RALEIGH — Buckle up. The confirmation process for Gov. Roy Cooper’s pick to lead the Department of Environmental Quality is shaping up to be a proxy battle over state energy and environmental policy.
Last week, during the first in a series of cabinet announcements, Cooper nominated Michael Regan, a veteran policymaker in air quality at the Environmental Protection Agency and most recently a top official with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, to lead the department, the state’s chief enforcer of state and federal environmental regulations.
Regan and other top cabinet picks must first pass through a new confirmation process in the state Senate, a requirement added to legislation passed in late December during a special session that revised elections oversight and dialed back some of the powers of the governor’s office.
Several provisions in the two bills passed during the special session have been challenged in court and are under an injunction pending full review, but Cooper has not yet filed legal action to stop the confirmation process.
The Senate is expected to approve a procedure for confirmation hearings on Wednesday, when the chamber adopts its rules.
In the meantime, Cooper’s DEQ choice has faced criticism akin in tenor to last year’s gubernatorial race.
Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, told the Elizabeth City Daily Advance on Friday that he had concerns about Regan’s advocacy for wind and solar energy projects.
The Pope Foundation-funded Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank that has fought wind energy projects in eastern North Carolina, raised similar objections. And the Carolina Partnership for Reform, a conservative advocacy group that spent heavily during last year’s election cycle, has criticized Regan’s background on climate issues and Environmental Defense Fund stands on regulating hog farms, wood pellets and other industries.
Environmental groups are also readying for what could be a rough ride through the Senate, the chamber whose policy proposals have caused them the most concern in recent years.
John Suttles, director of Litigation and Regional Programs with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Regan has a wealth of experience inside and outside government. The center, which recently worked with Regan and the Environmental Defense Fund on a successful settlement in a lawsuit against Duke Energy, frequently locked horns with the McCrory administration.
“We’re looking forward to DEQ returning to a fact-based, scientific approach to protecting the environment and people’s health,” Suttles said. “We’re hopeful that under Michael’s leadership, we’ll find ways to work together to protect healthy air, clean water and the state’s natural treasures for all North Carolinians, ending the previous administration’s record of putting polluters before people.”
Regan starts work this week taking over from former state environmental secretary William Ross, who was named acting secretary after Cooper took office.
Under the legislation passed last month, Regan will serve as DEQ secretary until the Senate either affirms or denies his nomination. If no vote is taken, his appointment ends 30 days after the legislature adjourns.
In addition to the secretary, Cooper has the authority to appoint 50 top-level positions at DEQ, including the division chiefs and the department’s general counsel.
Cooper said last week he is still evaluating his options in challenging provisions adopted at the end of Gov. Pat McCrory’s term.
If he chooses to fight the new confirmation process, Cooper could have a more difficult time proving it violates separation of powers requirements. Although, in practice, cabinet nominees have been “deemed confirmed” by state law since 1969, the state constitution gives the Senate advice-and-consent powers over appointments by the governor.
New leadership after years of change
When Regan starts work this week at DEQ, he takes over at what is arguably the mostly heavily altered agency of the past four years.
During brief remarks at the governor’s mansion last week Regan, a Goldsboro native, said he wants to begin very quickly with discussions with longtime DEQ staff. If they are at all candid, he should have a lot to hear.
Regan comes to the office after an era of change that pre-dated the McCrory administration and then accelerated rapidly over the past few years. At the beginning of this century the department had more than 5,000 employees. Today, after the shift of major divisions, including those overseeing forestry, natural resources and parks and attractions, to other departments, DEQ lists 1,579 positions, of which 1,428 are filled.
The department budget has been reduced beyond the loss of divisions. Several rounds of budget cuts under John Skvarla, McCrory’s first secretary, eliminated dozens of technical and administrative positions with a focus on regional offices.
Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club said the new secretary faces a difficult challenge in trying to right the department.
“You’ve had the funding cuts and there’s a question whether the various divisions have the resources they need to do the job and keep up with the workload,” she said.
In addition, she said, the department’s culture changed rapidly in the past few years, and last year, conflicts within the department spilled into the open over reports by DEQ staff that were rewritten by administrators to favor McCrory policies.
“You have career employees who come to work every day afraid that if they do their job, they’ll lose their job,” Diggins said. “All the external issues aside, the internal issues are going to be daunting.”
That challenge isn’t lost on the incoming administration. In an introductory email to employees sent out last week, Acting Secretary Ross included a section from Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson, beginning with “Come, my friends/ ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”