By Alexander C. Kaufman
President-elect Joe Biden is set to name Michael Regan as his pick for the nation’s 16th administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, putting North Carolina’s top pollution regulator in charge of a research and rule-making body thrust into turmoil, a source with knowledge of the pick told HuffPost.
If confirmed, Regan, 44, would be the first Black man to run the EPA. He would take over an agency in upheaval following four years of political meddling under a Trump administration that has installed fossil fuel lobbyists and allies in top positions and driven out legions of career scientists and regulators.
His first few months will focus largely on triage as the new Biden administration halts controversial rules, reverses the federal position in environmentalists’ lawsuits challenging Trump-era policies, and prioritizes which regulations to take on first.
Yet he’ll shape the White House’s efforts to deploy clean energy at a record pace and close the nation’s racial and class gap on who breathes dirtier air and drinks less safe water. In a White House stacked with climate experts, Regan will bring expertise in air pollution — an issue that, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to obscure the damages to public health, is increasingly understood worldwide as a deadly and urgent threat beyond its implications for climate change.
He’ll lead in a historic moment as the United States seizes on a growing threat from severe storms, droughts and wildfires to transform the federal government in ways that, if successful, will set humanity on a path toward averting planetary catastrophe in the decades to come. Unlike past administrators, he’ll serve alongside a Cabinet tasked with making climate change a priority across agencies. His colleagues could include Obama-era EPA chief Gina McCarthy as a powerful new domestic climate czar and former Secretary of State John Kerry as the face of American climate diplomacy.
Regan, who until now has had little name recognition outside his home state, beat out experienced contenders for the job. In recent days, he overtook California Air Resources Board chief Mary Nichols, a powerful figure who had at one point been considered the front-runner, after activists accused her of failing to address pollution in Black and Latino communities.
The Goldsboro, North Carolina, native’s own record stretches back nearly two decades.
He worked on the EPA’s air quality and energy programs in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations before joining the Environmental Defense Fund, where he led the politically moderate advocacy group’s efforts to reduce the effects of climate change and air pollution. In 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) tapped him to lead the Department of Environmental Quality, overseeing a roughly $80 million budget.
“With Michael Regan, President-elect Biden continues adding to his historically qualified and diverse Cabinet, replacing a fossil fuel industry puppet with an experienced EPA air quality scientist, just as Gov. Cooper did when he put Regan in charge of our DEQ four years ago,” Dan Crawford, the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters’ director of governmental relations, said in a statement. “Regan has gone to bat for North Carolinians against polluters, and now the rest of the country will get to benefit from his leadership. North Carolina’s loss will be America’s gain.”
Regan’s tenure as North Carolina’s chief environmental regulator is mixed.
He created the Clean Energy Plan, requiring the state’s utilities to slash their output of planet-heating gases 70% below 2005 levels by 2030, and it set a goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
In January, he brokered a legal settlement with utility giant Duke Energy to excavate nearly 80 million tons of coal ash, the largest cleanup in U.S. history of the toxic residue that often pollutes water sources and soil.
In August, Regan rejected a key water permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a controversial natural gas conduit, calling it “an unnecessary project that poses unnecessary risks to our environment.”
“He’s an incredibly talented young man,” James Johnson, the chairman of the environmental justice advisory board Regan created at the department in 2018, told North Carolina’s News & Observer. “He understands and respects the science behind climate change. He’s a courageous listener, not just to things he believes. He listens in a balanced way and it enables him to make informed decisions. He’s not listening just to refute, he’s listening to learn and understand alternative perspectives.”
But the Mountain Valley decision came two years after he approved permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a separate gas conduit that drew fierce opposition from faith groups, environmentalists and community activists, particularly in Black neighborhoods. He greenlighted construction of a gas facility in the heart of Lumbee territory, the largest indigenous tribe east of the Mississippi, without properly consulting tribal leaders.
Under his leadership, the state agency “approved every permit application from the wood pellet industry in North Carolina despite the industry’s massive deforestation problems and failed to resolve critical environmental issues related to hog waste disposal,” according to a blog post from the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, a watchdog group.
“Regan has failed to listen to the interests of North Carolinians,” the campaign arm of the national environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth wrote in a tweet linking to the blog post. “He should not lead EPA.”
