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New Head of the EPA will Make Environmental Justice a Priority

Michael Regan, was recently confirmed to run the EPA. President Biden couldn’t have picked a more qualified candidate to lead and restore the agency, and although this is a huge accomplishment within his career, Regan will certainly have his work cut out for him.

Regan, originally from North Carolina, joined the EPA under the Clinton Administration and served for some years in the Bush administration as well. After transitioning to the roles of Associate Vice President for Clean Energy and the Southeast Regional Director with the Environmental Defense Fund, Regan was then selected to serve as the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality in 2017.

Prior to Regan accepting his newly appointed role this year, The Trump Administration succeeded in rolling back over one hundred regulations, eliminated staff and reduced funding from a peak of $10.3 billion in FY 2010 to $8.8 billion in FY 2019. So, while those stats could make most of us pessimistic, Regan has all the skills and the passion to restore the EPA to a highly functioning agency that will provide environmental justice to all Americans. In a previous BCT Partners blog, we explored the realities of environmental racism and the effect is has on marginalized communities. Therefore, Regan’s fair and equitable policymaking is one the many reasons he is such an excellent choice for his new role.

1. He prioritizes environmental justice. During one of his first speeches after being picked for DEQ secretary in North Carolina, Regan said the agency had “a special obligation to the underserved and under-represented.” He backed it up by launching the state's first Environmental Justice and Equity Board with a charter to advance justice and promote community engagement, particularly across historically underserved and marginalized communities. Regan has seen first-hand the many ways that systemic racism determines the development and execution of environmental policy. Disadvantaged communities have higher rates of health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In fact, black people are three times more likely to die from air pollution than white people because they are 70 percent more likely to live in counties that are in violation of federal air pollution standards. A University of Minnesota study found that, on average, people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide outdoor air pollution than white people. Regan understands the interconnections between environmental justice, economic justice and racial justice. While he is director of the EPA, he said, “We will be driven by our conviction that every person in our great country has the right to clean air, clean water, and a healthier life—no matter how much money they have in their pockets, the color of their skin, or the community they live in.”

2. He reaches across the aisle. In his recent confirmation hearing, he was highly recommended by both of the Republican senators from North Carolina at a time when partisanship could not be worse in Washington. As Republican Senator Thom Tillis said, “I do believe he will be somebody we can rely on to be fair. At the end of the day, we have a great, well-qualified nominee before us, and I encourage your support.” While Regan was not able to win over all Republicans, he did win more confirmation votes in aggregate than any other EPA chief selected since 2009. One of the things that made him stand out in his role in North Carolina was the fact that he would bring all sides to the table. He knows that getting both parties to work together will be crucial. He also believes in the importance of encouraging all constituencies to get involved from the beginning. In a recent Rolling Stone article, Regan’s policy making approach was summarized “Forging consensus is essential to enacting environmental policies with staying power. A top-down approach isn’t the best way to make the changes the climate crisis demands. We’re not going to regulate our way out of this. How do we look at it in a holistic way? There are multiple ways to do things, and you can find win-win opportunities. And typically, those opportunities or solutions last the longest.”

3. He’s not afraid to take on the big guys. Shortly before being nominated for the EPA, his agency in North Carolina facilitated one of the largest coal ash cleanups in the country. Duke Energy had been dumping highly toxic waste—a by-product of burning coal—in open, unlined pits near residential neighborhoods. In the settlement, they agreed to excavate more than 80 million tons of coal ash from a half dozen facilities and move it to new, lined landfills where it can’t leach into groundwater. Regan also took on Chemours, a former subsidiary of DuPont, to take much stronger action to prevent the chemicals known as PFAS from contaminating the Cape Fear River. And Regan developed the state's Clean Energy Plan, which aims to reduce private sector greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and ultimately move towards carbon neutrality by 2050. The plan also outlines recommendations and goals of accelerating innovations in clean energy technologies, while creating opportunities for rural and urban communities across North Carolina. Regan accomplished all that in just three years.

While Michael Regan is certainly not inheriting the EPA at the most enviable time, it’s one of the most critical times. He has the ability and the will to make a huge impact by protecting our environment, creating green energy jobs, and enacting equitable environmental policies. Alongside Brenda Mallory, who was Biden’s choice to run the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Congresswoman Deb Haaland, nominee for Secretary of the Interior and a member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, Regan is part of the most diverse environmental team in American history.

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