Biden’s EPA nominee vows ‘urgency’ on climate change

Source: By Brady Dennis, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Michael S. Regan, who would be the first Black man to serve as EPA administrator, promised to seek consensus as he pursues an ambitious agenda.

Michael S. Regan would become the first Black man to head the Environmental Protection Agency in its 50-year history, working in an administration that has pledged to address environmental racism.

Michael S. Regan, President Biden’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, told lawmakers Wednesday that he would “restore” science and transparency at the agency, focus on marginalized communities and move “with a sense of urgency” to combat climate change.

Facing a Senate panel where half of the members are Republicans wary of the EPA’s authority and its reach into much of American life, Regan appealed to a collective sense of duty.

“We all have a stake in the health of our environment, the strength of our economy, the well-being of our communities, and the legacy we will leave the next generation in the form of our nation’s natural resources,” Regan told members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during his confirmation hearing.

The 44-year-old Regan began his career at the EPA more than two decades ago and currently heads the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. If confirmed, he would become the first Black man to lead the EPA in its half century of existence, working in an administration that has pledged to address the unequal burden of pollution carried by communities of color.

He also would step into a high-profile job with a pair of daunting missions: to reverse the aggressive dismantling of environmental safeguards during the Trump years, and to play a central role in translating Biden’s promise to combat climate change into real-world policies.

Over the past four years, the Trump administration took aim at more than 200environmental protections and rules, according to a Washington Post analysis — a relentless deregulatory agenda included scaling back automobile fuel-efficiency standards and emissions limits for coal-burning plants, as well as easing Obama-era limits on everything from drilling on public lands to methane released from new oil and gas wells.

Under Trump, the EPA shrank by hundreds of employees, downplayed the science around climate change and the intensifying risks it poses to the United States, and pursued policies aimed at bolstering the fossil fuel industry.

Biden has made climate change a pillar of his young administration. He rejoined the Paris climate accord, halted the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and began the process overturning scores of environmental actions taken by Trump. Many of those will require action by the EPA.

But even as the new White House moves decisively and activists clamor for even more far-reaching, swift efforts, Regan — in keeping with his track record and reputation in North Carolina — positioned himself Wednesday as more a consensus seeker than crusader.

“Throughout my career, I’ve learned that if you want to address complex challenges, you must first be able to see them from all sides, and you must be willing to put yourself in other people’s shoes,” Regan said, adding that he would pursue “pragmatic” solutions and that “we can’t simply regulate ourselves out of every problem we face.” He vowed to “establish clear, consistent rules of the road” for businesses the EPA oversees.

It’s an approach that has won Regan broad respect across party lines in North Carolina, and also criticism from environmentalists who wanted him to act more aggressively, since he took over as secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality in 2017.

During his tenure, he oversaw a tough multibillion-dollar settlement over the cleanup of coal waste storage facilities with Duke Energy, established an environmental justice advisory board and reached across the political divide to work with the state’s Republican legislature — an approach that engendered goodwill even from those who disagreed with his policies.

In another high-profile environmental case, the state ordered the chemical company Chemours to virtually eliminate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of man-made chemicals, from seeping into the Cape Fear River. The chemicals — used in cookware, stain repellent and other products — have been linked to harmful health effects, including low infant birth weights and thyroid hormone disruption.

Regan, who graduated from North Carolina A&T University and earned a master’s at George Washington University, also advised Gov. Roy Cooper (D) on the state’s plans to mitigate climate change.

His actions have at times frustrated environmental advocates, some of whom say he could have been tougher on polluting industries, even as they describe him as honest and well-intentioned.

Ryke Longest, founding director of the Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, told The Post in December that Regan didn’t do enough to block the construction of two natural gas pipelines or to clean up toxic conditions at the North Carolina’s largest hog farms. The pipelines would “have adverse impacts on low-income and indigenous communities” and should have been opposed on environmental justice grounds, he said.

At the same time, Longest and others have credited Regan with restoring morale at the state agency after the turbulent tenure of his predecessor, whom critics accused of weakening the department and giving more favorable treatment to polluting industries.

Environmental groups have largely rallied around Regan’s nomination, arguing that he has the right background and skills to pursue meaningful action to cut the nation’s emissions, boost clean energy jobs and bring about cleaner air and water for low-income and minority communities that historically have suffered the most from pollution.

“As our nation struggles with a historic pandemic, environmental injustices and climate impacts, we need visionary environmental leaders like Michael Regan now more than ever,” Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.

Regan oversees about 1,600 employees and seven regional offices across North Carolina. At the EPA, he would inherit an agency nearly 10 times that size, and one that has repeatedly found itself in the political crosshairs in recent years.

Regan arrived at EPA in the late 1990s and served for more than a decade under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, working on air quality and energy issues. He eventually returned to his native North Carolina as southeast regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, where he focused on lessening the impacts of climate change on the region and on improving air quality in polluted communities before heading into state government.

But on Wednesday, Regan said that it was during his childhood in eastern North Carolina — where he grew up hunting and fishing with his father and grandfather, but also suffered from asthma in an area with a legacy of toxic pollution — that he began to grasp the importance of environmental protection.

“Preserving our natural resources isn’t something to balance with economic growth,” he said. “It’s one of the keys to economic growth, along with protecting public health and our way of life.”