Michael Regan, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, told lawmakers Wednesday that he would move swiftly to rein in planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, repair the damage that the Trump administration inflicted at the federal agency and put environmental justice communities at the heart of the agency’s efforts.
Regan, 44, currently North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, testified at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. If confirmed, Regan would make history as the first Black man to lead the agency. And he would inherit an agency that under President Donald Trump was run by a former coal lobbyist and dismantled dozens of clean air, water and public health safeguards.
“Our priorities for the environment are clear,” Regan told the committee. “We will restore the role of science and transparency at EPA. Will will support the dedicated and talented career officials. We will move with a sense of urgency on climate change. And we will stand up for environmental justice and equity.”
Regan is likely headed for a speedy confirmation. He received glowing introductions from North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr. Burr called Regan “extremely qualified” and said he would balance environmental stewardship with the needs of rural communities.
“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,” Regan said.
Although the hearing remained cordial, Republicans voiced their displeasure with Biden’s flurry of early executive orders on climate, which among other things reentered the U.S. into the Paris climate accord and canceled a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said she is “concerned that this is shaping up to be a third Obama administration” and asked if the Biden administration is planning to resurrect the Clean Power Plan, a policy limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that the Trump administration replaced in 2019.
Regan skirted the question, saying the EPA has an opportunity “to take a clean slate.” He said he plans to “not look backward but to look forward” and “convene all parties relevant to this discussion.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) cautioned Regan not to move forward too quickly. He said EPA was “captured” by the fossil fuel industry under Trump and urged the nominee to confront the lingering impacts.
When Regan took over the North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality in 2017, he said morale was low and he had to assess the damage before making changes. That experience, he told Whitehouse, would help him navigate the post-Trump landscape at EPA.
“There are lots of staff at EPA right now 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,” Regan said. “We’re going to correct that, and then we’re going to begin to carry this country forward.”
Regan also echoed Biden’s promise to prioritize low-income and communities of color as the administration pursues its environmental agenda. One of the executive orders Biden signed last week creates a White House interagency council on environmental justice, as well as new or strengthened environmental justice offices within the EPA, Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services.
“Environmental justice is something that is near and dear to my heart,” Regan said in response to a question from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). “The justice system in this country is failing in a number of areas, including in the environmental justice arena.”
Regan committed to establishing an environmental justice adviser position at EPA and pushing for additional resources to help solve environmental inequality.
Gary Morton, president of AFGE Council 238, a union that represents thousands of EPA employees, called Regan “a breath of fresh air” after “four years of attacks and hostility from the Trump administration.”
“If confirmed, it’s clear that Regan would be committed to the EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment, and would once again put science at the forefront of decision making,” Morton said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Michael Regan’s age. He is 44.