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New EPA administrator: ‘Science is back’

In his first interview as the nation’s top environmental official, Michael Regan says he is focused on restoring morale at the agency, combatting climate change and lifting up communities burdened by pollution

"We’ve got a lot of work to do, starting with rebuilding the staff morale and getting all of our staff back to feeling as if they matter, their voices matter," EPA Administrator Michael Regan says. (Caroline Brehman/AP)

Michael Regan has bold aspirations, and a long to-do list, as President Biden’s newly confirmed Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

He wants to hasten the nation’s shift to cleaner forms of energy, make transformational investments in communities battered by decades of pollution, and improve air and water quality around the country. But to accomplish any of that, the 44-year-old administrator said Monday, he must first help the EPA get its groove back.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, starting with rebuilding the staff morale and getting all of our staff back to feeling as if they matter, their voices matter,” Regan said in his first interview after being sworn in last week. “We really have to restore the scientific integrity and the utilization of data, of facts, as we move forward and make some very important decisions.”

Just days into his tenure, the former North Carolina environmental official has embraced a simple mantra as he faces the daunting task of translating Biden’s promises into actual policies.

“Science is back at EPA,” he said.

With a shrinking EPA, Trump delivers on his promise to cut government

Congress kept the EPA’s budget largely stable during recent years, despite attempts by President Donald Trump to make deep cuts. Even so, a Washington Post analysis showed that during the first 18 months of the Trump administration, nearly 1,600 workers left the EPA, while fewer than 400 were hired. That exodus shrank the agency’s workforce to 14,172, a level not seen since the Reagan administration.

After being sworn in, Regan wrote a memo to EPA career staffers calling their work the “heart” of any economic recovery under Biden. Regan himself was once a career EPA employee, working there for more than a decade under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations before returning to North Carolina as southeast regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group.

On Monday, Regan said he wouldn’t rule out the return of experts who fled the EPA as part of a hiring push under Biden.

“I’m under the assumption that there are a lot of people that walked out of EPA that would be extremely qualified for some of the positions we’ve advertised, and we welcome their return if they meet the criteria,” he said. “But that doesn’t exclude new and young scientists and engineers and data analysts and lawyers who have been longing to join a credible agency.”

Regan, who last week easily won confirmation by the Senate in a 66-to-34 vote, declined to offer specifics about which policies the EPA will pursue in the coming months. But he made clear that the agency already is beginning to revisit some of the Trump administration’s most consequential regulatory rollbacks.

Tracking Biden’s environmental actions

Regan vowed to use the agency's considerable authority to tackle climate change on multiple fronts.

He said the agency will take another look at the Trump administration’s rollback of tailpipe emissions rules for new cars and trucks, as well as his predecessors’ efforts to revoke California’s long-standing authority to set its own fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles. That waiver had been granted under the Clean Air Act by previous administrations.

“I’m definitely a fan of statutory authority, and states’ rights and autonomy,” Regan said, adding, “The transportation sector is very important in our greenhouse gas goals.”

Regan said a federal court’s recent decision to vacate the Trump administration’s replacement of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan gives his team a “clean slate” to regulate the climate-warming pollution that results from burning coal and gas for electricity.

The Trump administration also maintained air quality standards for ozone and other pollutants that are less stringent than what many experts have recommended to protect public health. Regan said he is open to toughening those standards.

“We’re taking a look at how we enhance some decisions that we believe are not as protective as we think they should be,” he said.

Regan also indicated he will look closely at a ubiquitous class of chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, found in communities nationwide and linked to an array of health effects.

Last month, the EPA yanked from its website a toxicity assessment of one of these so-called forever chemicals, which persist for years in the environment. Regan said the study was “compromised by political interference.”

“That's just one example of many decisions that were made by the previous administration that weren't guided by the scientific evidence nor the recommendations made by our career staff,” he added.

He also said his staff is evaluating the agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic under Trump. Former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler temporarily waived some enforcement last spring, citing practical constraints during shutdowns.

Regan said the agency’s ability to permit regulated industries to stop monitoring hazardous emissions during emergencies ought to be used “sparingly.”

“It’s not as if it’s a blank check,” he said.

Senate confirms Michael Regan to lead EPA

Regan returns to Washington with a reputation for seeking buy-in from all sides of environmental disputes, including industry. But Republicans are increasingly agitated with Biden’s climate plan, arguing that curtailing oil and gas drilling and pipeline construction will kill jobs. Some Republican attorneys general have already warned they will challenge actions they see as “unauthorized and unlawful” in court.

“Let me be very clear, I really liked meeting and getting to know Michael Regan,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said last week before voting against Regan’s confirmation. “He is a dedicated public servant and an honest man.”

“But this vote is not based on what Mr. Regan might do if he had his say,” she added. “This vote is about confirming someone to execute President Biden's agenda, which Mr. Regan said he would faithfully do. And I cannot support that agenda.”

Climate scientists, meanwhile, warn the United States and other countries have precious little time to deeply cut greenhouse gas emissions to forestall catastrophic, irreversible levels of global warming.

Even as he embarks on his new, high-profile role, Regan already has in mind how he would like his tenure to play out.

“I hope that EPA will be remembered in four years for righting the ship and really making significant strides on lowering the emissions from greenhouse gases, protecting our water quality, doing it in a way where we’re creating lots of jobs in a fair and equitable manner,” he said.

“If we can right this ship and start to achieve those goals and do it in a way with a rising tide for all communities in this country, I think we’ll be off to a good start.”