December 29. By Michael Sales. President-elect Biden has nominated Michael S. Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, a powerful department with approximately 14,000 employees that is central to achieving the new administration’s climate change agenda. Regan will be charged with turning around President Trump’s unraveling of a half-century of pollution and climate regulations.
“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. He “has to go in and restore the morale of the career staff [and] 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.”
In order to expand Obama-era efforts to curb greenhouse gases from power plants, automobiles and oil and gas sites, Regan will first have to eliminate barriers that the Trump administration erected to make new rules difficult to enact.
Regan is a native of Goldsboro, North Carolina. He received a BS in Earth and Environmental Science from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and a Master’s in Public Administration from George Washington University.
Regan began his career as an environmental regulator working for the EPA during the Clinton and Bush administrations from 1998 to 2008. He then joined the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). He was there for eight years, and, ultimately, became the associate vice president for clean energy and a Southeast regional director.
Early in his tenure at the EDF, Regan said he hoped utilities would invest in technologies that would allow for the storage and transmission of electricity generated from renewable sources such as wind, solar and water. He challenged the money being spent on upgrading components of the national grid that he deemed to be obsolete or approaching obsolescence, when more efficient technologies are in such rapid development.
In January 2020, as North Carolina’s environmental secretary, Regan secured an agreement with Duke Energy for the largest coal ash contamination cleanup in United States history. The company committed to excavating 80 million tons of ash across seven of nine coal ash deposits. His department also ordered the chemical company Chemours to address and eliminate toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which they were dumping into the Cape Fear River upstream of a major source of drinking water. Such contaminants have been called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and can build up in human bodies.
He has faced criticism, including from groups that focus on environmental justice, who do not believe that he did an adequate job of standing up to fossil fuel and agricultural interests. For example, Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, describes Regan as “a great person, but I don’t think he’s done enough for us on PFAS.” Emily Sutton, who leads the North Carolina water protection group Haw River Assembly, does not oppose Regan’s EPA nomination, but she also has criticized his administration of state environmental quality for doing only “the bare minimum. There are not two sides to PFAS.”
Criticism notwithstanding, a number of North Carolina environmental groups have praised Regan for giving poor and minority communities a larger voice in the state’s decision-making. During his tenure as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, he launched the state’s Environmental Justice and Equity Board to advise on how best to advance environmental justice and promote community engagement, particularly across historically underserved and marginalized communities. Biden has promised to invest 40% of his $2 trillion climate plan in disadvantaged communities.
“He’s been exceptional,” said Molly Diggins, long-time environmental leader and former director of the North Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club. “His challenges were formidable and he’s been able to accomplish a lot, despite the obstacles.
Upon the announcement of his nomination to lead the EPA, Regan tweeted:
“Climate change is the most significant challenge humanity faces. We’ll make meaningful progress together by listening to every voice — from our youth and frontline communities to scientists and our workforce. I will be honored to be part of that work as EPA Administrator.”