Michael Regan, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for EPA administrator, won kudos for his work to rejuvenate a beleaguered North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, where morale plummeted under a Republican leadership skeptical about climate science.
If the Senate confirms him, Regan, 44, will be poised for a similar turnaround following the departure of the administration of President Donald Trump, which sought to massively cut EPA’s budget and rolled back or weakened dozens of environmental rules and regulations.
"Michael Regan will have a daunting task to reinvigorate EPA. The agency is in shambles, and morale is at rock bottom,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonpartisan group that works with federal workers and whistle blowers. “We are at a point in our country's history where EPA is in desperate need of visionary leadership free of corporate influence and excessive political meddling. We hope Mr. Regan can provide that leadership."
After serving as an EPA career official focused on air quality in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, Regan went to North Carolina, where the governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, picked him to lead the state agency.
“Michael inherited something of a similar situation when he came into his job in North Carolina,” Stan Meiburg, former acting Deputy Administrator of EPA and 39-year veteran of the agency, said in an interview. “The previous administration had cut the budget,” he said. “It had been a difficult culture.”
Meiberg, who teaches at Wake Forest University and knows Regan through environmental work in the state, said he will be a stark contrast to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and will listen to advice from staff.
“I think that's where you see parallels with EPA,” Meiberg said. “The last four years have been pretty tough if you felt that your job was to start with the science and follow the law and be transparent, as opposed to setting a policy direction that you wanted to go, not really seeking out much advice about it and being kind of quiet until you actually did.”
Gary Morton, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, the EPA's largest union, praised Regan’s expertise.
“With his understanding of government environmental agencies and the role of enforcement, he is well placed to understand the importance of the boots on the ground — the civil servants, from inspectors to enforcement personnel — to ensure that the EPA can achieve its mission of protecting human health and the environment,” he said.
The Trump administration has weakened at least 95 environmental rules since 2017, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group, with many of the biggest rollbacks coming at EPA.
In March, Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, announced the agency would relax fuel efficiency standards. That same month, EPA, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, said it wouldn’t penalize companies that don’t follow water and air pollution rules. Then the agency eased in April emissions rules on mercury, a toxic pollutant, despite bipartisan opposition. And just in December, EPA decided against tightening standards on soot pollution and days later unveiled a rule making it harder for the agency to consider broad health and climate effects.
Regan’s nomination comes as EPA employees feel disheartened, and career staff in surveys say units within the agency aren't as effective as they once were.
Jacob Carter, a research scientist in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the group surveyed federal scientists in 2018 and found that more than 50 percent of the EPA scientists rated their morale as either “poor” or “extremely poor.”
Carter said 63 percent of those surveyed said the effectiveness of their office had decreased over the past year. And 65 percent said their personal job satisfaction had decreased over the past year.
Regan, said Carter, “will be walking into a similar situation" as the one he faced at the North Carolina DEQ. "So it will be something that needs to be addressed at the agency,” he said.
As North Carolina’s top environmental official, Regan won praise from supporters for his hard stance in addressing climate change, as well as his work on environmental justice issues, coal ash cleanup and per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFAS, a toxic family of substances found in myriad common household products.
In January, Regan’s agency secured an agreement with Duke Energy, the electric utility, to clean up 80 million tons of coal ash — a grayish toxic slurry often stored in thinly lined pits or ponds.
The agency said it was the largest coal ash cleanup program in state history.
Regan’s trajectory follows those of former EPA bosses. Before leading EPA during the Clinton years, Carol Browner was in charge of Florida’s Department of Environmental Regulation. Lisa Jackson led the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before jumping to lead EPA in the early Obama administration years. And Gina McCarthy came from state agencies in New England before succeeding Jackson at EPA.
“There's a pattern there and it's important because so much of what EPA does relies on partnerships of states,” Meiburg said.
Ryke Longest, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University in North Carolina, said Regan assumed a tough job when he took over.
“His agency’s staff levels had been severely cut,” Longest said. “The agency’s mission had also been truncated with pieces going over to other agencies and micromanagement” by the state legislature.
Regan’s predecessors also made it harder for the public to meet with agency staff, he said. “Basically the Department had been put under extreme hierarchy and a decimated budget, which killed morale for public servants working in civil service positions,” he said.
Longest credited Regan for his work on coal ash and PFAS cleanup, including from former DuPont facilities.
“So I think he successfully pulled the ox out of the ditch and got it back on the road, as my mother would say,” Longest said by email. “I hope that the staff at US EPA and CEQ will provide him the support he needs to make hard calls to turn around the US EPA," he said, referencing the Council on Environmental Quality, at the White House.
Compared to North Carolina's DEQ, Longest said, "EPA is a much bigger ox, and a much deeper ditch. He will need all the help he can get.”