Senate confirms Regan as EPA administrator

Republican support came despite skepticism about Biden’s overall plans for tackling climate change, moving away from fossil fuels

Sen. Shelly Moore Capito speaks with EPA nominee Michael Regan at his Feb. 3 confirmation hearing.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Shelly Moore Capito speaks with EPA nominee Michael Regan at his Feb. 3 confirmation hearing. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 10, 2021 at 7:43pm

The Senate voted 66-34 Wednesday to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator.

As secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, Michael Regan established a reputation as a pragmatic, bipartisan problem solver.

That background helped garner significant Republican support for his nomination despite GOP skepticism about Biden’s overall plans for tackling climate change and moving the country away from fossil fuels.

Democrats touted Regan’s qualifications even as they suggested he has his work cut out for him after four years of Trump administration rollbacks of environmental protections and harm to agency morale.

“In addition to addressing the serious environmental issues that are affecting Americans, the next EPA administrator will also need to rebuild an agency suffering from organizational drift and low morale after being repeatedly damaged in recent years by flawed leadership,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

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The need to restore the agency’s mission was also the theme Wednesday of a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

A panel of former EPA officials testified that the previous administration eroded the agency’s use of scientific research, undermined public confidence in its work and drove away many talented individuals.

Declining morale

Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator from 2001 to 2003, highlighted the importance of the agency in protecting the nation’s air, water and public health.

But morale among EPA career staff plummeted in recent years, she said, as the agency lost hundreds of scientific experts between 2016 and 2020.

“That’s enormously troubling,” Whitman said. “The EPA must be able to retain the expertise it has while also attracting the best of the rising generation.”

She expressed confidence in Regan, who will be the first Black man to lead the 50-year-old agency.

Republicans on the panel defended the Trump administration’s EPA, saying accomplishments included progress on polluted industrial sites and updated rules on copper and lead in drinking water.

Those rules came under criticism from advocates, however, and the EPA announced Wednesday it was delaying their effective date in order to seek additional public input.

West Virginia University professor John Deskins, who was called as a witness by committee Republicans, described how the drop in coal demand has devastated parts of West Virginia and created a “Great Depression” in several of that state’s counties.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia quoted his work as she described her reasons for voting against Regan.

The top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Capito praised Regan’s qualifications but said that he would not rule out a return to Obama-era regulations regarding power plant emissions.

“That is because the agenda is already set,” Capito said. “Climate czar Gina McCarthy and others have already set the table.”

Republicans have argued repeatedly that nominees such as Regan will be forced to follow orders from McCarthy.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pushed back on that suggestion during a briefing last week.

“Obviously anyone who's a nominee to lead a Cabinet agency that is not independent is there in part to deliver on the agenda and the policies of the president of the United States,” Psaki said. “And they certainly know that when they walk into the jobs. But he also welcomes debate and welcomes proposals and welcomes ideas on how to address the various crises we're facing, including the climate crisis.”