The Biden-Harris transition team is expected to select Michael Regan, who currently heads North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, as the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Thursday news reports.
Before being selected by Gov. Roy Cooper to lead North Carolina’s DEQ in 2017, Regan worked at EPA during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, focusing on energy and air quality. After his time at the EPA, he joined the Environmental Defense Fund, where he worked as Southeast regional director and directed regional efforts on clean energy.
The expected nomination ends an extended struggle over one of the most contested positions in President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet. Up until Regan’s selection was reported, the transition team was said to be considering numerous people for the role, including California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols, whose possible nomination elicited pushback from environmental justice groups.
Regan’s selection to succeed current EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler replaces “a fossil fuel industry puppet with an experienced EPA air quality scientist,” said Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations at the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, a federal environmental advocacy organization with local chapters, in a statement.
The EPA’s focus on air quality, pollution and environmental compliance grants the agency power over many regulations that impact the energy industry. The cornerstone of President Obama’s environmental legacy, the Clean Power Plan, was rooted in the Clean Air Act and created by the EPA. Biden’s pledge to advance his environmental agenda, through executive action if required, will also likely draw on that wide-reaching law.
“It’s one of the most remarkable pieces of legislation. What it says is, we are not after a specific endpoint; our goal is to clean up the environment,” said Dan Kammen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who has advised the California and U.S. governments on energy issues. “All the things that go into thinking about cleaning the air also relate in different ways to the broader decarbonization agenda.”
The Trump administration replaced the Clean Power Plan, which set pollution limits on power plants, with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which eliminated comprehensive emissions requirements. Over the course of Trump’s presidency, coal generators have continued to shut down and cease operations, and in 2019 renewables provided more U.S energy than did coal.
Regan's environmental and regulatory record
In North Carolina, Regan worked on a 2018 executive order requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2025, reduce energy consumption and increase electric vehicle deployment.
“In [Secretary Regan's] nearly four years as the Secretary of DEQ, he has been a strong leader in a few areas that I would expect to come up for...the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Jennifer Rennicks, senior director of policy and communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Specifically, she pointed out Regan's role in developing "climate solutions that are focused not just on clean energy in the macro, but actually electrifying transportation.”
Rennicks, who as SACE's North Carolina state liaison worked alongside Regan in that state, also noted his “strong bona fides” in handling the state’s transition from coal and its legacy pollution. This year, under Regan’s leadership, the DEQ negotiated a settlement with Duke Energy on cleaning up 80 million tons of coal ash. The department called it the largest coal ash cleanup in U.S. history.
During his tenure at the Environmental Defense Fund, Regan also helped broker another agreement with Duke, along with groups such as the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Southern Environmental Law Center, on energy savings targets and a cap on profits tied to an energy efficiency program. He has also served on North Carolina’s Energy Policy Council, a group under the state’s Department of Environmental Quality that Regan now oversees.
Under Biden’s plans to push the United States toward 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, Regan and the EPA will be charged with working across agencies on climate action. This week Biden also selected former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm as Energy Secretary, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as Interior Secretary, former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy as domestic “climate czar” and Brenda Mallory as the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
“This is really where the remit of EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of Energy and ARPA-E all intersect,” said Kammen. “The dramatic improvement in efficiency and dropping costs of clean energy options — most notably, solar power, wind power [and] energy storage, but many others as well — allows a rethinking of what it means to protect the environment for people [and] wildlife, and to meet our global climate needs.”
If confirmed, Regan will be the first Black man to hold the position of EPA administrator. Biden has promised to prioritize diversity and environmental justice in assembling his team and forming climate policies. Importantly, Regan’s selection won the support of many environmental justice advocates, although some have expressed concern that Regan did not push hard enough on certain issues in North Carolina. While at the Department of Environmental Quality, Regan set up an environmental justice and equity board to advise the agency.
The nomination also got a nod of support from the EPA’s largest union.
“With his understanding of government environmental agencies and the role of enforcement, he is well placed to understand the importance of the boots on the ground — the civil servants, from inspectors to enforcement personnel — to ensuring that the EPA can achieve its mission of protecting human health and the environment," said Gary Morton, President of AFGE Council 238, in a statement.
The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment.