Biden taps Haaland for Interior, N.C. environment chief Regan for EPA

Crowded Democratic fight expected for New Mexico seat

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is President Joe Biden's nominee for Interior secretary. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is President Joe Biden's nominee for Interior secretary. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 17, 2020 at 3:46pm

President-elect Joe Biden will nominate Michael Regan, the top environmental regulator in North Carolina, to lead the EPA during his administration, and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., as the first Native American to head the Interior Department.

Regan's nomination would elevate a state official who has prioritized climate change, coal ash cleanup and environmental justice during his stint in the post. And while it would further narrow the Democratic majority in the House for several months, Haaland's selection was endorsed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

New Mexico's 1st District is considered safely Democratic, with Haaland winning reelection last month by 17 percentage points. Under state law, the secretary of state — who might be running for the seat — must schedule a special election within 10 days of the vacancy. The election would have to be held within three months.

The Biden-Harris Transition announced the nominations Thursday evening, along with four other "key nominees and appointees for their climate and energy team." All had been widely reported by news organizations.

In addition to Haaland and Regan, they were former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm for Energy secretary, environmental lawyer and Obama administration veteran Brenda Mallory to head the Council of Environmental Quality, Obama administration EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as national climate adviser, and New York State Deputy Secretary for Energy and Environment Ali Zaidi for deputy national climate adviser.

Biden in November named former Secretary of State John Kerry to be his global climate envoy with a seat on the National Security Council. Pete Buttigieg, who sought the Democratic Party's presidential nomination before endorsing Biden, has been announced as the president-elect’s choice for Transportation secretary and will play a role in the new administration's climate strategy.

Regan edged out Mary Nichols, the head of the California Air Resources Board — the state’s top environmental agency — who has been a major player in domestic environmental regulations for decades.

If confirmed, Regan, 44, will take over an agency that has been a linchpin in the Trump administration’s broad push to water down or roll back entirely environmental and energy rules and standards.

Josh Freed, senior vice president of the Climate and Energy Program at center-left think tank Third Way, said the picks underscored a new approach to consider climate change in actions across the government. “This is a whole-of-government approach that makes clear Biden will be building climate and clean energy action into every relevant policy and decision,” Freed said. “This includes the economy, environment, public health, workforce, labor, and racial justice, as well as national security and diplomacy.”

Crowded contest expected

A member of Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland's role as Interior secretary could mark a turning point for an agency that has often had a fraught and at times bitter relationship with federally recognized tribes. Coming from a major oil-and-gas producing state, Haaland would assume the helm of a massive bureaucracy that manages federal land, offshore drilling and leasing, endangered species, mining cleanup, scientific research, geological studies, national parks and grazing.

Haaland's selection opens what promises to be a crowded contest for the Democratic nomination in the solidly blue 1st District.

When vacancies occurred in the past, each of the state’s three major parties selected nominees to run in such special elections. For the Democrats, the nominee would be chosen by state central committee members who live in the district, currently a group of 168 people.

Local political observers said they did not expect candidates to declare their intent to run until an election date is set. Potential contenders include New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who lost the Democratic Senate primary to 3rd District Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who will be sworn in as a senator in January.

Other potential contenders include state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez, both of whom ran against Haaland in the 2018 primary.

In Congress, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who is in line to take over the Environment and Public Works Committee if Republicans maintain control of the Senate, told reporters she did not know Regan and knew Haaland personally but did not have a good sense of her policy views. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who is in line to lead the Energy and Natural Resources Committee if the GOP holds its majority, said he had nothing to say about Haaland "at this point."

Biden had previously tapped two other House Democrats. Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond will serve as director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, while Ohio Rep. Marcia L. Fudge is expected to be nominated as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. While two races remain uncalled, Democrats were already looking at a 222-211 majority before three members were to leave for the administration.

Coal ash cleanup historic

Regan's agency, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, secured an agreement in January with the utility Duke Energy to clean up 80 million tons of coal ash — a greyish toxic slurry often stored in thinly lined pits or ponds. 

The agency called it the largest coal ash cleanup effort in state history.

 “North Carolina’s communities have lived with the threat of coal ash pollution for too long,” Regan said at the time. “They can now be certain that the clean-up of the last coal ash impoundments in our state will begin this year.”

Regan was also involved in crafting a state-level executive order, issued in October 2018 by Gov. Roy Cooper, D-N.C., that set goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels and linked climate change with public health risks, including the spread of disease, air pollution and “compromised” drinking water.

Jessica Wehrman, Stephanie Akin and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.