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Md. Environment Chief Hails New EPA Administrator — a Former State Regulator Himself

Michael Regan, President Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator, appeared before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during a three-hour confirmation hearing Feb. 3. Screenshot from C-SPAN 3.

Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the Environment, first met his counterpart from North Carolina, Michael Regan, at a climate leadership conference in Denver three years ago that was organized by Robert Perciasepe, a former Maryland Environment secretary who later became acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Grumbles was immediately impressed — and the two became friendly.

“He’s a great listener and a great leader,” Grumbles said in an interview.

Grumbles now has an opportunity to work even closer with his colleague: The U.S. Senate confirmed Regan as the new EPA administrator Wednesday evening by a vote of 66-34.

Regan is the first Black man to serve in the EPA’s top leadership role.

“It’s a profound responsibility,” U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said a few hours before the vote. “He believes we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the planet.”

President Biden nominated Regan to be administrator in December. Last month, Regan, who served under a Democratic governor in North Carolina, received the support of the state’s two conservative Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.

Nonetheless, Regan faced tough questioning from members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, many of whom seemed to view him as a proxy for more controversial EPA appointments, such as climate czar Gina McCarthy, whose positions didn’t require congressional input.

That attitude had not shifted yet Wednesday, at least among some Republican senators.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, opposed Regan’s nomination over concerns that McCarthy and EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe, both veterans of the Obama administration, would actually be in charge. “I can’t support Michael Regan when Gina McCarthy is leading the orchestra.”

It was during the Obama administration that the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rules were proposed, although neither was fully implemented because of legal headwinds. Coal-producing states like West Virginia, Capito said, were “devastated” by Obama-era environmental policies.

“I really liked meeting and getting to know Michael Regan,” Capito said. “He’s a good public servant and an honest man. But this vote is about someone who would execute President Biden’s agenda. … And I can’t support that agenda.”

Regan will inherit an EPA whose ranks under the Trump administration were hollowed out by budget cuts and whose morale was wounded by the political undermining of scientific integrity.

Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. was one of the few Republican elected officials to criticize President Trump’s environmental record — particularly when it came to the clean-up of the Chesapeake Bay.

In his support of Regan’s nomination, Carper lauded the North Carolina native’s commitment to tackling climate change — an existential threat to the planet. “Climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Carper said.

Because of Regan’s experience in North Carolina contending with perfluorinated compounds, or PFAS, in several drinking water supplies, environmental advocates hope the EPA will regulate the compounds, which are widespread in the drinking water supply.

Regan also received the support of dozens of major national agricultural organizations, generally known for their conservative politics.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.

Grumbles said he was impressed by how Regan seemed committed to bringing agricultural interests — and all stakeholders — to the table when discussing climate change and other environmental challenges.

“He made it clear that he really needed to spend time as an environmental regulator listening to agriculture, listening to rural interests,” Grumbles said.

At his committee hearing, Regan said “regulation is not the sole answer. I’ll be partnering with agriculture, energy and defense interests about how to solve [environmental] problems.”

Regan earned a reputation in North Carolina for his ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans, although the GOP majority in the state legislature often reciprocated by cutting his agency’s budget and passing laws that defanged its authority.

In the Biden administration, Regan could have more opportunities to bridge the political divide.

“Michael Regan can bring people to gather and bridge the political divide,” Carper said. “He made clear he will be an EPA administrator for red states and blue states. Leaders unite, not divide. They are humble, not haughty. Leaders are purveyors of hope. Michael Regan is that kind of leader.”

Even Capito, by the end of her remarks, had accepted that Regan would likely be confirmed.

“I hope he makes good on his promises about climate change,” she said. “I hope Michael Regan can cut McCarthy out of power and let her know who is calling the shots. And that he embraces President Biden’s theme of unity.”

Grumbles, himself a veteran of the EPA — he was head of the agency’s water program during the administration of President George W. Bush — said he believes Regan’s priorities will align with Maryland’s.

“I was struck by how similar Maryland and North Carolina are,” Grumbles said. “Both are America in miniature in many ways, from mountains to marshland, from coastal areas and oceans to big urban centers.”

Most important, he said, Regan is “committed to the mission of the agency,” and is bringing “experienced and well-respected environmental professionals” along with him to the EPA.

“He’s an excellent choice for the times,” Grumbles said.

Lisa Sorg is a reporter at NC Policy Watch.

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Md. Environment Chief Hails New EPA Administrator — a Former State Regulator Himself