WASHINGTON – Elected President Joseph R. Biden Jr., three members of Biden’s transition team, said Michael S. Regant, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, will be nominated to head the Environmental Agency.
Mr. Regan has only recently become Mr. Biden’s most important choice, said two people who are well acquainted with the selection process. Leading the way for a few weeks was Mary D. Nichols, the California air quality regulator, but received significant criticism from liberal groups who accused her of failing to address the issue of environmental racism in her state.
He also put pressure on Mr. Biden to make his cabinet choices more racially diverse. If confirmed, Mr. Regan is expected to place great emphasis on racial fairness in the agency.
“This indicates that the Biden administration is serious about returning to EPA’s core mission of taking strong and sensible steps to protect the environment and public health and to promote environmental justice,” said Brian Buzby, of the North. Carolina Conservation Network, a coalition of environmental groups.
Mr Biden has vowed to reach zero net emissions by 2050 and eliminate fossil fuel emissions in the energy sector by 2035. If the Senate remains under Republican control and resists the adoption of climate legislation, it will largely be up to the EPA to adopt regulations that can curb planetary heating pollution from power plants, motor vehicles, and oil and gas plants.
Mr. Regan, a long-time EPA air quality expert who worked under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, later worked for the Environmental Protection Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group. In 2017, Democrat Roy Cooper defeated Republican Governor Pat McCrory in North Carolina and beat Regan to lead the state environmental agency.
There, he replaced Donald R. van der Vaart, an ally of the Trump government, who questioned the established science of climate change, fought Obama-era rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and supported a business-friendly deregulation agenda in North Carolina.
Mr Regan’s supporters said low morale had improved and they emphasized the role of science in the department. Several called an obvious parallel to what was expected of him at the EPA, where Andrew Wheeler, executive director of Trump and former coal lobbyist, withheld the agency from work on climate change, and independent auditors identified “culture at the top Political intervention in science.
“It’s spooky that it reflected what happened to the EPA,” said Dan Crawford, director of government relations for the North Carolina Conservative Electoral League, who called Mr. Regan’s election to lead the federal agency “refreshing”.
In an interview, Van der Vaart called Mr. Regan a “nice guy,” but said the Department of the Environment, which he heads, has made poor decisions, including an agreement with Duke Energy to clean up coal ash, which he believes could lead to interest rate hikes for customers.
He pulled back the idea that morale had struck under his leadership. As far as climate change policy is concerned, Mr van der Vaart said, under Mr Regan’s leadership, ‘very little has been done in any case, so I am not sure where progress has been made’.
Mr. Regan’s election is a traditional choice in many ways. The history of democratic presidents is the poaching of EPA leaders by state environmental agencies. Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson, who both ran the agency under President Obama, were heads of state environmental agencies; Ms. McCarthy in Massachusetts and Jackson Ms. in New Jersey.
But Mr. Regan’s name only first appeared on Sunday after Sunday, after weeks of speculating that Ms. Nichols was in a padlock in California.
Ms. Nichols, the champion of aggressive regulation, would have faced fierce opposition from Republicans, for which the Biden team was prepared. But according to people close to the transition, Mr. Biden ignored Ms. Nichols ’intense criticism from liberals, who argued that the cap-and-trade policy he helped California develop allowed the industry to continue to pollute, disproportionately damaging poor communities.
In Mr Regan, people close to the Biden transition say the president-elect hopes to find a candidate who hasn’t brought many enemies left or right and who can also move quickly to map out an aggressive agenda.
He was a key figure in Governor Cooper delivering on his promise to achieve carbon neutrality in North Carolina by 2050 and overseeing the state’s inter-agency council on climate change, a working group of state agencies set up to achieve that goal. In September, Mr. Regan outlined a plan that included cutting the energy sector’s emissions by 70 percent below 2005 levels over the next decade and significantly accelerating the development of clean energy.
And in January, Mr. Regan’s agency signed a far-reaching settlement agreement with Duke Energy and environmental groups to require the utility to dispose of more than 76 million tons of submerged coal ash in lined landfills. This will be the largest coal ash exploration in the country.
Coral Davenport contributed to the report.