When North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan appears Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works as President Biden’s nominee for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, he might experience a moment or two of Carolina deja vu.
The setting for the afternoon hearing is federal and virtual and thus vastly different than in April 2017, when Regan was grilled in person by members of the North Carolina Senate during his confirmation hearing for his current post. But some of the questions he faces as he advances toward confirmation are bound to sound familiar.
In 2017, Regan was running his own consulting business after eight years in a leadership role with Environmental Defense Fund. Before that, he had been a career administrator with the EPA, where he became the national program manager in the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.
During his confirmation hearing, state senators raised concerns about his support of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and quizzed him on his views on the then-new Waters of The United States, or WOTUS, rules.
Four years later, those issues have not gone away.
Last week, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., joined a group of senators fighting a rollback of Trump administration rules that replaced the WOTUS rules, part of Biden’s ongoing efforts to undo Trump executive orders and rulemaking. Tillis said going back to the Obama-era rules would create a burden for business and agriculture.
“I encourage President Biden and my colleagues on the left to rethink the rollback of the Trump administration’s order on WOTUS before they do irreversible damage to the agriculture industry,” Tillis said in a statement last week.
Regan, who met early on with agriculture groups after being nominated, told an industry newsletter last week that he was looking for a legal remedy that would allow a path forward on WOTUS.
Although Regan will face pushback, earlier this month the new chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., signaled his support.
“The more I get to know Secretary Regan, the more confident I am that he is up to the task and ready to lead. His reputation as the head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is one of a consensus builder. That will be critical as he engages with Congress, states, the environmental community and business community in mobilizing the agency to address the climate crisis,” Carper said in a statement.
He also cited Regan’s leadership experience in setting up both climate change and environmental justice initiatives in North Carolina.
Regan’s first national listening session after being nominated was with environmental justice groups.
Bill Holman, North Carolina state director of The Conservation Fund and a former secretary of DEQ’s predecessor, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said Regan is a good fit for the job because he knows the department and the complexity of rulemaking and he has proven to be a good administrator through multiple challenges.
“He’s done a good job in North Carolina, and I think he’ll do a good job for the country,” Holman said Tuesday.
Holman and others said they hope Regan’s experiences dealing with GenX contamination and regulating new, relatively unknown contaminants will help focus the EPA on moving forward on new regulations and standards.
In a statement supporting Regan ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Derb Carter, director of the North Carolina offices for the Southern Environmental Law Center, cited Regan’s work on coal ash cleanup and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
“During Regan’s tenure, North Carolina’s environmental agency took a position on toxic PFAS pollution that agencies across the country and the EPA should be taking to protect our communities — stopping pollution at its source,” Carter said. “A course correction at EPA will be welcome so that the agency protects people, instead of polluters as it did under the Trump administration.”
For now, Regan’s possible replacement, who will also require confirmation by the state Senate, is an unknown.
Cooper has held off announcing a successor while Regan moves through the confirmation process.
Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Tuesday that the governor had been reviewing candidates and would not take long in naming a replacement once Regan is confirmed.
State, federal alignment
Having a native and former DEQ secretary in the top EPA job would add greater familiarity with the state’s challenges at the cabinet level, but North Carolina was already looking at a reset in its relationship with the federal government on environmental issues.
It’s only the second time this century that the same party controls the executive branch of both the state and federal government and it comes after an extended debate over energy and climate policy in which both levels of government shifted with the political tides.
Offshore oil and gas exploration was one of the starker examples of the changes. In 2016, for instance, then-governor Pat McCrory blasted the Obama administration for taking new Atlantic leases off the table. Within a year, Cooper was threatening to sue the Trump administration for reinstating the leases. Earlier this month, the Biden administration signaled another reversal. This time, however, state and federal officials are in agreement.
“I think there’s probably more alignment than there’s been in a really long time,” Holman said. “President Biden’s got clean energy goals, Governor Cooper’s got clean energy goals, climate policies are important for the both of them and also working on adaptation to climate change. So, I think there’s some opportunities for North Carolina to benefit.”
But Holman said the alignment between the administrations will only go so far without further investment by the legislature, particularly in adaptation projects, which require local matches and other commitments that would require legislative approval.
“That’s something I hope the governor and General Assembly can work on in this upcoming session,” he said. “It’s great to have this federal financial assistance but you got to have the match to draw it out.”