Michael Regan was in a tight spot.
President Trump had just won North Carolina in the 2016 election, but Roy Cooper, a Democrat, had defeated the state’s Republican incumbent in a tight race for governor. And as Cooper prepared to take office, the GOP-held General Assembly passed a series of bills to weaken the governor’s power.
One of those measures was to require state Senate approval of the governor’s Cabinet. Regan, nominated for secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, was to undergo a new confirmation process.
Before coming to the department, Regan spent more than eight years at the Environmental Defense Fund. Conservative groups pushed back on his nomination. The Civitas Institute called Regan "a very well-connected player in the worldwide radical environmental movement."
It didn’t matter. Regan charmed lawmakers during his confirmation hearing and in private talks. He was unanimously approved at the committee level. Five days later, Regan was confirmed unanimously by the state Senate.
Regan will appear today before the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee as President Biden’s choice to lead EPA, and charming Republicans will be part of his task.
Back in 2016, then-state Sen. Bill Cook, a Republican, made the motion in committee that Regan be approved as DEQ secretary.
"He was a very personable guy," Cook, now chairman of the Beaufort County Republican Party, told E&E News. "Of the choices we had, he was the most reasonable."
Regan’s path to confirmation as DEQ secretary did have a hiccup, although it was resolved soon enough.
Citing his environmental consulting firm and work at EDF, the North Carolina State Ethics Commission said Regan had "potential for a conflict of interest," although that potential conflict didn’t bar him from service.
The Ethics Commission then said in a subsequent letter on Regan, "We did not find an actual conflict of interest or the potential for a conflict of interest."
Cook, who served in the state Senate from 2013 to 2018, said he was supportive of North Carolina’s fishing industry, which meant he had to consult often with Regan as the state’s top environmental regulator. He found Regan easy to work with.
"Personality can go a long way," Cook said. The former state senator added that he thinks Regan will do well as EPA administrator if confirmed.
"If he acts like he did when he was working with me, he will be OK," Cook said. "He will be reasonable, but he will be liberal."
Reaching out to business
As DEQ secretary, Regan interacted with industry groups whose members he regulated. He won friends there, too.
Preston Howard, president of the North Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, told E&E News there was some worry when Cooper picked Regan.
"He was coming from a group that we were regularly at odds with on policy matters. There is kind of a natural tension there with the environmental community and manufacturers," said Howard, who also served at North Carolina’s environmental agency, including as its water quality division director.
Yet Regan was accessible when Howard had an issue to discuss. He recalls having several meetings with the DEQ secretary.
"Michael worked hard to engage the regulated community," Howard said. "I felt like Michael always told me the truth. When I asked him why he was doing this or that, he gave me a straight answer."
Gary Salamido, president and CEO of the NC Chamber, recalled how Regan reached out after he was picked to lead DEQ. The business group later supported Regan’s confirmation.
"Michael reached out to us and said, ‘Could I come out and meet with you folks?’" Salamido told E&E News. "He is a really good man of high character. We developed a friendship."
Even regulated companies have had kind words for Regan. He secured a massive settlement with Duke Energy Corp. to clean up close to 80 million tons of coal ash. The utility sent a tweet congratulating him after his nomination was announced.
Regan issued fines against hog farms in North Carolina. The North Carolina Pork Council released a statement yesterday saying it was "proud" that a North Carolina native had been nominated.
"Michael Regan took the time to visit our farms and learn about the pork industry and kept the door open for continued dialogue," the council said.
"It’s a tough political environment here. It’s partisan. Michael was able to put the relationship before the political here, and that benefited him," Salamido said. "He has the ability to reach a resolution but give certainty to the business community, even if it is not what they wanted."
‘A lot of fettering’?
Donald van der Vaart, who was DEQ secretary for Republican former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, returned to the department’s career ranks after Cooper won the 2016 election.
But van der Vaart’s membership on the EPA Science Advisory Board and his publishing of opinion articles irked the new Democratic administration. He was placed on leave, and he soon decided to go. His resignation letter addressed to Regan decried the "specter of politicization of science and law" at the department.
Still, van der Vaart said it was Cooper, not Regan, who spurred his exit. "I don’t blame Regan for that," van der Vaart, now a senior fellow in environmental policy at the John Locke Foundation, told E&E News. "I don’t think he has that political malfeasance in his system."
Van der Vaart said he is glad that a state regulator like Regan has been nominated for EPA administrator, considering that the states carry out most of the agency’s environmental programs.
"He’s a good guy and has plenty of energy," van der Vaart said about Regan. "He will grow into the job."
A problem for Regan was how North Carolina’s DEQ handled the now-abandoned Atlantic Coast pipeline. The Republican Legislature hired private investigator firm Eagle Intel Services to dig into whether Cooper had engaged in "pay to play" politics on the project.
DEQ had signed off on a water quality permit for the pipeline, but critics allege that the governor made the decision to move forward. The department has denied that charge.
Eagle Intel’s report said it had found no evidence that Cooper had benefited from the pipeline but that further investigation was warranted. Regan is mentioned several times in the document, including that he declined to be interviewed but would answer questions in a public hearing.
Van der Vaart said Regan could find himself in a similar situation at EPA, with officials elsewhere seen as calling the shots at the agency.
He noted that former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is in the Biden White House running domestic climate policy, while Janet McCabe, who once led EPA’s air office, has been nominated for deputy administrator.
"He is going to be between Janet McCabe and Gina McCarthy. Those people are two strong personalities who have a lot of experience," van der Vaart said. "I would find that difficult, not having unfettered access to my boss. I think there will be a lot of fettering going on."
Others believe Regan could be a success as head of EPA if he can operate as he did in North Carolina — disagreeing with his opponents but maintaining those relationships to find compromise in the end.
The DEQ secretary is slated to have his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee later today.
"He will be able to find progress on meaningful things for both parties," Salamido said. "It’s old school. I think Washington needs a little more of that."
Howard said Regan is probably already making inroads with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. "I can just see now Michael making appointments with the people who have to confirm him. He can talk to those folks. He can talk to anybody," Howard said.
"Not every EPA administrator — not the ones I’ve seen in 40 years — can do that, but Michael can."
Reporter Timothy Cama contributed.