By Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Jennifer Epstein
President-elect Joe Biden is nominating Michael Regan to lead the EPA, putting a North Carolina environmental regulator in line to chart national policy on combating climate change and pollution, according to people familiar with the matter.
If confirmed, Regan would become the first Black man to be Environmental Protection Agency administrator, taking the helm of an agency at which he worked for nearly a decade under two presidents.
Regan’s long history focused on regulating air pollution and combating climate change are central to some of Biden’s top environmental policies. The next EPA chief is expected to develop new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming while reversing some of President Donald Trump’s moves that undercut limits on pollution.
“Regan will take the EPA’s helm at perhaps the most critical moment in the agency’s history, and he has to do much more than just mop up the toxic mess left by Trump,” Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said by email. “Regan has to move with lightning speed to launch bold new efforts to combat the climate crisis, save people and wildlife from pollution and fully protect the air we breathe and the water we drink.”
Since January 2017, Regan has focused on similar issues as the secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. For roughly eight years before that, he helped drive the Environmental Defense Fund’s work on climate change and air quality and briefly led his own firm.
In North Carolina, Regan has guided initiatives to combat environmental inequities and climate change, and he’s been at the center of disputes over new gas pipelines and pollution cleanup that are playing out nationwide.
In 2018, he established an environmental justice and equity board to elevate the voices of the underserved, challenging the group to “work for inclusion, demand equity and celebrate the diversity” of North Carolina residents.
He also played a central role in shaping an executive order North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper issued in October 2018 to promote renewable energy, spur zero-emission vehicles and pare the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 40% from 2005 levels by 2025.
Regan’s tenure has put him at the center of major fights in North Carolina over the construction of new natural gas infrastructure and the cleanup of chemicals, including coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity.
Under Regan, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality blocked a certification critical to constructing an extension of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in August
“North Carolina’s clean energy future is not dependent on adding more natural gas infrastructure,” Regan said at the time. “We should invest in clean, renewable energy sources and the economic benefits of energy innovation.”
Separately, Regan’s agency issued a water quality certification for the Atlantic Coast pipeline, a decision that angered some activists and residents close to the now-abandoned project.
Regan also negotiated a settlement with Duke Energy Corp. over its coal ash cleanup efforts that won praise from environmentalists, and ordered excavation of the utility’s unlined storage pits in 2019. In August, Regan’s department ordered Chemours Co. to take steps to prevent contamination of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- the so-called “forever chemicals” -- from a facility in Fayetteville.
Amy Adams, a veteran of the Department of Environmental Quality who now is a senior program manager at the regional environmental group Appalachian Voices, said Regan helped turn the agency around.
“He inherited a very fractured agency,” Adams said. “He was able to rebuild that and establish trust with stakeholders.”
Former colleagues and environmental lawyers have praised Regan’s openness to divergent points of view.
“He’s not bound by preconceived notions,” said Bracewell LLP partner Scott Segal. “Regan understands that tough environmental goals tempered with economic and technological reality produce the best approach on everything from climate change to more local problems.”
Conservationists heralded Regan’s selection, which comes alongside Biden’s earlier decisions to tap former EPA chief Gina McCarthy as a top White House climate adviser, environmental lawyer Brenda Mallory as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm as energy secretary.
“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,” said Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations with the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters. “Regan has gone to bat for North Carolinians against polluters, and now the rest of the country will get to benefit from his leadership.”
Environmentalists say Biden’s EPA administrator will need to work aggressively to bolster scientific integrity and morale at the agency, both of which have been damaged under Trump.
The goal now is to “focus on re-instituting science-based policy making, re-empowering the scientists, the public health experts and the communities developing public health protections that create a healthy environment and economy,” while “eliminating the influence of industry over EPA,” former administrator Carol Browner said in a Nov. 25 call marking the EPA’s 50th anniversary.
Regan, a native of Goldsboro, North Carolina, has a bachelor’s degree in earth and environmental science from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and a master’s in public administration from George Washington University.