Michael Regan would “follow the science and follow the law” if confirmed as EPA administrator, he told the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during a three-hour confirmation hearing Wednesday.
President Biden nominated Regan, who is currently the Secretary of Environmental Quality in North Carolina, for EPA administrator last month.
Although Regan’s confirmation is likely, the committee’s lines of questioning exposed political divisions about how to grapple with the climate crisis and environmental regulations, particularly as they relate to job loss.
Republican members transferred to Regan their discontent with Biden’s multiple executive orders, many of them suspending or rescinding Trump-era rules: The cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline, a pause on oil and gas drilling on federal lands, and the rejoining of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
They were concerned that there aren’t “green jobs” to replace the well-paying positions in the fossil fuel industry.
“You talk a lot about environmental justice and the economy,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, whose economy has long centered on coal mining.
“Where’s the justice in poverty, homelessness and drug addiction that result from these particular policies?”
Meanwhile, Democrats queried Regan on how, if confirmed, he would strengthen environmental regulations to combat climate change, rebuild a demoralized agency and commit to environmental justice.
Regan, as he long has done in North Carolina, hewed to the center.
“I have a commitment to building consensus,” Regan said in his opening statement. “If you want to address complex challenges, see from all sides and put yourself in other people’s shoes.”
In North Carolina, Regan was responsible for leading the state’s Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan, and for carrying out the governor’s executive order on clean energy.
“We are facing a dire situation with climate change,” Regan said. “The president has an aggressive agenda. I look forward to working with you so we’re not leaving any community behind. We want to consult with your constituents so we can address climate change and create as many jobs as possible.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, asked Regan to enact a rule regulating toxic perfluorinated compounds, also known as PFAS, in drinking water. Some states have set their own drinking standards and recommendations for PFAS, but under the Trump administration there was little meaningful effort to establish strong regulations.
“The previous administration did not have a sense of urgency,” Gillibrand said.
Regan said that under his leadership the EPA would prioritize PFAS, climate change, collaboration with “all stakeholders,” transparency and environmental justice.
Many Republicans were concerned about Biden’s plan to revisit several controversial rules, including the Waters of the United States and the Clean Power Plan. Both were undone under the Trump administration, in the courts and at the EPA.
Many agricultural interests, especially in the Midwest and West, oppose the Waters of the United States rule. They claim that additions to the definition of streams and wetlands that are regulated under the Clean Water Act infringe on farming.
However, ongoing agricultural uses and even timbering are specifically exempted from WOTUS rules.
Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, told Regan she was concerned about the rule’s effects on her state’s farmers.
“I would look at what our options are with the lingering concerns,” Regan replied. “We want to provide certainty to the farming community, particularly small farmers.”
“I would consult with the EPA’s general counsel to understand where we are and what options we have,” Regan said. “How do we protect water quality while not overburdening our small farmers? I don’t want litigation to stifle what we can accomplish as stakeholders.”
Regan built much of his reputation in North Carolina on his commitment to environmental justice. He appointed the state’s first Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Committee to raise awareness and listen to the public about the disproportionate pollution burden borne by communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
In the previous administration, the EPA’s civil rights division was hollowed out.
“I’m very disturbed,” said Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat. “The amount of polluted water you drink and the air you breathe depends on the color of your skin. If confirmed, will you make reforming the EPA’s civil rights division a priority?”
“Environmental justice has been a major part of my career and is in my heart,” Regan said. “I agree with you. I will do everything I can to make sure the Office of Civil Rights and every office is paying attention to EJ issues … But we do need additional resources if we’re to solve environmental justice and equity issues.”
Some lawmakers had regionally specific concerns, underscoring the budgetary onus on Congress to fund an agency whose budget has been decimated.
Gillibrand wanted more focus on the health of the Great Lakes, while Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland pleaded for help in restoring water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. The position of special assistant for the bay had been eliminated under the Trump administration.
“It’s a national treasure,” Cardin said.
“It is indeed a natural treasure,” Regan said. “We will look for all the resources we can bring to bear to protect the Chesapeake Bay.”
Cardin said he supported Regan’s confirmation.
“As I’ve come to know him, he’s the right person to lead. He will help unite us in a common purpose and make sure we don’t leave some of our neighbors behind. He will help determine the quality of the planet that we live on.”
Lisa Sorg is an environmental reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. She covers environmental issues, including social justice, pollution, climate change and energy policy.