President Biden’s nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency has said that he will do a “damage assessment” at the agency if confirmed, following four years in which former President Donald Trump sidelined science and rollbacked or weakened dozens of environmental and climate policies.
Michael Regan, who has served as the top environmental regulator in North Carolina since 2017, appeared before a Senate committee on Wednesday for his confirmation hearing.
Sheldon Whitehouse, senator from Rhode Island and one of the most forceful voices in Congress on the climate crisis, asked Mr Regan how he would tackle the “trail of conflicts of interest” and “damage” done to the EPA during the Trump years, where he said the agency had been “more or less captured by the fossil fuel industry”.
Mr Regan replied that he had “practical experience” of a similar situation when he arrived at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
“When I inherited the department morale was low, decisions had been made we didn’t believe were transparent and didn’t bring forth the proper science and data,” Mr Regan said.
“We did have to do a damage assessment of what had and hadn’t been done and rectify those situations and begin to move forward.”
He added that his goal with the EPA is “to do an assessment to determine how can we best move forward, learn from the past but stay leaning forward as we solve some of these complex issues. There are lots of staff at EPA doing a reevaluation of a ton of rules and activities that may or may not have been done in a transparent manner or leveraged science the way we’d like. We’re going to correct that and then begin to carry this country forward.”
Mr Regan began the hearing by telling the commitee that he learned the importance of preserving the outdoors while hunting and fishing with his father and grandfather in rural North Carolina.
“Those beautiful waters and land are a legacy they were proud to share with me, but also taught me that protecting them was my responsibility as well,” he said. ”Preserving our natural resources isn’t something to balance with economic growth It’s one of the keys to economic growth, along with protecting public health and our way of life.”
Mr Regan would be the first Black man to run the EPA. He made a name for himself in North Carolina by pursuing cleanups of industrial toxins and helping the low-income and minority communities significantly affected by pollution.
In North Carolina, Mr Regan led negotiations that resulted in the cleanup of the Cape Fear River, which has been dangerously contaminated by industrial chemicals known as PFAS. They are sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals” because of their longevity in the environment and have been associated with increased risk of cancer and other health problems. With Duke Energy, Mr Regan negotiated what North Carolina says was the largest cleanup agreement for toxic coal ash, a by-product of coal-fired power plants.
Regan, 44, spent nearly 10 years working at EPA under presidents of both parties. He called it “the honour of a lifetime to be asked to return” to lead the agency.
Known as a consensus builder, Regan said that throughout his career, “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”.
He pledged to talk to businesses, community groups, scientists and others and to reach “consensus around pragmatic solutions”. His time in government has shown him that, “we can’t simply regulate our way out of every problem we face”, he added.
President Joe Biden has vowed to focus on environmental justice as a a core part of his climate and environmental strategy, and Regan said he was eager to do his part. And there’s a personal element – growing up, Mr Regan had a respiratory condition that required him to use an inhaler, a consequence of heavily polluting factories and power plants in Eastern North Carolina.
“I will never forget looking into the eyes of Amy Brown, the mother of two boys, as she told me she could not let her sons play in the bathtub or the pool in the backyard for years because they were required to live on bottled water after the Dan River coal ash spill,” he said. As he gave his son Matthew a bath with fresh tap water, “I vowed this story would have a happier ending for Amy and her two sons,” Regan said.
Senator Tom Carper, of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Regan developed a reputation as “a leader who works with Democrats and Republicans to forge practical solutions. As we struggle to put the current recession behind us, that kind of leadership is what we need now more than ever at EPA”.
Carper added that it was “no secret that the next EPA administrator has his work cut out for him”.
As EPA administrator, Mr Regan would work with the White House and climate adviser Gina McCarthy, a former EPA administrator, to complete major new regulations on power plants, automobile tailpipes, mercury emissions and waterways – all of which will face strong opposition form congressional Republicans.
West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the environment panel, questioned Regan’s effectiveness even before the hearing began. He and other Cabinet officials tasked with addressing climate change “are going to be tripping over each other”, Sen. Capito said, and will face likely interference from McCarthy and former Secretary of State John Kerry, who now serves as a special climate envoy.
“Who is really going to be making decisions?” she asked in a Senate speech last week. ”Will this Cabinet actually wield any power, or will the decisions be made in the White House in an effort to avoid public and congressional scrutiny? The American people really need to know.”
One of those Cabinet nominees Jennifer Granholm, won approval from the Senate energy panel on Wednesday to serve as Energy secretary. A vote in the full Senate could occur as soon as next week.
AP contributed to this report