped design for California had allowed industry to continue to pollute in a way that disproportionately harms poor communities and communities of color.
This month, a group of more than 70 environmental justice groups wrote to the Biden transition charging that Nichols had a “bleak track record in addressing environmental racism.”
The letter apparently resonated. One of Biden’s key campaign pledges was a promise to address environmental justice, highlighting the need to protect poor and minority communities that are exposed to more pollution than rich communities.