Biden’s pick to head US environment agency heartens scientists

Michael S. Regan

Regan will be the first Black man to lead the EPA.Credit: N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

US president-elect Joe Biden has nominated Michael Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, to lead the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — and scientists and environmentalists are optimistic.

Regan, who will now need to be confirmed by the US Senate, joins other experienced appointees whom Biden has tasked with implementing his historic climate agenda. These include an envoy who will handle international climate negotiations and a coordinator to ensure goals are achieved at home.

“This shows the Biden team is really going to follow through on the bold climate commitments they put forward,” says Leah Stokes, a climate-policy researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s a massive political shift, she says, “and it puts the country on track to make climate change the center of our economic policy.”

Regan spent more than nine years working in the EPA’s air quality programme under former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and another eight years working at the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy group based in New York. For the past four, he has led North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, where he earned the support of many environmentalists by standing up to chemical and energy companies.

“Climate change is the most significant challenge humanity faces. We’ll make meaningful progress together by listening to every voice — from our youth & frontline communities to scientists & our workforce. I will be honored to be part of that work as EPA Administrator,” said Regan on Twitter on 18 December.

Rebuilding EPA

If confirmed, Regan will inherit an agency demoralized by four years under President Donald Trump. The Trump administration sidelined scientists at the agency and disregarded scientific evidence in an unprecedented effort to scale back environmental and public health protections. Current and former EPA staff recently told Nature that they are hopeful Biden can turn things around, although they also highlighted some big challenges he’ll face in doing so.

Regan has experience with such situations. When he joined North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality in 2017, staff felt undermined by industry-friendly policies put in place by the state’s former Republican governor, says Jeremy Symons, an environmental consultant in Arlington, Virginia, who worked with Regan at the Environmental Defense Fund. Regan was able to rebuild the agency and improve the state’s processes behind chemical regulation and disposal of residual coal-ash waste from coal-fired power plants, says Symons.

“Michael Regan will be exactly the kind of administrator that the EPA needs to fix the damage that was done under four years of Trump and tackle the climate and health crisis facing Americans,” he adds.

The Environmental Protection Network, an organization formed by EPA alumni to speak out against Trump’s undermining of the agency, also endorses Regan’s appointment. Michael Regan “has the background and experience to tackle ongoing threats to people’s health and the environment, profound challenges of #climatechange and systemic environmental injustice,” the group posted to Twitter on 17 December.

Environmental justice

Regan is expected to put new emphasis on environmental justice, to protect poor and minority communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change. In North Carolina, he created the first Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board to address these issues. Biden put emphasis on environmental justice during his campaign for president, promising to invest 40% of his $2 trillion climate plan in disadvantaged communities.

Regan “has the experience, understands the challenges faced by environmental justice communities, and has demonstrated a commitment to addressing them”, said Peggy Shepard in an e-mail to Nature. Shepard is co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group based in New York.

Climate cabinet

At the EPA, one of Regan’s jobs will be to craft regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions released by vehicles and by industry — this effort would sit at the heart of Biden’s strategy to mitigate climate change. But Biden’s climate agenda is broad: he has committed to ramping up clean-energy production, expanding low-carbon infrastructure and zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2035. Meeting those goals will require action across the federal government, and Biden is already assembling a team of high-profile climate appointees to advance that effort.

On the international front, former secretary of state John Kerry will serve as climate envoy, leading the administration’s effort to reintegrate the country into the Paris climate agreement. Biden has also appointed Gina McCarthy, a staunch environmentalist, as his US climate czar. In this position, McCarthy, who helped implement former President Barack Obama’s climate agenda, will coordinate climate actions across all of the federal agencies. Neither of these climate team members need to be confirmed by the Senate.

These and other appointments signal that Biden is gearing up for action on all fronts, says Symons, who is part of the Climate 21 Project, an independent group of academics, policy specialists and former government officials that has crafted a blueprint for federal climate action. “What we were looking for is a White House structure that could rapidly mobilize the entire government to act on climate change,” he says, and so far, “there’s no question that president-elect Biden is exceeding our expectations.”

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