WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency says 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,'' Michael Regan told a Senate committee Wednesday in prepared testimony for his confirmation hearing. ”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.''
Regan, who has served as top environmental regulator in his home state since 2017, would be the first African-American man to run the EPA. He made a name for himself in North Carolina by pursuing cleanups of industrial toxins and helping low-income and minority communities significantly affected by pollution.
If confirmed by the Senate, Regan would take over the EPA after four years in which former President Donald Trump sought to weaken or eliminate dozens of key public health and environmental protections for clean air, water and climate-changing carbon pollution.
In North Carolina, 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 sometimes are 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, 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 honor 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.''
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, 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.
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., 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 said it was “no secret that the next EPA administrator has his work cut out for him.'' In addition to addressing serious environmental issues — especially climate change — Regan ”will also be tasked to rebuild an agency badly damaged in recent years by flawed leadership'' under Trump, “and an agency suffering from organizational drift and low morale,'' Carper said.
"One of the keys to accomplishing this will be restoring scientific integrity as the foundation of policymaking at EPA," Carper said. "Michael Regan understands this well.''
As EPA administrator, 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 U.S. Sen. 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,'' Capito said, and will face likely interference from McCarthy and former Secretary of State John Kerry, who now serves as a special climate envoy.