Michael Regan steps into a crowded climate spotlight

By Jean Chemnick | 02/03/2021 06:39 AM EST

The EPA nominee has been in the shadow of President Biden’s climate stars. That’s about to change.

Michael Regan, President Biden's pick for EPA administrator, is scheduled to appear today before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Michael Regan, President Biden's pick for EPA administrator, is scheduled to appear today before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. @Michael_S_Regan/Twitter

Michael Regan has been in the shadow of President Biden’s climate stars.

That’s about to change.

Biden has packed his administration with climate officials with higher profiles than his EPA administrator nominee, who currently heads North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality.


Biden’s special climate envoy John Kerry and national climate adviser Gina McCarthy, celebrities by Washington standards, have spent two weeks on television pitching the president’s ambitious climate plan.

Regan, meanwhile, has been largely invisible, due mostly to the looming confirmation process that begins today in the Senate.

"They’re not going to take up the mantle until they have the job," Jeremy Symons, a former climate policy adviser at EPA, said of nominees before their confirmation.

Regan heads to Capitol Hill this afternoon for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. A relative unknown in Washington, he’s likely to face questions about a raft of early Biden actions on climate change that he hasn’t been directly involved with, including rejoining the Paris Agreement, halting the Keystone XL oil pipeline and ending new fossil fuel leasing on federal lands.

His own contribution to Biden’s climate agenda as EPA administrator is still to come, and experts say it’s bound to be substantial.

"EPA and the administrator ultimately hold a lot of the legal authority that can be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and to achieve President Biden’s commitments on climate change," said Carol Browner, a former EPA administrator and a top Obama White House adviser. "I would say they hold maybe more than anyone else."

His most important authorities reside in the Clean Air Act, which permits the regulation of pollutants like carbon dioxide and methane from power plants and oil facilities. There’s also the new American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) law, enacted as part of December’s omnibus appropriations legislation, which will allow for the domestic phase-down of heat-trapping chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in cooling and refrigeration.

EPA administers both.

Biden’s executive orders have already committed EPA to propose rules for vehicle tailpipe emissions starting in April, and for oil and gas methane leaks by September. The White House has also directed EPA to review every major regulation promulgated under the Trump administration — a list of 48 rules in total.

Included on that list are Trump-era revisions to rules on power-sector greenhouse gas emissions. Those changes to future power plants are unlikely to result in a carbon neutral power grid within 14 years — a Biden campaign promise — but they will be expected to make a down payment.

"The Clean Air Act is the most available tool to continue the transformation of the electricity sector to meet the 2035 target," said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Energy Program.

But some have raised questions about whether, if confirmed, Regan might be overshadowed by the likes of Kerry and McCarthy, despite overseeing the agency with the broadest regulatory authority to combat climate change.

The 44-year-old nominee is poised to enter an administration that has planned extensively to combat climate change, one of four crises Biden has promised to organize his administration around. The selection of McCarthy in particular, who headed EPA under the Obama administration, has led some to question who will have the last word on climate policy.

The industry-backed American Energy Alliance released a list of proposed questions yesterday for Regan’s confirmation titled "Will Michael, Gina or John call the shots at EPA?" It urged senators to quiz Regan on whether he would report to McCarthy or vice versa, and whether McCarthy, who spent a year as NRDC’s president, should recuse herself from issues over which the environmental group sued the Trump administration.

But Christine Todd Whitman, who served as former President George W. Bush’s first EPA administrator, said the presence of a large White House team focused on climate doesn’t change EPA’s role.

"Frankly, no Cabinet member sets the policy," she said. "The president does. You’re there to give them the best advice and tell them what policies you think are most necessary at the moment and the best way to carry them out, but they make the decisions, and they make the determination."

Veterans of EPA said that far from being Regan’s supervisor, McCarthy would serve as his strongest ally at the White House, greasing the skids for speedy review of key rules and helping to find opportunities for cooperation between agencies — including between EPA and the Department of Transportation over tailpipe emissions later this year.

Biden’s order last week on climate change calls on agencies to submit early lists of regulations to both the Office of Management and Budget, which completes the review, and McCarthy. EPA is a particularly prolific regulatory agency and has experienced friction with White House reviewers across multiple administrations.

"Gina McCarthy is sort of his fairy godmother up there making sure that things go well and he gets the support from the political side of the climate movement," said Dan Costa, a former EPA career official who served as national program director at EPA’s Air, Climate and Energy research program.

Costa said McCarthy’s knowledge of EPA in general and of the Clean Air Act in particular would be an asset.

"She is a force in herself. I think she’ll be very helpful to him, both in the example she set as well as potentially providing some insights and advice as to how to move forward," he added.

Symons, the former EPA adviser, said Regan would benefit from having a strong White House commitment to his agency’s mission on climate change, as demonstrated by the appointment of McCarthy and others. And he’d have his work cut out for him, rehabilitating the agency after Trump.

"There isn’t any model for an incoming administration that has to deal with wreckage and has a clear mandate coming from the White House to move strongly on climate change and environmental justice," he said. "The job comes with a clarity of purpose that is unique to the time."

But experts noted that for all her expertise and star power, McCarthy has fewer than a dozen staff members serving under her at the White House. Even after years of attrition under President Trump, Regan will oversee more than 13,000 EPA employees, including lawyers and scientists who have dedicated their careers to crafting Clean Air Act regulations.

McCarthy will also be spearheading an interagency process that includes EPA and 20 other agencies, and is charged with producing the so-called nationally determined contribution, or NDC, to the Paris Agreement by late April.

That document will pledge greenhouse gas reductions by 2030, a condition of membership in the deal. Input from agencies is expected to factor into what the State Department team under Kerry will submit to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change ahead of Biden’s leaders summit on Earth Day.

Joseph Goffman, who served as the top lawyer in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation under Obama and is now heading that office on an interim basis, has been on EPA’s planning team since the transition. He and other Clean Air Act experts are believed to be assessing what the agency can do through regulation to contribute to that Paris Agreement document.

The Biden White House continues to announce appointees with deep knowledge of climate regulation to key EPA and White House posts.

But the interagency process, which was announced as part of last week’s "Climate Day," includes other agencies and departments that weren’t greatly involved with climate policy under President Obama, including the departments of the Treasury and Homeland Security.

That shows the Biden administration’s determination to broaden the scope of its climate response beyond the traditional regulatory or energy agencies. But it also raises questions about the relative importance of EPA.

But Browner said it doesn’t mean that the agency’s contribution will be deemphasized under Biden.

"They’re putting all the tools on the table," she said. "I think what Biden has said is, ‘Let’s look further. There are more authorities out there. Let’s bring them to bear.’"

Costa, who spent decades at EPA, said Regan would have an opportunity to make a mark on the agency.

"EPA right now needs so much rebuilding from within. It needs rebuilding trust; it needs rebuilding capacity in terms of people. It needs a little bit of a philosophical change in terms of how it does business," he said.

Costa said that recent developments in the private sector, including General Motors Co.’s recent commitment to stop producing cars that run on gasoline, show that EPA should move beyond the enforcer role and find new ways to empower U.S. businesses.

Regan has a reputation in North Carolina for working with both business and environmental advocates to forge agreements — such as when he brokered a multibillion-dollar settlement with Duke Energy Corp. to clean up coal ash.