Advocates in the state described Regan as generally reluctant to take aggressive stances against influential industries, particularly pork and poultry producers, that enjoy strong support among state lawmakers who routinely threaten to cut the Department of Environmental Quality’s funding. As it stands, the agency’s budget shrank 34% from 2008 to 2018, and it lost 376 staff positions, research from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project found earlier this year. And for his first two years, Republicans held a veto-proof majority in the legislature.
“He’s a good person, and I think he has the heart to do right by communities and do right by the environment in this state,” Naeema Muhammad, the organizing co-director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, said by phone. “But his hands have been tied up by our legislature.”
A petition she shared, which was still gaining signatures from other activists in North Carolina as of Wednesday night, pushed back against criticisms of Regan, stating: “We the undersigned hope to convey our belief that Secretary Regan would be an immensely qualified nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. We believe that he would lead it with dignity and is well positioned to help guide it into a critically important era after several years of mismanagement.”
Other names floated for the job included Heather McTeer Toney, a former southeast regional administrator under President Barack Obama who now leads the nonprofit Moms Clean Air Force; Richard Revesz, a New York University law professor and director of the school’s Institute for Policy Integrity; and Mustafa Santiago Ali, a 24-year veteran of the agency who resigned in 2017.
Until this week, Biden looked poised to name Nichols to the job.
“It’s hers to lose,” one source with knowledge of the transition team’s thinking told HuffPost earlier this month.
But lose she did, after activists charged the 75-year-old regulator with a “bleak” record on environmental justice, arguing her embrace of a cap-and-trade system to regulate emissions in California privileged polluters and hurt Black and Latino communities. That runs counter to the findings of a major study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which this year concluded that California’s cap-and-trade system decreased local pollution in disadvantaged communities. As The New York Times reported, the accusations tanked Nichols’ candidacy.
Another factor may have been the racial makeup of Biden’s other nominees for key climate and environment positions. His first picks were Kerry and McCarthy, followed by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm as his energy secretary, all of whom are white. On Wednesday, Biden signaled plans to nominate Brenda Mallory, an experienced environmental lawyer and a Black woman who works as the Southern Environmental Law Center’s regulatory affairs chief, to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Yet the council is widely seen as a sleepier and less influential post in the Cabinet. That made Gen. Lloyd Austin III, Biden’s pick for defense secretary, the most notable Black male agency chief chosen so far in a year where the nation faced a reckoning over racism, particularly the way nonwhite Americans suffer greater exposure to pollution than their white compatriots.
“No. 1, his being a Black man and No. 2, his being from eastern North Carolina… means he has a certain sensitivity that’s not inherently there,” Muhammad said of Regan.
Yet righting historic wrongs in minority communities that breathe disproportionately deadlier air compared to the American average will be just one facet of the job.
Few federal agencies endured more turbulence under President Donald Trump than the EPA.
Soon after taking office, Trump nominated Scott Pruitt, the climate change-denying Oklahoma attorney general who led state lawsuits against the EPA’s power plant regulations, to lead the agency. When Pruitt resigned amid mounting scandals in July 2018, Trump tapped Andrew Wheeler, who had months earlier served as a lobbyist for a major coal baron and financier of climate misinformation groups, to replace him.
The Trump administration successfully loosened or rescinded 84 environmental regulations as of late November, according to The New York Times’ tally, and has started the process of rolling back another 20.
Some of the administration’s highest-profile changes to rules on water pollution, tailpipe emissions and the research regulators can consider proved so controversial and scientifically unsound that the president’s own hand-picked science advisers publicly criticized the agency’s “significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis” and “neglect” of “established science.”
That hasn’t slowed the Trump EPA’s efforts to erect more roadblocks for its successors. Ahead of Biden’s inauguration next month, Wheeler plans to finalize three rules restricting the medical research EPA regulators can cite in future rule-making, inviting polluters to bombard agency lawyers with legal challenges and downgrading the public health benefits of clean air rules.
“It’s insidious,” Carol Browner, the Clinton-era EPA administrator and the longest-serving occupant of the role in history, recently told HuffPost. “Prior Republican administrations did some good things. They moved slowly, and they were less ambitious than we were. It was benign neglect. That’s not what’s going on here.”