Biden’s EPA nominee navigated diverse interests in North Carolina

In nominating North Carolina’s Michael Regan to head the Environmental Protection Agency, President-elect Joseph Biden has tapped a state regulator who for the past four years has navigated a political divide as contentious as the one he’ll face in Washington, D.C.

As secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) since 2017, Regan has confronted climate change, water quality, and the impact of corporate livestock farming. He has also played regulatory realpolitik, working within options limited by the power of North Carolina industries and their allies in the Republican-controlled state legislature.

“He has been an environmental champion,” said state Sen. Mike Woodard, the senior Democrat on the Committee on Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources. “But he has a great skill at being able to balance so many competing interests and negotiate tough situations.” Regan has crafted meaningful solutions, the senator said, “without being overly burdensome to industry and local governments.”

Regan was appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who in 2016 beat a Republican incumbent. He assumed the leadership of DEQ from Republican Donald van der Vaart, a climate skeptic who had been admonished by EPA for limiting citizens’ ability to challenge air and water permits. “You couldn’t talk with them,” Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, said of DEQ before Regan. “You couldn’t even get a word in.” 

Among the issues Regan inherited was the regulation of industrial-scale hog-farm waste, which has polluted waterways and garnered complaints from neighbors who say the stench, flies, and truck traffic make daily life intolerable. North Carolina’s hog industry ranks as the second largest in the nation. Researchers have documented higher rates of maladies like asthma symptoms and elevated blood pressure in people living and attending school near the swine operations.

Shortly before Regan took office, the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office expressed its “deep concern” that Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans “have been subject to discrimination” because of how DEQ administered its swine-waste permit. EPA’s 2017 letter said that neighbors who complained faced retaliation from the industry and inaction from the agency.

Under van der Vaart, negotiations had broken down with the environmental and civil-rights groups that filed the original EPA complaint. As FERN earlier reported, Regan reopened those negotiations. In 2018, DEQ agreed to improve water and air monitoring and create a mapping tool to analyze whether communities of color were disproportionately harmed by the agency’s permitting decisions. Regan also settled another complaint, creating a more formal process for investigating livestock operations and posting violation data on DEQ’s website.

Environmental-justice advocates later criticized how DEQ implemented the civil-rights settlement. It missed a deadline for developing the mapping tool, and thus couldn’t use the tool when it issued its omnibus five-year permit for large hog operations. DEQ then said the tool was “educational” and “not intended for regulatory purposes.”

Still, Muhammad said, Regan created a more open department. “He was always willing to talk,” she said. Public hearings began to feel like “a real process where community members could weigh in.”

Muhammad now serves on Regan’s environmental justice advisory board. She said the secretary’s ambition was throttled by pro-industry legislators from both parties and by DEQ employees who had grown close to those they regulated. “I think he did as much as he could under the circumstance,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to see someone who wanted to do the right thing be constrained in that manner.”

North Carolina’s ag-industry leaders have signaled support for Regan’s nomination. North Carolina Farm Bureau president Shawn Harding, in an email, praised the DEQ secretary for supporting “science-based policy” and “welcoming feedback from stakeholders representing a diversity of policy stances.”

State Representative Jimmy Dixon, the Republican chair of the House Agriculture Committee and a champion of the livestock industry, described Regan as “a good pick” despite their policy differences. “I think he’s a very nice, intelligent young man,” Dixon said. “I would have done things different if I had been in charge. Let me just leave it at that.”

Aside from his work on farming issues, Regan also led Cooper’s efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions statewide. His agency brokered, in 2019, a settlement for what it called the largest coal-ash cleanup in U.S. history. And last August, DEQ denied a needed certification for an extension of the unbuilt Mountain Valley Pipeline that would have transported natural gas from Virginia. The agency cited potential water-quality impacts.

“North Carolina’s clean energy future is not dependent on adding more natural gas infrastructure,” Regan said in a statement accompanying that decision. “Projects like this slow down the state’s goal to reduce greenhouse gases … and our efforts to address climate change … We should invest in clean, renewable energy sources and the economic benefits of energy innovation.” These views would mesh well with Biden’s intention to rejoin the Paris Agreement “and put America back in the business of leading the world on climate change.”