A Consensus Builder for E.P.A. When Some Want a Fighter
WASHINGTON — As Michael S. Regan was settling in as North Carolina’s top environmental regulator in a new Democratic administration, a powerful Republican wanted to send a message to the young head of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.
So in 2017, State Senator Brent Jackson slashed Mr. Regan’s budget.
“Let’s just say that’s how I first got his attention,” Mr. Jackson said. But instead of lashing back, he recalled, Mr. Regan asked for a one-on-one meeting. That discussion led to several others, and eventually extended to Mr. Regan spending time at Mr. Jackson’s family farm.
“I tell him he’s one of my favorite tree-huggers,” Mr. Jackson said. “He and I didn’t see eye to eye and we still don’t see eye to eye, but we have become friends.”
Mr. Regan’s willingness to reach across the aisle helped secure his nomination to be the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, people close to the Biden administration said. On Wednesday, Mr. Regan will testify before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works for his first test of whether he can win over Republicans in Washington as well.
But after four years during which former President Donald J. Trump ruthlessly rolled back virtually every Obama-era clean air, water and climate change regulation, environmental activists say a consensus approach is precisely what the E.P.A. doesn’t need. The next E.P.A. administrator must complete major new regulations on power plants, automobile tailpipes, mercury emissions and waterways — and be willing to anger Republicans in the process.
“His heart is in the right place, but he’s not tough,” said Steven Norris, an environmental activist from North Carolina.
A relative unknown outside Washington, Mr. Regan, 44, started his career at the E.P.A.’s headquarters in 1998 where he worked on air quality and energy programs under presidents of both parties. In 2012, he returned to his home state of North Carolina where he joined the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group that has partnered with energy companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, working on climate change and clean energy programs.
Roy Cooper, the Democratic governor of North Carolina, said Mr. Regan’s reputation as someone who worked with both liberals and conservatives was a major factor in appointing him to lead the state environmental agency.
“I knew that I needed a strong consensus builder,” Governor Cooper said.
One of Mr. Regan’s main achievements in North Carolina was brokering a multibillion-dollar settlement for coal ash cleanup with Duke Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, which won praise from both industry and environmental groups.
“He was a leader of high integrity, who worked to bring stakeholders together to advance environmental protections,” Julie Janson, executive vice president of Duke Energy and president of its Carolinas region, said in a statement.
Interviews with more than a dozen people who worked with Mr. Regan both in the nonprofit world and in government describe him as charismatic, with a megawatt smile who can command a room without dominating it. Virtually everyone who has come in contact with him praised his willingness to meet personally with people to hear out their concerns.
Yet some in North Carolina’s environmental community said they feared Mr. Regan was too eager to find middle ground.
Mr. Norris and others in the environmental community criticized the state agency under Mr. Regan’s leadership for not blocking permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that has since been canceled. They praised Mr. Regan for establishing an Environmental Justice and Equity advisory board, the first for the agency, but they also accused him of not doing enough to work with communities most directly affected by big industrial projects, like a liquefied natural gas site in Robeson County and wood pellet plants that routinely received permits despite concerns about deforestation.
Donna Chavis, senior fossil fuel campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said Mr. Regan would certainly leave the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality in better shape than he found it. The department had been decimated by budget cuts and led by a Republican who was hostile to climate change.
But, she said, “Michael set a floor of what D.E.Q. can do but not reached for the ceiling.”
Others, including Governor Cooper, defended Mr. Regan and said they believed that he was the leader that the E.P.A. needed. During the Trump years, nearly 5 percent of the E.P.A.’s federal work force quit or retired. Employee satisfaction plummeted and concerns about the politicization of science skyrocketed.
“He will take over an E.P.A. that is in the same position that he found North Carolina’s D.E.Q. four years ago,” Governor Cooper said.
As for whether Mr. Regan can get tough, he said: “He can fight when he needs to. Ask Duke Energy.”
Mr. Regan, he said, “pulled off the largest coal ash clean up in the history of the country, and it required a lot of pressure to get that done.”
On issues sure to meet Republican resistance, such as cutting emissions from power plants and automobiles, Governor Cooper said, “He will take them on and knows that is part of the charge.”
Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in her online interview with Mr. Regan last month that she had told him her coal-dependent state felt ignored during the Obama years, as the administration adopted regulations to reduce the country’s dependency on fossil fuels.
“If you don’t come and listen, the air in the balloon gets bigger and tighter, and the pressure of being ignored just grows and foments,” Ms. Capito said. Mr. Regan, she said, had promised to “come and listen” — but also sidestepped some of her specific questions about policy plans.
Raised in Eastern North Carolina, Mr. Regan when he was nominated recalled fishing and hunting with his father and grandfather, experiences he said shaped his love for the environment. Growing up with asthma, he said, also opened his eyes to the ways that industrial and heavily polluting factories and power plants are overwhelmingly in and near poor neighborhoods and communities of color. President Biden has made a focus on environmental justice a core part of his climate and environmental strategy.
Mr. Regan and Mr. Biden also share a personal tragedy: the death of a young child. Mr. Biden’s first wife and young daughter died in a car accident in 1972. Mr. Regan’s first son, Michael Stanley Regan Jr., who was known as MJ, died when he was 14 months old after being diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer.
“He has taught us the true meaning of love, patience, perseverance and strength,” the family wrote in MJ’s obituary. Former colleagues said they felt, in some ways, that Mr. Regan channeled the loss into a redoubled commitment to the environment.
“He hurt a lot,” said Jim Marston, who hired Mr. Regan when he served as vice president of the energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund. “He didn’t just care about his son, he cared about everybody’s children. I think that’s why he is so good at environmental advocacy. He cares about the impacts on people, and he knows that pollution means often sickness or even terrible diseases like cancer.”
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