President-elect Joe Biden will name Michael Regan, North Carolina's environment secretary and a former EPA official, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a source familiar with the decision who spoke about private conversations on the basis of anonymity.
If confirmed by the Senate, Regan would be the first African American man to run the EPA. He stands to inherit an agency that has been ground zero as the Trump administration rolled back climate and pollution regulations.
Biden has promised to make climate change a top priority, which would make the head of the EPA a major player in the new administration. The agency regulates pollution released by cars and trucks, industrial facilities, oil and gas wells, and power plants, and keeps track of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
Regan has been the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality since 2017. Before then, he worked on clean energy initiatives for the Environmental Defense Fund, a national environmental advocacy group. If he is confirmed to lead the EPA, Regan would return to an agency where he spent much of his early career, working on air quality for nearly a decade under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
"Michael operates with the belief that really every North Carolinian deserves clean air and clean water," says Hawley Truax, director of the Southeast office of the Environmental Defense Fund, where Regan worked for about eight years.
Truax says Regan has also helped North Carolina address climate change. "Secretary Regan recognizes the very real threat that climate change poses to lives and livelihoods," he says. "During Michael's tenure as head of the Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina, the state has launched the most ambitious carbon reduction into clean energy plans in its history."
Global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, and U.S. emissions are falling too slowly to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. People across the country are already suffering the effects of a hotter Earth. The cost of hurricanes, floods, wildfires, heat waves and droughts has skyrocketed in recent years, exceeding $530 billion in the last five years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
North Carolina has been affected by multiple hurricanes in recent years, including Hurricane Florence in 2018. Florence was a textbook example of the type of slow-moving, flood-inducing storm that is more likely as the Earth heats up. It killed at least 40 people in North Carolina.
"We're looking forward to a Biden administration and an EPA that uses its resources to push aggressively on key issues like climate change," Regan told NPR in an interview before his appointment was announced.
Regan also said that protecting drinking water and working for environmental justice should be priorities for the EPA under the Biden administration.
Poor people and people of color are disproportionately affected by both climate-driven disasters and air and water pollution. Dominique Browning, the head of the national clean air advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force, reacted positively to the news that Regan might lead the EPA. "This nomination signals a high level of ambition for addressing issues of racial inequity in who breathes polluted air, and what can be done to get us to climate safety," she wrote in an email.
During Regan's tenure, North Carolina has been at the heart of a national fight over a long-lasting and potentially dangerous class of chemicals that have contaminated drinking water. The chemicals, perfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, include thousands of different formulations and are used in a wide variety of products. When humans ingest PFAS, they can linger in tissue for the rest of a person's life, earning them the nickname "forever chemicals."
Regulators in more than a dozen states and inside the federal government have grappled with how to regulate the use, release and cleanup of PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Regan has led one of the most aggressive responses in the country. Shortly after he took over environmental regulation in North Carolina, a PFAS variant known as GenX showed up in the water of the Cape Fear River. The state reacted by cracking down on the company that released the chemical.
"The agency took a position that agencies across the country, and the EPA, should be taking," says Geoff Gisler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in North Carolina. "The key to dealing with these kinds of chemicals is stopping them where they start."
Gisler and his nonprofit environmental law group have represented local residents who rely on the contaminated river for drinking water and pushed Regan's agency to move more quickly to prevent the chemical from being released into the water. Gisler says that while the process could have moved faster, he is nonetheless impressed with how Regan's office has handled the contamination.
"The kinds of results that we expect to see over the next few years are the ones that often take decades to accomplish," Gisler says.
At the federal level, the EPA has been waiting for the results of studies about the health effects of PFAS for years and does not require companies that release the chemicals into the environment to stop doing so while safety research is conducted. Regan will now be in charge of the agency's approach to regulating such water contaminants.
"We need EPA to step in [and] set clear, enforceable compliance levels for these harmful pollutants," Regan says.
At the EPA, Regan would also be in charge of many of the energy policies that dictate how much carbon dioxide the U.S. emits in the coming years. Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris climate accord, from which the U.S. formally withdrew this fall, on the first day of his presidency.
Once the U.S. is back in the agreement, it will have a lot of catching up to do. When the U.S. originally helped broker the deal in 2015, the federal government promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about one-quarter by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. The U.S. is no longer on track to achieve that target after the Trump administration rolled back limits on emissions from cars and trucks, power plants and fossil fuel facilities, and loosened efficiency standards for household appliances.
And, scientists warn, even if the U.S. were on track, the original emissions target was too weak to avoid catastrophic warming.
"Regan will take the EPA's helm at perhaps the most critical moment in the agency's history," Kierán Suckling of the anti-pollution group Center for Biological Diversity wrote in an email.
As a result, rejoining the Paris Agreement will immediately put pressure on the new administration to find ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically. That means the EPA leader will have to provide proof of ambitious climate action as the Biden administration works to convince other countries the U.S. is serious about avoiding runaway global warming.
A 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global emissions must fall by about 50% in the next decade to achieve that goal, which is inconceivable unless the U.S. drastically reduces its dependence on fossil fuels.
Regan said he believes the U.S. can reduce emissions dramatically by 2030. He helped negotiate a plan to reduce power plant emissions in North Carolina by 70% in the next decade, and said he thinks the country as a whole could meet, or even exceed, a similar target.
"We need a partnership to be established, a very strong partnership with state and local governments as well as the private sector, to chart these goals," Regan said. "We have a lot of work to do. We've lost four years."
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