Biden picks top North Carolina environmental official to run EPA

Source: By Brady Dennis, Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, December 17, 2020

Michael Regan has forged a multibillion-dollar cleanup of coal ash and worked with the state’s GOP legislature

Michael S. Regan has been secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality since Jan. 3, 2017. He would become the first Black man to run the Environmental Protection Agency.

President-elect Joe Biden will choose to nominate Michael S. Regan, who heads the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, as the next Environmental Protection Agency administrator, according to two individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it has not yet been formally announced.

He would play a central role in realizing Biden’s promises to combat climate change, embrace green energy and address environmental racism. As administrator of the EPA, he would be responsible for crafting fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s cars and trucks, overseeing emissions from power plants and oil and gas facilities, and cleaning up the country’s most polluted sites.

In the past four years, the Trump administration has reversed or weakened more than 130 environmental protections and regulations, according to a Washington Post analysis, with plans to target nearly a dozen more by mid-January. Those rollbacks include scaling back automobile fuel-efficiency standards and emissions limits for coal-burning plants, as well as lifting Obama-era limits on methane released from new oil and gas wells.

Many senior rank-and-file EPA employees clashed with Trump’s political appointees and a number retired rather than continue working at the agency. There are now 14,222 full- and part-time permanent employees at the EPA, according to the agency, nearly 300 fewer than when President Trump took office.

Regan has served as North Carolina’s top environmental official since early 2017, when Gov. Roy Cooper (D) named him to his role. During that time, he forged a tough multibillion-dollar settlement over a coal ash cleanup with Duke Energy, established an environmental justice advisory board and reached across the political divide to work with the state’s Republican legislature.

“Right away he prioritized climate change, environmental justice and coal ash cleanup,” said Cassie Gavin, the Sierra Club’s director of government relations for North Carolina.

That deal — along with his work with disadvantaged communities — helped win him the post, according to an individual familiar with the transition team’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.

“Regan realizes that America’s environmental laws and policies must, first and foremost, protect the most vulnerable,” the individual said. “Growing up with asthma in eastern North Carolina, Regan saw toxic pollution, agricultural waste and environmental destruction being concentrated near communities of color and low-income communities.”

Gavin credits Regan with getting the state and Duke Energy to settle their long-running dispute over cleaning up coal ash ponds, a source of toxic water and air contamination. The state won an agreement to move some of the ash stored in ponds near aging coal-fired power plants to off-site landfills, while some will be put in lined landfills on site, a Duke preference. Estimated at $4 billion to $8 billion, it is the most costly coal ash cleanup plan in the nation.

“He was very tough on Duke,” said a former utility executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his business relationships.

In another high-profile case under Regan, North Carolina 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 several other products — have been linked to deleterious health effects, including low infant birth weights, immune system problems, thyroid hormone disruption and, in some cases, cancer.

“We have concerns about how DEQ as an agency has failed to address PFAS issues in the Haw River watershed under his leadership,” Emily Sutton, the Haw Riverkeeper, said in an email. “But Regan has done what he could with little support from the governor or the legislature.”

Regan also created an environmental justice advisory board and has advised Cooper on the state’s plans to combat climate change, established by an October 2018 executive order.

After Hurricane Florence walloped North Carolina two years ago and caused hog waste spills at inland farms, Regan accompanied State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler on an aerial tour.

“I decided to take him with me so that he would be able to fully understand the breadth of everything that was out there with the flooding,” Troxler recalled in a phone interview. “I also made sure I showed him all of the municipal waste treatment plants that had been overrun with water and flooded, so that he understood that it was not just an agricultural thing but an environmental problem that stretched across the breadth of eastern North Carolina.”

“We don’t always agree, naturally,” Troxler added, “but he is a really good man, and we’ve always been able to communicate.”

Since North Carolina’s governor is a Democrat but the legislature is controlled by Republicans, Regan has been forced to work with a divided state government — experience that could come in handy in a bitterly split Washington.

Ryke Longest, co-director of the Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, said Regan has helped restore morale at the state agency, after the polarizing tenure of his predecessor, whom critics accused of weakening the department and giving more favorable treatment to polluting industries.

“The staff morale was perhaps at a historic low when he took office as a result of actions from the previous secretary,” Longest said.

At the same time, Regan didn’t do enough to block the construction of two natural gas pipelines — one of which was shelved after meeting opposition in Virginia — or to clean up toxic conditions at the state’s largest hog farms, Longest said. The pipelines would “have adverse impacts on low-income and indigenous communities” and should have been opposed on environmental justice grounds, he said.

“Secretary Regan’s heart tells him environmental justice is an important issue,” Longest said. “And he has articulated a vision for environmental justice. The question I have is whether he will fight hard to implement that vision in light of other competing policy priorities.”

In his current role, Regan oversees roughly 1,600 employees and seven regional offices across the state.

If confirmed, Regan would inherit an agency nearly 10 times the size of his current one — and one that has consistently found itself in the middle of a political tug-of-war over how it should exercise its authority to clean up pollution and combat climate change.

In hiring Regan, Biden passed over environmental regulators and experts with decades more experience, including California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols and Richard Revesz, who heads the New York University School of Law Institute for Policy Integrity. Many Democrats had lobbied for a veteran regulator who could swiftly unwind the Trump administration’s rollbacks.

Before entering state government, Regan worked 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, as well as on improving air quality in polluted communities.

In an email, Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said his former colleague took over the state environmental agency “when it had been battered much the way EPA has been these last four years.”

“He quickly restored morale and then solved big problems by respecting science and bringing together people with different views. That’s why he’s been so effective protecting public health and the environment in North Carolina’s government,” Krupp said. “As an Environmental Defense Fund staff from 2008 to 2016, Michael Regan led our efforts to grow clean energy and demonstrated a talent for working with unexpected allies to achieve monumental progress.”

Before that, he served at the EPA under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, working on air quality and energy issues. Before leaving the agency in 2008, Regan served as a national program manager responsible for designing initiatives aimed at reducing pollution and market-based solutions to improve energy efficiency, air quality and climate-related challenges.

In 2016, he founded a consulting firm, M. Regan & Associates, aimed at helping “organizations find transformational solutions to complex energy, environmental and economic challenges.”

A native of Goldsboro, N.C., Regan studied earth and environmental science at N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University and later earned a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University.

In a message published online in April to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Regan recalled a childhood in eastern North Carolina spent fishing and hunting with his father and grandfather.

“I can vividly remember sitting near the edge of the river waiting to catch the first fish of the day or watching our beagles chase rabbits,” he wrote. “My love for the environment was instilled in me as a kid, and it has never left me. It is the reason I chose to make environmental protection my life’s work.”