WASHINGTON – President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has selected Michael S. Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental agency, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Biden transition team said Thursday. The decision elevates, for the first time, the appointment of a black man to lead the powerful department that is central to the new government’s climate change agenda.
Mr Regan was not the elected president’s first election and he lacks some of the political star power of Mr Biden’s other cabinet members. But he will be at the forefront of the new administration’s efforts to undo one of President Trump’s most sweeping transformations of federal government: the dissolution of half a century of pollution and climate regulations and the diminution of the science behind them.
“He is facing massive rebuilding and rebuilding,” said Jody Freeman, a Harvard University law professor who served as the White House adviser on energy and climate change in the Obama administration.
Mr. Regan “needs to go in and restore morale to career staff,” she said. “He needs to make it clear that science and integrity are back. It has a set of rules that it must abolish, replace, and strengthen. “
And Ms. Freeman added, “He has to do this under time pressure.”
The decision rounded off Mr Biden’s aspiring climate team, led by two political heavyweights: Gina McCarthy, who served as President Barack Obama’s EPA chief, will head a new climate policy office in the White House to coordinate domestic policy efforts , and John Kerry Former Secretary of State will be Mr. Biden’s international climate envoy.
Mr. Biden also elected Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico to be the Home Office director. She would be the first Native American woman to head the department and is expected to curtail oil and gas leasing in states that Mr. Trump has overseen. Brenda Mallory, an experienced former federal prosecutor, will lead the Environmental Quality Council.
But no agency will be more fundamental to the politically sensitive work of actually reducing planet-warming emissions in the US than the EPA
Mr Biden has vowed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and eliminate fossil fuel emissions from the energy sector by 2035. With a party-political, deadlocked Congress, these tasks are almost exclusively assigned to the EPA
The new administrator must first remove the barriers the Trump administration put in place to make it harder to introduce new rules and then expand the Obama-era efforts to curb greenhouse gases from power plants, automobiles, and oil and gas sites.
Environmental activists in North Carolina praised Mr. Regan’s work in the state. He is credited with reaching the largest coal ash cleaning settlement in the country and ordering chemical company Chemours, a former DuPont grant, to take new steps to remove the toxic substances known as PFAS from the Cape Fear River.
Such contaminants are called “chemicals forever” because they do not break down in the environment and can build up in the human body.
Mr. Regan was also a key figure in helping Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, deliver on his pledge to be carbon neutral in North Carolina by 2050 and oversee the State’s Interagency Council on Climate Change, a working group of state agencies that was established to achieve this goal. In 2018 he created an Environmental Justice and Justice Agency at the State Environmental Agency.
“He found his way around really difficult terrain,” said Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental policy at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “North Carolina is as difficult a place as any to comply with environmental laws in the face of opposition from utility companies, the farm lobby, and hostile lawmakers.”
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But Regan has also been criticized, including by environmental justice-focused groups who accused him of not advocating fossil fuels and agricultural interests enough.
Under Mr. Regan, the state agency issued water quality certification to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have carried natural gas on the Appalachian Trail. That year, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy announced that they had canceled plans for the project in the face of opposition to the environment.
Mr Biden’s transfer declined to comment. But Mr. Regan has been praised by other environmental groups for giving poor and minority communities a greater voice in state decision-making.
A longtime air quality specialist with the EPA under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, Mr. Regan later worked for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group. After defeating Pat McCrory, the incumbent Republican, Governor Cooper named Mr. Regan to head the North Carolina Environmental Protection Agency in 2017.
There he replaced Donald R. van der Vaart, an ally of Mr. Trump who challenged the established science of climate change and fought against the Obama-era rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and campaigned for a business-friendly deregulation agenda in the north Carolina.
Mr Regan’s supporters said he raised low morale and emphasized the role of science in the department. Some called it an obvious parallel to what is expected of him at the EPA, where Andrew Wheeler, President Trump’s administrator and former coal lobbyist, has kept the agency from working on climate change and where independent reviewers identify a “culture at the EPA.” have top “political interference in science.
Mr van der Vaart denied the allegation that morale at the state authority had decreased under his leadership.
Mike Sommers, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, said in a statement that the oil industry is “ready to work with Mr. Regan.” But he added, “We will also look carefully to ensure that the new government keeps President-elect Biden’s election promises to the energy workforce and protects the millions of jobs our industry supports.”
The selection of Mr. Regan is a conventional choice in many ways. Democratic presidents have recruited EPA leaders from state environmental agencies in the past. Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson, both of whom ran the agency under President Obama, had been the heads of state environmental agencies; Mrs. McCarthy in Connecticut and Mrs. Jackson in New Jersey.
Ms. Jackson was the first black person to head the EPA
Mr. Regan did not emerge as the leading contender until Sunday. Weeks earlier, California Air Quality Agency Mary D. Nichols apparently had a ban on the EPA job.
Ms. Nichols, who has worked on clean air and climate change policies since 1979, is arguably the country’s most experienced climate change officer. She served as the EPA’s senior officer in charge of clean air during the Clinton administration. During the Obama administration, it was Ms. Nichols who helped broker an agreement with the federal government and the country’s largest automakers who adopted California’s stringent global warming auto emissions regulations and applied them nationwide.
Mr Trump has reset these rules, but Mr Biden is hoping to reintroduce them as one of his first major action against climate change – and had seen Ms. Nichols as the obvious person to do so.
Ms. Nichols was expected to face fierce Republican opposition, which the Biden team was prepared for. However, several people near the Biden Junction said the president-elect was surprised by heavy criticism of Ms. Nichols from liberals, who argued that the cap and trade policies she helped shape allowed California to continue the industry pollute in ways that disproportionately harm poor communities and communities of color.
That month, a group of more than 70 environmental rights groups wrote to the Biden Transitional Authority that Ms. Nichols had a “grim track record in fighting environmental racism.”
The letter apparently resonated. One of Mr Biden’s key commitments to the campaign was a promise to address environmental justice and highlight the need to protect poor and minority communities, who are more exposed to pollution than rich communities.
Coral Davenport contributed to the coverage.