Biden picks North Carolina environmental chief to lead EPA

Associated Press
FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2017 file photo, Michael Regan listens as  North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announces that Regan will lead the Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina, at the Executive Manson in Raleigh, N.C. President-elect Joe Biden has picked an experienced but not widely known state regulator, Michael Regan of North Carolina, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Regan is head of North Carolina’s environmental agency. (Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer via AP)

President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday offered the leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency to Michael S. Regan, a North Carolina regulator who has made a name pursuing cleanups of industrial toxins and helping low-income and minority communities hit hardest by pollution.

Biden also plans to nominate New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary, making her the first Native American to head that agency.

Biden's pick of Regan, who leads his state's environmental agency, was confirmed by two people familiar with the selection process, as was his choice of Haaland. They were not authorized the discuss the matter publicly before the official announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity. 

Regan became environmental chief in North Carolina in 2017. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who hired Regan then, told The Associated Press this week that Regan was "a consensus builder and a fierce protector of the environment."

In North Carolina, Regan led the negotiations that resulted in the cleanup of the Cape Fear River, which has been dangerously contaminated by PFAS industrial compounds from a chemical plant. He negotiated what North Carolina says was the largest cleanup agreement for toxic coal ash, with Duke Energy. 

Regan also created North Carolina's Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, to help the low-income and minority communities that suffer disproportionate exposure to harmful pollutants from refineries, factories and freeways.

Regan previously spent almost a decade at the federal EPA, including managing a national program for air-pollution issues.

His past jobs included serving as an associate vice president for climate and energy issues at the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group and as head of his own environmental and energy consulting firm.

Bill Holman, who led North Carolina's environmental department 20 years ago, said Regan has been successful even during challenging political circumstances. Republicans controlling the Legislature during the 2010s had eliminated dozens of department regulatory jobs and pushed business-friendly laws.

Regan "restored morale in the agency," Holman said Thursday. "He renewed the mission of the agency. ... He did the missionary work of going to the General Assembly and listening to a lot of critics of environmental legislation, addressing their concerns and finding common ground." 

Holman said North Carolina has struggled with how to regulate PFAS industrial compounds, but so has every other state. Part of that has to do with a lack of national leadership on the issue, Holman said, something that he believes Regan is poised to correct by returning to Washington. 

California clean-air regulator Mary Nichols, who earlier had been considered the front-runner for the EPA job in the Biden administration, had faced increasing objections from progressive groups. They said Nichols had not done enough to address the disproportionate harm low-income and minority communities face from living next to oil and gas installations, factories and freeways.

If confirmed by the Senate, Regan would take over the EPA after four years that have seen the Trump administration weaken or eliminate key public health and environmental protections. President Donald Trump had made the agency a special target for his drive to cut regulation, saying early on he would leave only "bits" of the environmental agency. 

Trump rollbacks and proposed rollbacks include weakening air-pollution rules for industries, slashing protection for wetlands and waterways, and eliminating Obama-era efforts to fight climate change by curbing exhaust and smokestack emissions from autos and factories. Opponents say some of many other rollbacks in the agency will make it harder for regulators to adopt new limits based on threats highlighted in public health studies.

Holman said "Regan believes in science, and I think he will put science and public health at the forefront at EPA.'. 

Regan, who is Black, has a bachelor's degree from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically Black university, and a master's degree from George Washington University.

At the Interior Department, Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, would be in charge of an agency that not only has tremendous sway over the nearly 600 federally recognized tribes but also over much of the nation's vast public lands, waterways, wildlife, national parks and mineral wealth.