He will be the first Black man to lead the EPA in its half-century of existence. The agency’s first African American chief was Lisa Jackson, who held the role for four years under President Barack Obama.
“He is immensely qualified for this position, not only in qualifications, but in his demeanor,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said on the Senate floor before voting for Regan. “Too often we overlook whether a nominee has the right character to lead an organization. In this case, there’s no question that Michael Regan has that character.”
Burr later added: “Michael Regan is a good man. He’s the right man to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.”
At his confirmation hearing last month, Regan promised to “restore” science and transparency at the EPA, which under President Donald Trump saw an exodus of veteran staffers and scaled back scores of environmental protections, from fuel efficiency standards to power plant emissions limits.
Regan, who won widespread support among environmental groups, also pledged to focus on two of Biden’s stated priorities: strengthening marginalized communities and moving “with a sense of urgency” to combat climate change.
“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 in February.
Regan, who graduated from North Carolina A&T State University and earned a master’s at George Washington University, worked for more than a decade at the EPA under the administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. 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.
As North Carolina’s top environmental official, he has generally won praise from members of both parties, as well as from many environmental groups and industry representatives, for his willingness to hear all sides of an issue. But even Republicans who have spoken highly of Regan personally remained skeptical about the Biden administration’s plans to aggressively limit emissions from the nation’s automotive and fossil fuel sectors, insisting that moving too fast could inflict further damage on the battered economy.
“Mr. Regan has plenty of experience. The problem is what he’s poised to do with it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “He and the administration are plainly prepared to put that experience behind the same far-left policies that crushed jobs and prosperity in states like Kentucky throughout the Obama administration.”
Regan, like Biden, has made clear that he believes the United States will benefit — both economically and environmentally — from a transition away from fossil fuels.
“We all understand the anxiety and the fear as we make this transition that folks in your states have,” Regan said during his confirmation hearing. “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.”
Regan heads into the high-profile job facing obvious challenges. On one hand, the Biden administration has promised to reverse many of the environmental safeguards that Trump dismantled — an undertaking that could take years. At the same time, he will play a starring role in translating Biden’s campaign pledges to fight climate change and address environmental racism into tangible public policy.
The EPA has broad responsibilities to craft fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s cars and trucks, oversee emissions from power plants and oil and gas facilities, and clean up the country’s most polluted sites.
“We’re excited to watch him do for the EPA what he did for North Carolina: put people and policy over politics, and work with scientists, stakeholders, lawmakers of both parties, and above all, the most impacted communities, to protect all Americans from polluters and climate change,” Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations at the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement Wednesday.
From the moment he was chosen for the EPA post, Regan has described himself as more consensus seeker than 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 during his confirmation hearing. “We can’t simply regulate ourselves out of every problem we face.”
That approach has won him the support of even oil and coal state Republicans otherwise sharply critical of Biden’s climate agenda and other environmental hires, such as Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), who has been nominated to be interior secretary.
“I am under no illusion our policy preferences are aligned,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said of Regan in a statement Wednesday, “but I take him at his word that cooperation will be the cornerstone of his time as administrator.”
While that philosophy won Regan goodwill on both sides of the political divide in North Carolina, it sometimes frustrated environmental activists.
Donna Chavis, a longtime North Carolina environmental advocate who is now a senior fossil fuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth, credits Regan with rebuilding the state’s environmental protection agency amid budget cuts and sinking morale.
But she wishes the agency had engaged better with locals when evaluating proposals for both a wood pellet plant and a liquefied natural gas facility in Robeson County, which has large Black and Native American communities.
“My belief is that he could have had a stronger environmental justice footprint,” she said.
Peggy Shepard, head of We Act for Environmental Justice, based in Harlem, was among those who lobbied the Biden transition team to pick Regan. But she said the new EPA chief now needs to set concrete goals for “reducing air pollution in the most severe hot spots,” including around the ports of Houston and a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., near several communities of color.
“You can say that you’re going to take [on] environmental justice,” she said, “but what are the metrics that evaluate that and what are the timetables to achieve certain goals?”