Biden’s EPA pick, Michael S. Regan, faces ‘Massive reconstruction and rebuilding’

January 7, 2021

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has selected Michael S. Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Biden’s transition team announced December 17, 2020 according to a New York Times report. The decision elevates for the first time a Black man to lead the powerful department, which is central to achieving the new administration’s climate change agenda.

Michael S. Regan, Biden’s pick for EPA Administrator.

Mr. Regan was not the president-elect’s first choice, and he lacks some of the political star power of Mr. Biden’s other cabinet picks. But he will be on the front lines of the incoming administration’s effort to undo one of President Trump’s most sprawling transformations of the federal government: the unraveling of a half-century of pollution and climate regulations, and the diminishment of the science that underpinned them.

“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.

Mr. Regan “has to go in and restore the morale of the career staff,” she said. “He has to 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.” And, Ms. Freeman added, “He’s got to do this under some time pressure.”

But no agency will be more fundamental to the politically sensitive work of actually reducing United States planet-warming emissions than the E.P.A.

The selection of Mr. Regan is in many ways a conventional choice. Democratic presidents have a history of poaching E.P.A. leaders from state environmental agencies. Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson, who both ran the agency under President Obama, had been the heads of state environmental agencies; Ms. McCarthy in Connecticut and Ms. Jackson in New Jersey.

Mr. Regan only emerged as a leading contender on Sunday Dec. 13th. For weeks before, it appeared that California’s air quality regulator, Mary D. Nichols, had a lock on the E.P.A. job.

Ms. Nichols, who has worked on clean air and climate change policy since 1979, is arguably the most experienced climate change official in the country. She worked as the E.P.A.’s top clean air official during the Clinton administration. During the Obama administration, it was Ms. Nichols who helped broker a deal with the federal government and the nation’s largest automakers, which took California’s stringent regulations on planet-warming auto emissions and applied them nationwide.

Mr. Trump rolled back those rules, but Mr. Biden hopes to reinstate them as one of his first major actions on climate change — and had seen Ms. Nichols as the obvious person to do that.

Ms. Nichols had been expected to face fierce opposition from Republicans, something for which the Biden team was prepared. But, several people close to the Biden transition said, the president-elect was caught off guard by intense criticism of Ms. Nichols from liberals who argued that the cap-and-trade policies she helped design for California had allowed industry to continue to pollute in a way that disproportionately harms poor communities and communities of color.

The new administrator will need to first eliminate barriers that the Trump administration erected to make new rules difficult to enact, and then to expand Obama-era efforts to curb greenhouse gases from power plants, automobiles and oil and gas sites.

A longtime air quality specialist at the E.P.A. under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, Mr. Regan later worked for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group. In 2017, after defeating Pat McCrory, the Republican incumbent, Gov. Cooper appointed Mr. Regan to lead North Carolina’s environmental agency.

There, he replaced Donald R. van der Vaart, an ally of Mr. Trump who has questioned the established science of climate change and fought Obama-era rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and championed a pro-business agenda of deregulation in North Carolina.

Supporters of Mr. Regan said he improved low morale and emphasized the role of science at the department. Several called it an obvious parallel to what he would be expected to do at E.P.A. where Andrew Wheeler, President Trump’s administrator and a former coal lobbyist, has discouraged the agency from working on climate change, and where independent auditors have identified a “culture at the top” of political interference in science.

Mike Sommers, chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, said in a statement that the oil industry was “ready to work” with Mr. Regan. But he added, “We will also be watching closely to ensure that the incoming administration keeps President-elect Biden’s campaign promises to the energy work force and protects the millions of jobs supported by our industry.”

What this means to you
According to Jody Freeman, a Harvard University law professor and former White House counselor for energy and climate change, Michael Regan “has to go in and restore the morale of the career staff,” she said. “He has to 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.” And, Ms. Freeman added, “He’s got to do this under some time pressure.”

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