US president-elect Joe Biden has nominated Michael Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, to lead the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — and scientists and environmentalists are optimistic.
Regan, who will now need to be confirmed by the US Senate, joins other experienced appointees whom Biden has tasked with implementing his historic climate agenda. These include an envoy who will handle international climate negotiations and a coordinator to ensure that goals are achieved at home.
“This shows the Biden team is really going to follow through on the bold climate commitments they put forward,” says Leah Stokes, a climate-policy researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s a massive political shift, she says, “and it puts the country on track to make climate change the centre of our economic policy”.
Regan spent more than nine years working in the EPA’s air-quality programme under former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and another eight years at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group based in New York City. For the past four, he has led the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, where he earned the support of many environmentalists by standing up to chemical and energy companies.
“Climate change is the most significant challenge humanity faces. We’ll make meaningful progress together by listening to every voice — from our youth & frontline communities to scientists & our workforce. I will be honored to be part of that work as EPA Administrator,” said Regan on Twitter on 18 December.
Rebuilding the EPA
If confirmed, Regan will inherit an agency demoralized by four years under President Donald Trump. The Trump administration sidelined scientists at the agency and disregarded scientific evidence in an unprecedented effort to scale back environmental and public-health protections. Current and former EPA staff recently told Nature about their hopes that Biden can turn things around, although they also highlighted some big challenges he’ll face in doing so.
Regan has experience with such situations. When he joined North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality in 2017, under newly elected Democratic governor Roy Cooper, staff felt undermined by the previous Republican governor’s industry-friendly policies, says Jeremy Symons, an environmental consultant in Arlington, Virginia, who worked with Regan at the Environmental Defense Fund. Regan was able to rebuild the agency and improve the state’s processes for chemical regulation and disposal of residual coal-ash waste from coal-fired power plants, says Symons.
“Michael Regan will be exactly the kind of administrator that the EPA needs to fix the damage that was done under four years of Trump and tackle the climate and health crisis facing Americans,” he adds.
The Environmental Protection Network in Washington DC, an organization formed by EPA alumni to speak out against Trump’s undermining of the agency, also endorses Regan’s appointment. Michael Regan “has the background and experience to tackle ongoing threats to people’s health and the environment, profound challenges of #climatechange and systemic environmental injustice”, the group posted on Twitter on 17 December.
Regan is expected to put new emphasis on environmental justice, to protect poor and under-represented communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change. In North Carolina, he created the state's first Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board to address these issues. Biden put emphasis on environmental justice during his campaign for president, promising to invest 40% of his US$2-trillion climate plan in disadvantaged communities.
Regan “has the experience, understands the challenges faced by environmental-justice communities, and has demonstrated a commitment to addressing them”, said Peggy Shepard in an e-mail to Nature. Shepard is co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group based in New York.
At the EPA, one of Regan’s jobs will be to craft regulations to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles and industry — an effort that is intended to sit at the heart of Biden’s strategy to mitigate climate change. But Biden’s climate agenda is broad: he has committed to ramping up clean energy production, expanding low-carbon infrastructure and reaching zero greenhouse-gas emissions from the power sector by 2035. Meeting those goals will require action across the federal government, and Biden is already assembling a team of high-profile climate appointees to advance that effort.
On the international front, former secretary of state John Kerry will serve as climate envoy, leading the administration’s effort to reintegrate the country into the Paris climate agreement. Biden has also appointed Gina McCarthy, a staunch environmentalist and former EPA head, as his US climate czar. In this position, McCarthy, who helped implement former president Barack Obama’s climate agenda, will coordinate climate action across all federal agencies. Neither of these team members need to be confirmed by the Senate.
These and other appointments signal that Biden is gearing up for action on all fronts, says Symons, who is part of the Climate 21 Project, an independent group of academics, policy specialists and former government officials that has crafted a blueprint for federal climate action. “What we were looking for is a White House structure that could rapidly mobilize the entire government to act on climate change,” he says, and so far, “there’s no question that president-elect Biden is exceeding our expectations.”
To read more about Biden's picks for science agency heads and advisers, see Nature’s updated guide.