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Biden’s EPA nominee vows ‘urgency’ on climate change

Michael Regan, who would be the first Black man to serve as EPA administrator, promises to seek consensus as he pursues an ambitious agenda

Michael Regan would become the first Black man to head the Environmental Protection Agency in its 50-year history, working in an administration that has pledged to address environmental racism. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Michael Regan, President Biden’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, told lawmakers Wednesday that he would “restore” science and transparency at the agency, focus on marginalized communities and move “with a sense of urgency” to combat climate change.

Facing a Senate panel where half of the members are Republicans wary of the EPA’s authority and its reach into much of American life, Regan appealed to a collective sense of duty.

“We all have a stake in the health of our environment, the strength of our economy, the well-being of our communities and the legacy we will leave the next generation in the form of our nation’s natural resources,” he told members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The 44-year-old Regan, who began his career at the EPA more than two decades ago and currently heads the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, appeared likely to win confirmation after a three-hour hearing in which he received a universally warm reception.

Some Republicans, however, confronted him about the Biden administration’s plans to aggressively limit emissions from the nation’s automotive and fossil fuel sectors, insisting that moving too quickly risks worsening an already battered economy.

“Right now they look like they are putting forward a strategy that will crush jobs [and] lower the amount of energy we can produce,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), said of Biden’s early moves to kill the Keystone XL pipeline and halt oil and gas drilling on public lands. “It’s a policy that makes no sense.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo) likened the administration’s actions to “delivering pink slips to hard-working men and women in Wyoming and across the country.”

Regan countered that, like Biden, he believes the United States will benefit from embracing the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels and that millions of jobs can come from investing in the shift toward a green economy.

“We all understand the anxiety and the fear as we make this transition that folks in your states have,” he said. “What I know is we’ve been instructed that we are not to leave any community behind. In order for us to be successful, every state and every community has to see itself in our vision.”

If confirmed, Regan would become the first Black man to lead the EPA in its half-century of existence, working in an administration that has pledged to address the unequal burden of pollution carried by communities of color.

He also would step into a high-profile job with a pair of daunting missions: to reverse the aggressive dismantling of environmental safeguards during the Trump years, and to play a central role in translating Biden’s promise to combat climate change into real-world policies.

Tracking Biden’s environmental actions

Over the past four years, the Trump administration took aim at more than 200 environmental protections and rules, according to a Washington Post analysis. The EPA shrank by hundreds of employees as President Donald Trump played down the science around climate change and acted to bolster the fossil fuel industry.

Biden has made climate change a pillar of his administration. He rejoined the Paris climate accord and began the process overturning scores of environmental actions taken by Trump. But even as the White House moves decisively and activists clamor for even more far-reaching efforts, Regan positioned himself Wednesday as more a consensus seeker than a crusader.

“I’ve learned that if you want to address complex challenges, you must first be able to see them from all sides, and you must be willing to put yourself in other people’s shoes,” Regan said, adding that “we can’t simply regulate ourselves out of every problem we face."

It’s an approach that won Regan respect across party lines in North Carolina — and also criticism from environmentalists who wanted him to act more aggressively — as secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality since 2017.

During his tenure, he settled a multibillion-dollar cleanup of coal waste storage facilities with Duke Energy, established an environmental justice advisory board and reached across the political divide to work with the state’s Republican legislature.

With historic picks, Biden puts environmental justice front and center

In another high-profile environmental case, the state ordered the chemical company Chemours to virtually eliminate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of human-made chemicals, from seeping into the Cape Fear River. The chemicals — used in cookware, stain repellent and other products — have been linked to harmful health effects, including low infant birth weights and thyroid hormone disruption.

Regan, who graduated from North Carolina A&T State University and earned a master’s at George Washington University, also advised Gov. Roy Cooper (D) on the state’s plans to mitigate climate change.

He frustrated some activists who said he could have been tougher on polluting industries, even as they describe him as honest and well-intentioned.

Even so, environmental groups have rallied around Regan’s nomination, arguing that he has the right background and skills to pursue meaningful action to cut the nation’s emissions, grow clean energy jobs and help communities that historically have suffered the most from pollution.

Regan arrived at the EPA in the late 1990s and served for more than a decade under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. He returned to North Carolina 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 and on improving air quality in polluted communities.

But Regan testified that it was during his childhood in eastern North Carolina — where he grew up hunting and fishing with his father and grandfather but also suffered from asthma in an area with a legacy of toxic pollution — that he understood environmental protection.

“Preserving our natural resources isn’t something to balance with economic growth,” he said. “It’s one of the keys to economic growth, along with protecting public health and our way of life.”

On Wednesday, two of the Democrat’s strongest endorsements came from his state’s Republican senators.

Sen. Richard Burr called Regan “a good man” and “extremely qualified” to lead the EPA. Sen. Thom Tillis added that he and other Republicans are certain to disagree with the environmental policies of the Biden White House.

“But what we can hope for is people in the administration who have a track record of listening,” he said, adding about Regan: “He will be fair. He will listen."